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Benedict XVI, Anthony and Saints Today


The Life of St. Anthony
St. Anthony in Padua
Saintly Reformers in Our Era

In a general audience at the Vatican on February 10, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI gave a well-developed overview of the life of St. Anthony of Padua. A good context for understanding Pope Benedict's words regarding Anthony was the pope's claim in an earlier audience (January 13) that the "history of the Church...shows that saints...are the authentic reformers of the life of the Church and of society" (italics mine).

To further set the stage, Benedict's address on St. Anthony was preceded by similar audiences devoted to St. Francis of Assisi (January 27) and St. Dominic de Guzman (February 3).


The Life of St. Anthony

In his biographical sketch of St. Anthony, Benedict reminded the audience that Anthony belonged to the "first generation of the Friars Minor." He also described him as "one of the most popular saints in the whole Catholic Church, venerated not only in Padua, where a splendid basilica has been built which contains his mortal remains, but also throughout the world."

Benedict noted that Anthony was born in Portugal around 1195 and spent several years there as an Augustinian friar, receiving a fine theological education. Later, because of a desire to become a Franciscan missionary in Morocco, Anthony joined the Friars Minor. Becoming ill in Morocco, Anthony was brought to Italy, and ended up in a friary near the town of Forlì.

Invited one day to preach at a priestly ordination, Anthony spoke so eloquently and brilliantly, said Benedict, that his "superiors assigned him to preaching." Then, according to the pope, Anthony "embarked on apostolic work in Italy and France that was so intense and effective that it induced many people who had left the Church to retrace their footsteps.

"Anthony was also one of the first—if not the first—theology teachers of the Friars Minor," continued the pope. "He began his teaching in Bologna with the blessing of St. Francis who...sent him a short letter that began with these words: 'I would like you to teach the brethren theology.' Anthony laid the foundations of Franciscan theology which...was to reach its apex with St. Bonaventure and Blessed Duns Scotus."

Anthony also served as provincial for the friars in northern Italy. After completing this role, he resumed his popular work of preaching and doing other ministries in and around Padua. Finally, having fallen ill, St. Anthony died on the outskirts of Padua, June 13, 1231. He was canonized one year later.

Benedict adds that Anthony, near the end of his life, also put together Sermons "for the Franciscan Order's preachers and teachers of theological studies....The richness of spiritual teaching contained in the Sermons," says Benedict, "was so great that in 1946 Venerable Pope Pius XII proclaimed Anthony a Doctor of the Church."

In Anthony's day, poor people needed defenders, and, recounts Benedict, St. Anthony in his preaching often urged "rich people" to help "the poor." We also know that Anthony often fought against unjust social conditions of 13th-century life. In Padua, for example, people owing big debts they could never pay were imprisoned. Thanks to Anthony, this oppressive practice was stopped. A Paduan document notes: "At the request of the venerable Friar Anthony, is established... that henceforth no one is to be held in prison for pecuniary debt."

Anthony's instinct to eliminate the sufferings of the poor was preceded by St. Francis' own efforts to help the poorest of the poor, namely, the lepers he served so tenderly. Given these examples, it's helpful to recall that—at the beginning of this editorial—Pope Benedict argued that the saints are "authentic reformers" of human history.

This remains true of saints of our own times such as St. Damien of Molokai. This Belgian-born saint went to Hawaii to serve people with Hansen's disease (leprosy) and in time succumbed to the illness himself in 1889. Damien is praised around the world as a highly admired saint who brought love, hope, comfort and human dignity to many severely challenged individuals. Damien was canonized by Benedict XVI in 2009.

Or consider St. Jeanne Jugan of France, founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor, who died in 1879. She founded homes for the elderly poor in her own country and beyond. Her sisters and co-workers have made a real impact on society, helping thousands of elderly poor grow old with a profound sense of human worth. Jeanne was canonized by Benedict XVI in 2009.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta was born in Albania in 1910. Named Agnes Bojaxhiu at birth, she founded the Missionaries of Charity (1950) to assist poor, sick, abandoned and dying people in the streets of Calcutta. Now her community, spread throughout the world, seeks to find the face of Jesus in the poorest of the poor, showing them dignity. Mother Teresa died in 1997 and was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2003.

Anthony, Damien, Jeanne and Mother Teresa are saintly not because they are famous; they are saints because, like Jesus, they showed special care for the poor, the sick and the forgotten. Their example reminds us that this kind of love is possible for each of us—right here, right now.—J.W.

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