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I've Found a Lot to Love in St. Anthony

St. Anthony of Padua was a crowd-pleasing, risk-taking evangelist, an early combination of Billy Graham and Fulton J. Sheen. There's more to love in him than his ability to locate lost car keys.

By Carol Ann Morrow


HUMBLE: Anthony was pressed by Pope Gregory IX to speak to the cardinals, as seen in Girolamo Tessari's fresco, now marred by pilgrims' inscriptions. Today Anthony is honored less for his own wisdom than for helping others at their wit's end.

No Egghead
Have Knapsack, Will Travel
Beyond What's Lost
Man, Street and Fields
Friend for Life

When St. Anthony died, the poor of Padua said, "We have lost our father." They did not say, "Oh dear, who will manage Padua's lost-and-found department now?"

Until I traveled to Portugal, Anthony's birthplace, and Italy, where he spent his last 11 years, I little appreciated the magnitude of his gifts and his influence. Preparing for this journey and actually visiting sites dear to Il Santo (as Italians all call him) has led me to embrace Anthony the Humble, Anthony the Available, Anthony the Poor and Anthony the Friend.

This doesn't mean I've abandoned my requests to St. Anthony when things are lost. It does mean, however, that I've found other, perhaps more important reasons to invoke his inspiration and his guidance. I offer these four compelling aspects of Anthony to help you find your way to a deeper appreciation of this great saint.

No Egghead

I had thought that "Doctor of the Universal Church," the title given to Anthony in 1946, was simply an honorific. I, like the 13th-century Dominicans and Franciscans in Forli, Italy, had thought Anthony was a "good Joe." I thought of him as a saint who could and would help me out in a pinch, though I didn't think him Ph.D. material.

The crisis at Forli was that no one had been assigned to speak at the festive meal following ordinations. Those with preaching experience--Dominicans, after all, are the Order of Preachers--were unwilling to speak before the bishop without time to prepare. They all begged off. Anthony, it seems, was the only one willing to go extempore. When he did, his words revealed a tremendous grasp of theology and the occasion marked the beginning of his extraordinary preaching career.

To me, impressing a crowd of religious people with your first public remarks in their presence seems as likely as being named MVP at your first college basketball game. When I read this story in Anthony's earliest biography, written in 1232, I thought he sounded like Mr. Cinderella, spending most of his days as a hermit, unrecognized and unadmired. The major plot twist is that he was willing, even eager, to remain in the cinders of his hermitage! That's where he found his "happily ever after," so to speak, rather than in a pumpkin-turned-coach, on the way to life in a castle.

As an Augustinian canon in Portugal, Anthony (then known as Fernando) had found life in Lisbon and Coimbra, major centers of Portuguese learning, an intellectual feast, a delight many of the monks seemed to prize more than prayer. I think the young, keenly intelligent Fernando feared he could take a perpetual head trip and never experience the solitude and silence required for travels of the heart.

As I pore over the pages and remember the places where Anthony lived his life, this is what I learn: You may begin from the head or from the heart, but you must balance the two to become holy. Perhaps Anthony instinctively knew that Francis of Assisi could guide and support him in his struggle to do just this. Among the writings attributed to Francis is a brief note to Anthony: "It is agreeable to me that you should teach the friars sacred theology, so long as they do not extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotedness...."

It was disagreeable to Anthony to teach at all if he could not also light in those who heard him the desire to pray. This is the education to which the Church and its saints should always aspire. The earliest images of Anthony, according to the apostolic letter declaring him a doctor of the Church, showed him "holding in one hand, as though reading, an open book signifying wisdom and learning, and in the other a torch, the symbol of ardent faith."

This is what I, too, ask of St. Anthony of Padua: Help me to hold in balance the knowing and the loving, the head and the heart.

Man on the Street
(and in the Fields)

For a man who desired a hermit's life, St. Anthony of Padua sincerely knew how to draw big crowds. It seems quite clear that he sincerely loved people. He didn't choose solitude because he was an ill-tempered loner; he sought privacy to preserve the rhythms of the spiritual life. He knew that he gained strength and focus when alone. He also knew the converse: that he could inspire devotion and prayer in others when he taught, preached and celebrated the Sacrament of Penance.

