At the end of his remarkable life, Saint Thomas Aquinas made what is called a “general confession”— reviewing his whole life to a priest. G.K. Chesterton relates the incident: “The confessor, who had been with him in the inner chamber, ran forth as if in fear, and whispered that his confession had been that of a child of five.”
Aquinas’ confessor experienced what numerous souls came to realize during and after the saint’s lifetime: here was a man gifted not only with one of the most profound intellects in history, but also with a manner of life that radiated childlike innocence and purity. Indeed, Pope Leo XIII affirmed that the Angelic Doctor’s title derives “no less from his genius than from his innocence.”
How It All Started
The Angelic Warfare Confraternity arose from one particular incident in the life of the saint. After deciding to become a Dominican at the age of 19, his noble family was distressed at the decision, strongly desiring him to stay nearer to home and become a respected abbot of the local Benedictine monastery. Aquinas remained firm in his decision, and requested that his superiors transfer him to Paris where he could be free from the influence and pressure of his family.
On his way to Paris, his mother sent two of his brothers to intercept him, which they did by force, eventually locking him in a castle. After continued efforts at persuasion by his mother and sisters had no effect, his brothers devised a wicked plot: they introduced a courtesan (a woman of ill-repute), into his cell to try to tempt him out of his vocation.
The young Thomas immediately seized a burning brand from the fire, chased the woman out, and slammed the door while emblazoning a cross on it. Immediately he dropped to his knees and thanked God for preserving his chastity, praying that this gift would endure. He then fell into a kind of mystical sleep, and two angels bestowed upon him a cord which he wore until his dying day. He finally relayed its existence and the whole episode to his deathbed confessor.
The Early Days
First in monasteries, then among the faithful, the custom developed of wearing a cord under the patronage of Saint Thomas as a special sign of one’s resolution to maintain a chaste life. By the 1500’s this practice became more general, as nuns at the convent of St. Margaret in Vercelli — to whom Aquinas’ cord had been entrusted — began to distribute cords to the faithful which had been touched to the miraculous cord. The practice became especially popular among college students seeking help in resisting the temptations of university life.
Fr. Deurwerders is the Dominican generally credited with founding the first Society of Angelic Warfare. In 1649 he made a pilgrimage to Vercelli and gathered all the information on the devotion around the cord he could. He then returned to the Catholic University of Louvain and, with permission of the local bishop, organized a solemn high mass, after which the dean of the faculty prostrated himself to receive the cord. Then, two by two, all the professors and students of the theology faculty did the same. Thousands of souls became members of the confraternity on that first day, a kind of new Pentecost ordered to solidifying chaste living in a chaotic world.
Pope Benedict XIII gave the confraternity official ecclesial approval in 1727, and numerous souls — even many saints — have become members of this confraternity through the years. Saint Aloysius, Saint John Calasanctius and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati are just some examples. Pius XI in Studiorum Ducem (1923) gave one of more recent papal exhortations, writing that “inasmuch as we see the majority of young people caught in the quicksands of passion, jettisoning holy purity and abandoning themselves to sensual pleasures, we exhort you to propagate everywhere…the society of Angelic Warfare, founded under the patronage of Thomas for the preservation and maintenance of holy chastity.”
Benedict also granted permission to wear, instead of the traditional cord, a medal inscribed on one side with an image of Our Lady of the Rosary, and on the other with Saint Thomas being girded by the angels. Various indulgences have been attached to membership and its practices.
The Confraternity in Modern Times
It is not an accident that the devotion of the cord sprang up in the Church precisely when Europe and Christian civilization was becoming more influential, urbanized and commercial. The medieval cities to which the original Dominicans were sent to preach tended to be hotbeds of political intrigue, economic ferment and moral temptation and vice. Our own age too — far more technologically and commercially developed than any medieval could have imagined — has seemed to take special delight in throwing traditional morality to the winds, especially in the area of chastity.
The well-known sexual revolution of the 1960s has sown widespread confusion in relationships, marriages and the social and moral development of young people. The sons and daughters of the Church today, no less than in previous ages, need every help possible to lead strong, chaste lives. The Angelic Warfare Confraternity continues to offer such help under the powerful patronage of Saint Thomas Aquinas.