Saints for Our Times: St. Joseph Maria Tomasi was a liturgical scholar
By Mary Lou Gibson
Joseph Maria Tomasi was an eminent scholar and priest who worked effectively with both the poor and powerful in Rome while serving in various Vatican offices. He was born into a noble family in Licata, Sicily in 1649, the son of the Duke of Palermo, and was destined for a life at court. Instead, at the age of 16, he renounced his princely titles and privileges and joined the Theatine Order at Palermo, who were founded by St. Cajetan of Thien in 1524 as a reform movement and were noted for their simplicity of life.
His family thrived on the religious life. Four older daughters became nuns in the Benedictine monastery at Palma founded by their father. And some years later, both parents left the world and entered religious houses.
Joseph Maria began his religious studies in Messina and went on to seminary training even as he experienced periodic episodes of poor health. He was ordained a priest in 1613.
He had a remarkable intellect and excelled in scholarly studies especially in the study of languages. Matthew Bunson writes in “John Paul II’s Book of Saints” that Joseph Maria knew Greek, Ethiopian, Arabic, Syriac, Chaldaic and Hebrew.
For the next several years he specialized in the study of Scripture, the Psalms and Patristic writings searching the chief libraries, archives and monuments that were available. He began to write and composed many treatises and liturgical works sometimes under the pseudonym of J.M. Carus. One of these was his biblical studies, especially his critical edition of the Psalter.
Editor Michael Walsh writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that Joseph Maria was described as “the prince of liturgists” for his work on liturgical texts. He became involved with reform efforts and was called to Rome by Pope Innocent XII in 1697. He was appointed the theologian to the Congregation of Discipline of Regulars in 1704 where he worked to reform religious orders. He became the examiner of the bishops and the clergy.
Joseph Maria continued to serve in various church appointments in Rome and became confessor to Cardinal Albani. A couple years later, Cardinal Albani was elected to the papacy. Joseph Maria ordered him to accept under pain of mortal sin. Cardinal Albani became Pope Clement XI in 1700. Some years later, Pope Clement made the same request of Joseph Maria when he named him cardinal and ordered him to accept the cardinalate under pain of sin.
Pope Clement named Joseph Maria consulter of the Theatine Order. During his time in Rome he held many other offices of the Holy See including consulter of the Sacred Congregation of Rites and qualificator of the Holy Office.
As cardinal, Joseph Maria continued to live his simple life in almost near solitude, devoting himself to prayer and study. He was compassionate to all who came to him in need including the animals he came in contact with –– not even allowing the birds to go hungry.
Bunson writes that he began to have visions and mystical experiences and came to be known in Rome for performing miracles of healing. He taught catechism to the children of the poor in his titular church and introduced the congregation to the Gregorian chant. David Farmer writes in the “Oxford Dictionary of Saints” that the only music he allowed at his Mass was plain song accompanied only by the organ. This was so different from other churches in this baroque age and it brought many people to his church.
Shortly before accepting the cardinalate from Pope Clement in 1712, Joseph Maria is reported to have said, “Well, it will only be for a few months.” And so it was, for he died on Jan. 1, 1713. He was mourned by all of Rome, from the pope and College of Cardinals to the poorest of the Eternal City. He was buried in the Basilica of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome. He was beatified by Pope Pius VII in 1803 and canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1983. During the ceremonies, he was lauded as a true servant of Christ and one of the unique saints of his century. His feast day is Jan. 3.