While I'm disconcerted at the very thought of a sermon lasting an hour or two, the people of Padua were eager to hear Anthony preach, apparently at this length! His earliest biographer describes the scene: "Because of the multitude of men and women who gathered, and because the size of the churches was by no means large enough to hold so many people, whose number always grew, he [Anthony] withdrew to the wide spaces of open meadows. Crowds of men and women that could hardly be counted came from cities, castles and villages which surrounded Padua....Rising in the middle of the night they contended with each other to come early...."

Not only did Friar Anthony give to the crowds, he also gained from them. Who would not be moved to see so many people hungry for a clear teaching of the gospel? How could he not love the faithful who waited hours after his lengthy sermon was concluded for absolution from their sins?

These crowds were coming not only on Sundays, but also during the week, because they were genuinely confused--and tempted--by the heresies of the time. Many couldn't read and they were hungry to know and understand God's will for them. Anthony used the idioms of his day, weaving examples from mythology, folklore, proverbs and the changing seasons of the year into his message. I get the idea he was Billy Graham and Bishop Sheen rolled into one.

Many of these allusions seem obscure to me when I bravely peek at his published Sermones. The Sermones are daunting, in part because they are actually sermon notes, translated from the Italian vernacular into formal Latin and then, only recently, into English. Anthony packed into this manual every hint, every approach he could think of, though he didn't intend that preachers should try his hints all at once!

I mention the Sermones only to dissuade Anthony's present-day friends from looking there to discover the heart of the saint. I believe his heart was expressed in the spoken word, a more accessible medium which--all reports say--attracted, challenged, convinced, converted and comforted listeners.

This is what I ask of Il Santo: May I use the gift of words to grow closer to people, not to distance myself or to appear clever or educated. I also place those who preach to me under Anthony's protection that they may find the words that will reach me and lead me to Jesus.

Have Small Knapsack,
Will Travel Many Miles

In Italy, Anthony is identified as "of Padua" though he traveled from Sicily to Assisi, Rome and points north. In Portugal, he's known as St. Anthony of Lisbon. While he didn't make any mark in Morocco during his brief stay in 1220, he spent three years (1224-1227) in southern France where he served as the regional superior of the friars. By today's measure, The Saint could have logged a lot of frequent-flyer miles, especially since he did all this traveling in little over a decade.

I'm fascinated by this great willingness to pack up and go on Anthony's part. I believe it was not his natural bent. Whenever he got the chance (in a hermitage at Montepaolo, Italy, or in Brive, France, and, finally, in a treehouse refuge in Camposampiero, Italy), he relished settling down to a routine of prayer and fasting. He chose not to be a mere sightseer. He became a literal reader of the gospel of poverty--as was St. Francis before him.

The gospel challenge led Anthony to leave first the noisy monastery of Lisbon and then leave the Augustinians altogether. It led him to seek martyrdom across the Strait of Gibralter, though illness prevented even an attempt. When he was blown off course back to Portugal, and landed in Sicily, Anthony actually discovered his true course. He sought out Francis of Assisi in Italy, a land where Anthony didn't even speak the language. He was driven, I think, by the same compelling magnetism that enticed Peter and Andrew to drop their nets and follow the nomadic Jesus. He was answering a call.

Since travel in Anthony's day was by foot or by mule (occasionally by sailing ship), he can't have carried much baggage. I doubt that he had my problems in closing my luggage--a challenge directly related to my unwillingness to do without!

The only object for which Anthony ever revealed much attachment was a manuscript of the Psalms, in which he had made marginal notes for teaching. When Anthony found this text was missing, he prayed for its return. He had not mislaid it, however (which I suspect he knew); it had been stolen. A contrite French novice, who had left the friary with the text, returned, full of repentance. Upon the recovery of this manuscript hinges Anthony's reputation as a finder of lost objects.

To me, the miracle is not the return of the book but that Anthony had so little to lose. He could pick up and go anywhere--or he could stay put. His roots were not in a place or a post or in anything packable. From praying--not merely studying--the Psalms, he had come to "yearn and pine for the courts of the Lord" and to discount the value of anything else.

This is what I ask of Anthony, the traveling man: Help me not to sink my whole heart into house, yard, car or closets. Help me to be equally ready to go or to stay. When I go, help me not to carry too much of myself or to gather too much to take back. Where I stay, guide me to live lightly.

Anthony, Friend for Life

In the biographies of many saints, powerful human friendships are recorded: Benedict and Scholastica, Jane Frances de Chantal and Francis de Sales, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross are a few friends that come to mind. I am grateful that the record reflects the value of having companions on the spiritual journey, since it has certainly been true for me. Various chroniclers reveal Anthony to be a good friend as well. This provides a healthy balance to his longing for the hermit life.

