The Greatest of the Germans

His contemporaries described him as “the wonder and miracle of his age.”  Indeed, it seems reasonable to ask whether the age of St. Albert the Great (1195-1280) would be remembered as such an eminent period of Christian culture had not “the light of Germany” (St. Peter Canisius) illuminated the minds and hearts of so many of his fellow Christians, clerics and laity alike.

Contrary to popular romantic imagination, the thirteenth century was neither a flawless century of Christian unity nor an unequivocal climax of Christendom. True, the first stone of that monument of faith, Cologne’s Gothic cathedral, was laid in 1250, and Europe’s great universities then began their storied pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. Yet the signs of future conflict and disunity were also discernable. At the battle of Bouvines (1214), a Holy Roman Emperor for the first time lost a major battle to one of Christendom’s kings, when Otto IV was defeated by Philip Augustus of France. Critical conflicts also took place in the relation between Church and state, clergy and people—one thinks of the clash between pope Innocent IV and emperor Frederick II—as well as in the world of thought, where the introduction of Aristotelian philosophy by way of Arab sources upset the established praxis of theology and philosophy. Faced with these and similar challenges, St. Albert fought to sustain Christian civilization with humility and might, zeal and patience—even though contemporary sources suggest that this last virtue was itself a struggle for the high-spirited Swabian nobleman. Through the trials and tempests of his century, Albert became a skilful administrator and fair arbitrator, a thoughtful scholar, a prolific writer, and a wise teacher.

This doctor of the Church and patron of scientists and naturalists traveled throughout Europe to labor in the many vineyards of the Lord. For a time he was regent of the new Studium Generale of Cologne (1248-1254). He served as Provincial of his Order of the vast province of Germany (1254-1257). He taught theology at Hildesheim, Freiburg, Regensburg, Cologne, and Paris. He was appointed Bishop of Regensburg (1260-1262) by special order of the Pope. He preached the 8th crusade (1270), and he was called to participate in the Council of Lyon (1274).

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Born at the turn of the 12th century in Lauingen on the Danube between Ulm and Augsburg, St. Albert joined the Order of Preachers around the year 1223 after studying the traditional seven liberal arts in Padua. There he was inspired by the preaching and personality of Blessed Jordan of Saxony, the first successor to St. Dominic as Master General of the Dominicans. Albert’s decision came on gradually. The simplicity and slow pace of this early period of his life are in stark contrast to the bewildering multiplication of labors in the decades that followed his profession.

Contemplation and prayer and a deep love and reverence for Our Lady nourished St. Albert’s scholarly and pastoral excellence. This latter excellence is apparent in his profound understanding of human nature and its limitations. Both in his episcopal office at Regensburg as well as regent in Cologne, St. Albert proved himself to be a man of reconciliation and peace. In one of his sermons he spoke of the ideal of unanimity and friendship:

The apostle says, ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, sharing each other’s feelings.’ He means that if you want to be in unity with everyone, you should make your heart like your neighbor’s heart, so that when he is happy, you are happy, and you grieve with him when he is grieving. But some people are like stones that have so many rough edges that they cannot possibly be put together with other stones to make a wall; wherever you put them their awkward shape immediately pushes out other stones. There is no way they can be joined together. Similarly if my heart is in distress and you are happy, your happiness sticks into me like an ill-shaped stone, so that our feelings cannot possibly come together.

St. Albert understood the profound practical consequences of the truth that charity is our final end.

St. Albert’s humble service in ecclesial governance deserves recognition, but it was as a teacher and writer that he made his most notable contribution to the Church of his time. Albert is best known as the teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas, who was his student at Cologne. As Josef Pieper aptly said: “Had all Europe been canvassed, no more important and more up-to-date teacher for Thomas could have been found.” Before the efforts of St. Thomas, St. Albert had labored intensely, often against opponents and critics within his own order, to establish the relative autonomy of philosophy and speculative knowledge of the world. St. Albert was the first to insist on the important contribution Aristotelian philosophy could make to Christian theology. “Above all,” writes Pope Benedict XVI, “St. Albert shows that there is no opposition between faith and science.” St. Albert loved and marveled at God’s creation. Speaking in the words of St. Paul he declared that “we ought to look at the forms of animals and rejoice in Him who is their artificer Who made them, because the artistry of the maker is revealed in the way He works.”

We are told that already as a child the future master of all arts desired nothing above wisdom and virtue. Indeed, St. Albert embodies the Christian scholarly ideal, namely, that science and scholarship are never ends in themselves. Study should always be second to piety, and all science serve no other end than to bring the scholar, and through him others, closer to spiritual and moral fulfillment and to loving obedience to Christ.


  • Denis Kitzinger

    Denis Kitzinger is a Fellow and Dean of Students at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is a student of the history of Christian Europe with a particular interest in the Catholic intellectual tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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