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St Albert the Great

Tuesday, November 15, 2016
‘Today, perhaps more than ever before, the world is eager to make a clean sweep of its past… In such [a world], what use to celebrate the praises of St Albert? The very name sounds worse than medieval; it sounds Victorian.’ So said the famous Fr Ronald Knox in the sermon he preached at our priory here in Oxford on 16 May 1932 at the opening of a solemn triduum in honour of the newly canonised St Albert the Great. 

Fr Ronald took as his text Matthew 13:52, ‘Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old’, and this is certainly an appropriate text to describe the life and work of Albert. Born in Bavaria in around 1200, Albert went to study at Bologna, at a time when the philosophy of Aristotle was beginning to be taught in western universities. Tradition tells us that he received a vision of Our Lady, telling him to enter the Order of Preachers, then still in its very early stages of foundation. Most likely he also had some contact with the very first friars in Bologna, as well as Bl Jordan, St Dominic’s successor as Master of the Order. After years of study and formation, heavy academic and administrative tasks were given to him both within the Order, as a Lector in the study houses of the Order, and outside the Order, the most significant being his appointment as professor of theology at the University of Paris at the age of just 43. 

After his election as Provincial of Germany, his fame as an administrator spread and he was called upon by Pope Alexander IV to become Bishop of Regensburg, and in his three years as bishop - a task he does not seem to have relished - he turned around the diocesan finances and set about travelling around the entire diocese on foot, thereby earning himself the nickname ‘boots the bishop.’ 

Albert retired to Cologne where he continued to study and teach, but he briefly returned from retirement to travel to Paris and defend the works of his pupil, St Thomas Aquinas against attacks of heresy. After a collapse in his health in around 1278, he died on 15 November 1280 and is buried at the church of St Andrew in Cologne. 

Albert’s scholarly output was wide-ranging: he wrote texts on geology, botany, zoology, astronomy, alchemy, friendship, and love, not to mention his theological and philosophical work including commentaries on Scripture and the philosophy of Aristotle. Given his other responsibilities within the Order and in the wider Church, it’s remarkable that he had any time to write anything at all. No wonder, then, that his contemporary Ulrich Engelbert described him as the wonder and the miracle of his age. 

Fr Ronald Knox was quite right when he compared Albert to the scribe trained in the kingdom of heaven. Throughout his life he engaged with the ‘new thinking’ of Aristotle in philosophy and natural science, supplementing Aristotle’s observations with his own, and correcting him where necessary, he never seems to have passively received information, but seems to have always been engaging with the world around him. This is the best example that he gives us today living in a world which, more than ever, seems ‘eager to make a clean sweep of its past.’

Br Albert Elias Robertson O.P.

Br Albert Elias was born in Surrey and went to university at the London School of Economics, where he read Social Anthropology before going to Oxford, where he read for an MPhil in Material Anthropology. After studies, he had a propaedeutic year in three Anglican parishes in north London. He became a Catholic in 2013 and worked for a short time in London living at St Patrick’s Soho before entering the noviciate in 2015. Br Albert helps to run the Thomistic Institute and so has an interest in promoting the theology of St Thomas as well as Patristics. In his spare time he likes to read novels [lots]. | albert.robertson@english.op.org


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