When I visited St. Anthony's Basilica in Padua, I learned that a certain Blessed Luke Belludi was buried in the tomb which had first held St. Anthony. (Luke had Anthony moved to a more prestigious resting place; in 1871, Luke was moved from Anthony's tomb to a sarcophagus in the wall of a side chapel named after him.) Who was this fellow to be honored with even a temporary resting place in Anthony's first tomb?

Luke Belludi of Padua became a Franciscan friar. The biographer Clasen calls him a "valuable helper and co-laborer" of Anthony as well as a "celebrated and holy preacher...constant companion and friend." Legend says that Anthony once healed a child at Luke's request.

Author Madeline Nugent places Luke with Anthony in his final illness at Camposampiero. Like Nugent, I like to believe that the friend who later became known as Luke of St. Anthony was close to The Saint in his dying.

History records that Blessed Luke became a provincial minister of the Franciscans and directed the building of the Basilica in Anthony's honor. In the side chapel of the Basilica I saw a painting depicting Anthony appearing to Luke in a vision. The Saint brings Luke the message that Padua will be freed from the threats of a tyrant. This seems a good model of friendship: both focused on the good of others, but supporting each other in the quest for God.

St. Anthony was confessor, guide and, my heart tells me, friend to Sister Elena Elsimi, a Clarisse (Poor Clare) in Arcella, very near Padua. Perhaps Elena (also known as Blessed Helen Enselmini of Arcella) was near when Anthony died in the Clarisse cloister, though she was ill herself at the time.

Blessed Elena's petite, wizened but complete remains are encased in a glass coffin in Arcella's parish church. When I first knelt before her body there, I was taken aback, just as when I first saw the tongue, jaw and vocal cords of St. Anthony in the Chapel of the Treasury in Padua's basilica. Such stark, macabre reminders sober my sometimes sentimental faith. These remains seem halted midway between--or is it in progress toward?--death and resurrection of the body. This preservation is interpreted by the Church as a sign of God's pleasure, a way of calling attention to their holiness. Some substance of these friends--Anthony and Elena--has been "saved" as a sign of favor to us who visit.

Elena's body was tormented by illness during most of her 14 years as a Clarisse. Anthony--often accompanied by Luke, Madeline Nugent speculates--visited and encouraged her. Elena trusted her soul to Friar-confessor Anthony because she knew that he had never fully recovered from his own illness in Morocco--so he could understand how she often felt sapped of energy and enthusiasm for the spiritual journey. Yet her body lies intact today and all that Anthony used to shape his words of friendship and comfort--words flavored by the gospel--is preserved as well.

What can I learn from this trio of holy friends? I speculate that each could count on the other. Each leaned for support at times and each was the support at other times.

Ah, St. Anthony, this is the incorruptibility for which I long: lasting friendships that can sustain both weakness and strength, absence and presence. You treasured your friends. Thank you for not exercising some saintly self-sufficiency and toughing it out without companions in your quest for holiness. May I and my friends become "blessed"--and know how blessed we are--in the exchange of thoughtful, prayerful support, interest, laughter and counsel.

Beyond What's Lost
to What's Found

"Tony, Tony, turn around. Something's lost that can't be found." This rallying, rollicking prayer has led many of us to recover car keys, earrings, money and more. Some people have seen their health restored, a valid extension of something lost, to be sure.

This is the Anthony of Padua I knew before the 800th anniversary of his birth. It is apparently an arena of great human need--this heavenly lost-and-found department--since so many are grateful to Anthony for his help in their domestic emergencies. St. Anthony delivers.

But I've lost things I don't even know enough to miss sometimes. I suspect you have, too. Sometimes I lose my ability to connect what I've learned with how I live. I'm not always willing to give what I have (to lose myself to find myself, the Gospel says). I cling tightly to things far less valuable than relics, though I honor them far more. Sometimes I neglect to be a friend--even to my family.

And I'm the real loser when this happens. But Anthony can--and will--come to my rescue. His whole life holds answers for all who look there. Maybe you, too, will find something that has been lost for a long time.

Carol Ann Morrow is an assistant editor of St. Anthony Messenger and editor of Youth Update. She has traveled to Portugal and Italy and wrote an account of that pilgrimage, "In the Footsteps of St. Anthony," which appeared in last December's issue of St. Anthony Messenger.
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