Who Is St. Anthony?
by Leonard Foley, O.F.M.
unremodeled churches most always count St. Anthony among their pantheon
of statues. The saint of Padua is usually sculpted or portrayed holding
the child Jesusor a lilyor a bookor all threein
his arms. A bank of vigil lights will burn in front of the statue.
Tuesday evening is the traditional time of St. Anthony novena devotions,
with prayers to St. Anthony, Benediction and the reading of petitions written
on little scraps of paper: "for a safe delivery, to obtain a job, for
reconciliation with my daughter," and invariably, "to find my
lost _______." On the saints feast day, June 13, St.
Anthony Bread is blessed. And since the saint is the special patron
of Italy, an honor he shares with St. Francis, many Italian families have
a son named Anthony.
The list of human concerns for which Anthony is the patron is amazingly
varied. The array of wonders attributed to Anthony in story and legend is
equally astounding in its variety. He was in two places at the same time;
at his prayer, a donkey knelt before the Blessed Sacrament, after a dare
by an unbeliever; fishes lifted their heads above the water to listen as
he preached to them, after bored believers turned away; a foot severed by
an ax was rejoined to its leg.
Are these legends true? Let us first see if we can trace the line of facts
regarding this immensely popular saint.
Anthony was born in 1195 (13 years after St. Francis) in Lisbon (now Portugal,
then a part of Spain), and given the name of Fernando at Baptism. His parents,
Martin and Mary Bulhom, apparently belonged to one of the prominent families
of the city.
At the age of 15 he entered the religious order of St. Augustine. Monastery
life was hardly peaceful for young Fernando, nor conducive to prayer and
study, as his old friends came to visit frequently and engaged in vehement
After two years he was sent to Coimbra. There he began nine years of intense
study, learning the Augustinian theology which he would later combine with
the Franciscan vision. Fernando was probably ordained a priest during this
Warmly Toward Truth
The life of the young priest took a crucial turn when the bodies of the
first five Franciscan martyrs were returned from Morocco. They had preached
in the mosque in Seville, almost being martyred at the outset, but the sultan
allowed them to pass on to Morocco, where, after continuing to preach Christ
despite repeated warnings, they were tortured and beheaded. Now, in the
presence of the queen and a huge crowd, their remains were carried in solemn
procession to Fernandos monastery.
He was overjoyed and inspired to a momentous decision. He went to the little
friary in Coimbra and said, "Brother, I would gladly put on the habit
of your Order if you would promise to send me as soon as possible to the
land of the Saracens, that I may gain the crown of the holy martyrs."
After some challenges from the prior of the Augustinians, he was allowed
to leave that priory and receive the Franciscan habit, taking the name
True to their promise, the Franciscans allowed Anthony to go to Morocco,
to be a witness for Christ, and a martyr as well. But, as often happens,
the gift he wanted to give was not the gift that was to be asked of him.
He became seriously ill, and after several months realized he had to go
He never arrived. His ship ran into storms and high winds and was blown
east across the Mediterranean. Months later he arrived on the east coast
of Sicily. The friars at nearby Messina, though they didnt know him,
welcomed him and began nursing him back to health. Still ailing, he wanted
to attend the great Pentecost Chapter of Mats (so called because the 3,000
friars could not be housed and slept on mats). Francis was there, also sick.
History does not reveal any meeting between Francis and Anthony.
Since the young man was from "out of town," he received no assignment
at the meeting, so he asked to go with a provincial superior from northern
Italy. "Instruct me in the Franciscan life," he asked, not mentioning
his prior theological training. Now, like Francis, he had his first choicea
life of seclusion and contemplation in a hermitage near Montepaolo.
Perhaps we would never have heard of Anthony if he hadnt gone to
an ordination of Dominicans and Franciscans in 1222. As they gathered for
a meal afterward, the provincial suggested that one of the friars give a
short sermon. Quite typically, everybody ducked. So Anthony was asked to
give "just something simple," since he presumably had no education.
Anthony too demurred, but finally began to speak in a simple, artless way.
The fire within him became evident. His knowledge was unmistakable, but
his holiness was what really impressed everyone there.
Now he was exposed. His quiet life of prayer and penance at the hermitage
was exchanged for that of a public preacher. Francis heard of Anthonys
previously hidden gifts, and Anthony was assigned to preach in northern
The problem with many preachers in Anthonys day was that their life-style
contrasted sharply with that of the poor people to whom they preached.
In our experience, it could be compared to an evangelist arriving in a
slum driving a Mercedes, delivering a homily from his car and speeding
off to a vacation resort.
