Sydney Centre for Thomistic Studies continues a great teacher's legacy

Sydney Centre for Thomistic Studies continues a great teacher's legacy

Audrey English

The life of Dr Austin M. Woodbury SM was remembered at a 25th anniversary commemoration of his entry into eternal life in 1979. The celebration was sponsored by the Centre of Thomistic Studies (CTS), which was established in 1985 in order to provide unbroken continuity with the philosophy and theology of St Thomas Aquinas as expounded by Dr Woodbury.

After some years as foundational Rector of the Marist Seminary at Toongabbie, the "Doc" established the Aquinas Academy in 1945 to provide adult education in the Faith. "To make the light of philosophy shine in the lives of thousands of ordinary men and women" was the vision which inspired him.

At the time this was an innovative and daring step. Lay people had little opportunity to deepen their religious knowledge and consequently were not able to support it with a solid foundation of the philosophical principles which lead to a greater understanding.

The people of Sydney responded with enthusiasm, as can be attested by the attendance at classes. Men and women of all ages and all walks of life flocked to hear the Doc expound on the big questions that men have asked throughout the ages, ("the Bigs") : "What is truth?", "What is happiness?", "Who am I?", "What is the meaning of life?".

The range of students both young and old who now attend the Centre of Thomistic Studies make it clear that the thirst for knowledge of the most important things in life is still a basic desire of the human heart even in the midst of our secular culture.

St Thomas' understanding of commitment involving both mind and heart is implicit in his teaching - "Of the unknown there is no desire". It is this awareness of the necessity to know the faith better so that it might be loved better, which inspired the Doc and which keeps inspiring those students of his to continue his work through the Centre for Thomistic Studies.

Those who think that St Thomas' philosophy is medieval and not applicable to our times are surprised to discover that the truths of the faith do not change. As a real catechist, the Doc taught the faith "in a manner as understandable and persuasive as possible" and he succeeded in firing his students with the same enthusiasm as well as entertaining them at the same time.

The relevance of St Thomas is seen in the Pope's Encyclicals Veritatis Splendor and Faith and Reason, and other papal teachings based on the Summa.

St Thomas demonstrates that there can be no contradiction between faith and reason, for all truths are derived from the One Truth. Philosophical principles stand as a foundation for theology and it is this legacy which was carried on by Dr Woodbury and by his students now teaching at CTS.

Nor can it be said St Thomas is too difficult to teach to generations intent on electronics and other sciences. The Doc could explain the most abstract concepts in the simplest manner with concrete examples.

The tradition of a teaching which can be understood by the everyday Catholic - with or without higher education - is maintained and, just as in the days of the Doc, the teaching of the truth continues to appeal to those who search for truth. At CTS, seminarians, university students, workers in various fields, the retired, all come to acquire or deepen their knowledge of the sublime truths of our religion.

Lectures are held at Polding House and at Glebe. Beginners are encouraged to enrol in an Introduction to Theology and an Introduction to Philosophy course.

Alice Nelson has dedicated her life to handing on to a new generation the wisdom which she acquired studying and teaching under the Doc for over 20 years. In 2005 she will be teaching among other courses one on Wisdom in which the different kinds of wisdom: natural, supernatural and the Holy Spirit's Gift of Wisdom, are examined.

John Ziegler, who teaches a number of courses including one on Defensive Metaphysics - where false philosophical theories are refuted - paid tribute to Dr Woodbury's written work as "an unparalleled set of texts, philosophical and theological, meticulously indexed and referenced". These will possibly be his lasting legacy to future ages and are still the basic texts of CTS.

Don Boland spoke of the Doc's later days when he was still a dynamic teacher in spite of the ill health which followed two major heart attacks. Dr Woodbury encouraged him to continue his studies which he did at the Angelicum in Rome where he obtained his Doctorate in Philosophy. He will be conducting courses on Social Philosophy.

Other courses include Spiritual Theology, Basic Morals, Christology, Apologetics and the Catechism - the last two recognised by the CCD for catechist accreditation. These courses are given by other former students of the Doc and by some of the young people who have studied at CTS for a number of years.

Pontifical recognition

Dr Woodbury's dream to obtain pontifical recognition which would enable his school to confer degrees was never fulfilled during his teaching career. However, his life work has not ended. The Centre of Thomistic Studies is now affiliated with the Legionaries Of Christ and is able to offer pontifical degrees through the Regina Apostolorum Institute in Rome.

Dr Woodbury was an intellectual giant as well as an inspiring teacher, filled with human warmth and a great sense of humour. He will be remembered not only by those who were privileged to know him but also as a legend to the young people at CTS who study his work.

Most of all he will be remembered for the wonderful knowledge he was gifted to communicate. His commitment is evidenced in the words he wrote to a friend: "I still consider the doctrine which God has given me the vocation to teach to be worth working for, living for, and dying for."

The Centre for Thomistic Studies can be contacted on (02) 9759 8014; (02) 9550-0231 or online at

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