St. Anthony of Padua

Getting to Know Him:
A Closer Look at St. Anthony of Padua

by Carol Ann Morrow
from A Retreat With St. Anthony of Padua: Finding Our Way


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Carol Ann Morrow's book, A Retreat with St. Anthony of Padua: Finding Our Way, offers fresh insights into the beloved friar who followed in the footsteps of St. Francis. The following is the introduction to the book, written in the voice of the "spiritual director" for this "Retreat With" book, St. Anthony of Padua.

You want to know who I am? It is the work of a lifetime. I believe the way of holiness is to learn one's path and follow it—over land and sea if necessary. And I have been so very lost! I have been lost at sea, I have been lost on solid ground.

But now I am here and I am willing to share my losses and my discoveries with you. I am Friar Anthony. I follow the way of Brother Francis of Assisi. They call him the Little Poor Man. Perhaps some call me the Big Poor Man. I am larger by far than my spiritual father but I, too, want to be a simple, traveling preacher. And that is why you've come, isn't it, to hear me preach from my heart what Francis has taught me of the gospel.

I want to know you as well. I want to be at home with you, to discover what moves you, touches you, what brings you here. But first you want to know who it is who is searching for answers with you during this retreat. So I'll tell you a little of my story.

I was not always called Anthony. I was born Fernando Bulhom in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1195 or perhaps a little earlier—it matters little. Our family home was very near to the cathedral church, which did matter. My parents were fairly well-off. When I was about fifteen, I already knew I wanted to live where the Gospels were honored and I became an Augustinian at St. Vincent's Outside the Walls. Being outside the walls didn't isolate St. Vincent's from the capital city's bustle, though, so I later asked to be transferred to Santa Cruz in Coimbra.

I thought Coimbra might be more tranquil, but when I arrived I still felt like I was outside—separated from something essential to my soul's journey. Coimbra was the intellectual center of Portugal, though, and I feasted on the volumes in the monastery library, learning much.

Then our monastery was given the honor to house the remains of the first Franciscan martyrs. It was a political decision to give Santa Cruz these precious relics, but it had spiritual repercussions for me. Perhaps some of you have visited the twentieth-century gravesite of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Atlanta, the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., or another place made holy by the presence of someone you love. Do you remember the vitality of your spiritual connection to those people, those events? That is how I felt when I saw those martyrs' bones. That is what I wanted: I wanted to risk everything to speak the words of Jesus.

But Santa Cruz Monastery was home to men who had grown comfortable, even careless with the gospel. The bones of the first five Franciscan martyrs would dry and crumble there, and be gathered into little reliquaries. I wanted to live in Ezekiel's valley where the bones of the martyrs could rise up and prophesy anew. When the Franciscans, new to Portugal in 1220, came to our door begging, I begged for the privilege of joining them. I wanted to take my own young bones as soon as possible to preach to the Saracens.

How could the Moroccan people who had so influenced my homeland, who knew so much of beauty and adventure, how could they not know Jesus as I did? My own risk seemed so small to buy so great a treasure for a whole people.

I may seem impetuous to you. Sometimes I seem so to myself. But, once again, I left a safe place for the open road, to find my way. The friars were new to Portugal, new to the Church, new to me. But the gospel was their compass and I knew they would lead me in a direction good for my soul.

In Morocco, I preached not a single word, humbled by a body martyred only by illness, not by scimitars. When I felt well enough to sail back to Portugal, storms blew our ship all the way to Sicily instead—far, far from my homeland but near to the home of my spiritual father. All of us Franciscans were itinerants of a sort, so I've been on the road ever since.

My work was to help ordinary people puzzled by preachers who had either chosen or stumbled into heresies. I was to reason with, inspire, bless and lead them. Today I might be compared to a politician on the campaign trail—only my campaign was simply to use my knowledge of many things to help people make spiritual connections.

I lived in Europe's Middle Ages, when the style of preaching and teaching, the worldview and the social climate were very different from what you've experienced. You may find that my words—as written—seem florid and heavy. But when I spoke, I lit a fire in people's hearts. How else could I have gathered audiences so large that they couldn't fit in the largest church but had to sit in fields and meadows?

So I've told you the circuitous path I took from Lisbon, Portugal, to Padua, Italy, by way of Morocco and Sicily. Now I'd like you to know what that world was like.

Placing Our Director in Context

I lived in what is now called the High Middle Ages—a time of social and religious upheaval, chaos and new beginnings.

My native country is Portugal, recognized as an independent nation by the pope in 1179. I was born in Lisbon during the reign of Sancho I, Portugal's second king. Legend says that Lisbon was founded by the Greek hero Odysseus. Sometimes I feel that I followed his star of travel and adventure in my own life. Before my time, my homeland had often been under the control of the African Moors. King Sancho extended Portugal's borders with the help of the Knights Templar and other crusaders. The king encouraged religious life, founding monasteries such as the one in which I came to live.

The Canons Regular of St. Augustine differed from monks in that we worked as pastors, connecting to the world outside our monastery through preaching and works of charity.

While I was at Santa Cruz Monastery in Coimbra, the people of Castile (now part of Spain) definitively ended the power of the Almohads (a Muslim power). Coimbra was then the nation's capital and our Portuguese queen consort, sister of the victorious Castilian leader, came to Santa Cruz to express her thanks in public prayer.

Although our Holy Father Francis of Assisi is, I am sure, better known to most people now, Emperor Frederick II and Pope Innocent III were the more powerful in my lifetime. It was Innocent who approved Francis' way of life. He believed in his authority over political rulers and exercised it with some success. Within the Church, he called the Fourth Lateran Council, which struggled with heresy and legislated the reception of the sacraments, two areas which later touched my life and mission.

Innocent also called for a crusade against the Albigensian heresy and the Fourth Crusade to the Holy Land. The Crusaders recaptured Jerusalem in 1229, though it was lost again some years after my death.

Italy, with which I am most often identified, was my home only for little over a decade. At the time I lived there, Rome was the capital of the Papal States and what you now call Italy was linked mostly by geography. Venice, so near my Padua, was the link between Europe and the Orient and the launching point for many crusaders.

Italy held many walled and fortified cities, little princes and small tyrants. Padua is said to be the oldest city in the country. Its university is the country's oldest. Universities were new in my lifetime, not only in Portugal and Italy, but in all the known world.

You should also know that the times in which I lived saw a transition from an agrarian, barter economy to a merchant, cash economy. This movement to the city with its trades, crafts and guilds was not a smooth one. The numbers of the poor increased drastically. Many people had never owned land. Those who did sometimes had to sell it for cash. When they were out of cash, they had to borrow. If crops were bad or they became ill, the interest mounted, and they lost any hope of regaining their foothold. They became permanently poor, many of them living on the edge of forests, foraging, begging, eking out a precarious existence.

Religion was the warp and woof weaving the days and nights of medieval life together and influencing the life of the nation. Religion was the first and most public motive of the Crusades, although I wouldn't have you think they were only about faith. This was the world in which Francis of Assisi founded the Order of Friars Minor and, later, the Poor Clares and the lay Third Order, whose members were not to fight in these many skirmishes between cities. This was the world into which I came, more educated than the man I elected to follow, more cosmopolitan, one might say, but just as eager to bring Jesus to those who had yet to know of him.

This is the world in which I spent just thirty-six years—not so short a life by the standards of the time. It is the setting in which I found all that I wish to share with you now.

Carol Ann Morrow is assistant managing editor of
St. Anthony Messenger and editor of Youth Update, both published by St. Anthony Messenger Press.


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