Anthony saw that words were obviously not enough. He had to show gospel
poverty. People wanted more than self-disciplined, even penitent priests.
They wanted genuineness of gospel living. And in Anthony they found it.
They were moved by who he was, more than what he said.
Despite his efforts, not everyone listened. Legend has it that one day,
faced with deaf ears, Anthony went to the river and preached to the fishes.
That, reads the traditional tale, got everyones attention.
Anthony traveled tirelessly in both northern Italy and southern Franceperhaps
400 tripschoosing to enter the cities where the heretics were strongest.
Yet the sermons he has left behind rarely show him taking direct issue with
the heretics. As the historian Clasen interprets it, Anthony preferred to
present the grandeur of Christianity in positive ways. It was no good to
prove people wrong: Anthony wanted to win them to the right, the healthiness
of real sorrow and conversion, the wonder of reconciliation with a loving
Anthonys superior, St. Francis, was cautious about education such
as his protégé possessed. He had seen too many theologians taking pride
in their sophisticated knowledge. Still, if the friars had to hit the roads
and preach to all sorts of people, they needed a firm grounding in Scripture
and theology. So, when he heard the glowing report of Anthonys debut
at the ordinations, Francis wrote in 1224, "It pleases me that you
should teach the friars sacred theology, provided that in such studies they
do not destroy the spirit of holy prayer and devotedness, as contained in
Anthony first taught in a friary in Bologna, which became a famous school.
The theology book of the time was the Bible. In one extant sermon by the
saint, there are at least 183 passages from Scripture. While none of his
theological conferences and discussions were written down, we do have two
volumes of his sermons: Sunday Sermons and Feastday Sermons.
His method included much of allegory and symbolical explanation of Scripture.
Anthony continued to preach as he taught the friars and assumed more responsibility
within the Order. In 1226 he was appointed provincial superior of northern
Italy, but still found time for contemplative prayer in a small hermitage.
Around Easter in 1228 (he was only 33 years old), while in Rome, he met
Pope Gregory IX, who had been a faithful friend and adviser of St. Francis.
Naturally, the famous preacher was invited to speak. He did it humbly, as
always. The response was so great that people later said that it seemed
the miracle of Pentecost was repeated.
Enters the Picture
Padua, Italy, is a short distance west of Venice. At the time of Anthony,
it was one of the most important cities in the country, with an important
university for the study of civil and canon law. Sometimes Anthony left
Padua for greater solitude. He went to a place loved by FrancisLaVerna,
where Francis received the wounds of Jesus. He also found a grotto near
the friary where he could pray in solitude.
In poor health, and still provincial superior of northern Italy, he went
to the General Chapter in Rome and asked to be relieved of his duties. But
he was later recalled as part of a special commission to discuss certain
matters of the Franciscan Rule with the pope.
Back in Padua, he preached his last and most famous Lenten sermons. The
crowds were so greatsometimes 30,000that the churches could
not hold them, so he went into the piazzas or the open fields. People waited
all night to hear him. He needed a bodyguard to protect him from the people
armed with scissors who wanted to snip off a piece of his habit as a relic.
After his morning Mass and sermon, he would hear confessions. This sometimes
lasted all dayas did his fasting.
The great energy he had expended during the Lent of 1231 left him exhausted.
He went to a little town near Padua, but seeing death coming close, he wanted
to return to the city that he loved. The journey in a wagon weakened him
so much, however, that he had to stop at Arcella. He had to bless Padua
from a distance, as Francis had blessed Assisi.
At Arcella, he received the last sacraments, sang and prayed with the friars
there. When one of them asked Anthony what he was staring at so intently,
he answered, "I see my Lord!" He died in peace a short time after
that. He was only 36 and had been a Franciscan but 10 years.
The following year, his friend, Pope Gregory IX, moved by the many miracles
that occurred at Anthonys tomb, declared him a saint.
Anthony was a simple and humble friar who preached the Good News lovingly
and with fearless courage. The youth whom his fellow friars thought was
uneducated became one of the great preachers and theologians of his day.
He was a man of great penance and apostolic zeal. But he was primarily a
saint of the people. (Adapted from St. Anthony: Doctor of the Church
by Sophronius Clasen, O.F.M.)
Franciscan Father Leonard Foley (1913-1994) is the author of
of the Day, many other books, and articles for Catholic
Update and St. Anthony Messenger. An expanded version
of the above appears in Saint
Anthony of Padua: The Story of His Life and Popular Devotions,
published by St. Anthony Messenger Press.
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