I once heard a priest mention in a homily that most heresies have been started by smart priests. The fourth century priest Arius, for example, was a brilliant man, but he was so brilliant that he thought he knew better than the Church. The result was the heresy of Arianism, which not only led innumerable Catholics away from a true understanding of Christ, but also led to decades of persecution and many martyrs.
It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that Joseph Mary Tomasi is now considered a saint of the Church. (Note that his name is sometimes given by the Italian spelling, Guiseppe Maria Tomasi, and sometimes spelled Tommasi.) If you are born into a powerful family, are naturally gifted with a brilliant mind, receive an excellent education, and have all the money you could want, are you more likely to be a great saint or a great sinner? Sadly, there are many Christians who received such advantages and used them scandalously.
Joseph was born in 1649 in Sicily, and his father was a duke. His family members were exceptionally devout. His four older sisters became Benedictine nuns, his mother eventually entered a convent as an oblate, and his father wanted to leave the family title to Joseph and retire to religious life as well. But Joseph would not be deterred from his own religious vocation as a priest, and his father was stuck with remaining a powerful leader in the secular world.
Joseph loved to pray, and he loved silence. He was also attracted to the Theatines, a relatively small religious order which had been founded in the sixteenth century. The Theatines had been established as a relatively austere order, and because of the structure of the order, it tended to attract intellectuals and members of the aristocracy. It was hoped that members would not only preach the Gospel but also set a high standard of moral uprightness and intellectual rigor among the clergy. It was the perfect choice for Joseph, and he entered the order as a novice in 1664.
His older sister, who has also been declared a Venerable by the Church, encouraged Joseph in his spiritual life, although she did so long distance from her convent. Joseph himself lived almost like a hermit. He studied (and mastered) many subjects, including philosophy, theology, and eastern languages. His Hebrew teacher, a prominent rabbi, eventually entered the Church because of Joseph’s prayers and personal witness.
After becoming a priest, Joseph wrote many scholarly works, some under a pseudonym out of humility. His writings were so influential within the Church that people called him the “prince of liturgists”.
What made his work so memorable? Through his careful and thorough scholarship, he translated ancient liturgical texts and made them available to his contemporaries to study, opening up a new field of research in sacred liturgy. His writing showed his excellent education and brilliance, but it also showed his piety. He did not study liturgical texts to make a name for himself or as a mere intellectual exercise, but out of his deep devotion and love for God.
Many people also came to him for spiritual direction; one of his penitents was a cardinal named Giovanni Albani. Before entering a conclave to elect a new pope, Joseph told Albani that Albani should accept any attempt to make him pope and that to do otherwise would be a mortal sin. When Albani was then named pope, he got even with his confessor. He promptly named Joseph a cardinal, although Joseph tried hard to escape the honor.
Even while living in Rome as a cardinal, Joseph lived an ascetic life, kept a simple household, patiently bore his own health problems, and personally instructed children in the catechism. He died less than a year after being named a cardinal, on January 1, 1713.
Of course, Joseph is often overlooked on his feast day because his date of death, January 1, is celebrated as New Year’s Day by the world and as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, by the Church. But a man who spent his life trying to avoid even the appearance of pride would not mind. Saint Joseph Tomasi’s entire life shows us that we should always work hard with whatever gifts God has given us—whether that be natural intelligence or fortune or powerful friends or none of the above—but always for God’s glory, not our own.