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Anthony & 800 Years of Franciscan Service


Great Preacher and Theologian
Balancing Brilliance and Humility

This year, the Franciscan movement is celebrating the 800th anniversary of the founding of the worldwide Franciscan Order.

During Easter Week (April 15-18, 2009) Franciscan representatives from all over the world came to Assisi and Castelgandolfo, the pope’s villa outside Rome, to celebrate the eighth centenary of their beginning (1209-2009). A culmination of these events took place on April 18 during an audience with Pope Benedict XVI at Castelgandolfo.

This month also marks the 778th anniversary of the death of St. Anthony of Padua (June 13, 1231). It’s an opportune time to reflect on Anthony’s special role in Franciscan history.

There is a town in northern Italy called Forlì. Though the town is small, it had enormous importance in the life of the saint. Around the year 1222, Anthony and a few other friars went to Forlì to attend an ordination ceremony.

A good number of other Franciscan and Dominican friars were there. The local superior invited several Dominicans to preach, but all politely begged off. Finally, the superior turned to Anthony and insisted that he share with the assembled guests whatever the Holy Spirit inspired him to say.

Anthony accepted the superior’s request and preached humbly, yet eloquently, from his heart. He amazed everyone with his brilliance and the power of his words. The event launched Anthony into a new career as an outstanding evangelist and teacher—a career that he would pursue with great success for the rest of his life.


Great Preacher and Theologian

Anthony’s Franciscan leaders soon asked the friar to move from his rural hermitage near Forlì to Bologna, a prominent university city about 40 miles away. Before long, Anthony not only was in demand as a preacher, but also was asked to teach theology in Bologna to young Franciscans studying for the priesthood.

St. Anthony, of course, was actually a native of Portugal, who had begun his religious life in that country as an Augustinian monk. He would go on to receive an excellent theological education in Portugal’s most famous center of learning, the Augustinian Monastery of Santa Cruz in the city of Coimbra.

As many of us know, St. Francis, the founder of the Franciscan Order, wanted his followers to be humble. He knew in his heart that intellectual pride or an overzealous pursuit of higher learning could become a threat to humility, causing some friars to drift from the simple gospel life they had vowed to live.

Aware of St. Francis’ concerns, Anthony wisely sought Francis’ permission to teach theology to friars entering the Order. In a famous letter sent to Anthony in Bologna, Francis advised Anthony with these words: “It pleases me that you should teach sacred theology to the brothers as long as—in the words of the Rule—you do not extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion with study of this kind.”

Anthony took Francis’ advice seriously. He carefully sought to balance his great intellectual gifts through the practice of humility. Anthony also sought out caves and other deserted places where he could devote himself to humble prayer and contemplation.

This was a period in the history of the Franciscan Order when the Church was beginning to understand that zeal, goodwill and a simple grasp of the Gospel were not enough. More and more, friars who had permission to preach or to teach were required to have a solid theological education.

There were many heretical groups wandering about Europe at this time, leading Catholics astray and confusing them with their strange doctrines. Anthony, however, because of his profound knowledge of Scripture, his training in theology and his persuasive skills as a preacher, was well-equipped to counter these heretical teachings. A tremendously popular preacher, Anthony was often engaged in extensive preaching campaigns in both northern Italy and southern France. The saint’s spiritual integrity reinforced his preaching.

Thus, Anthony was the first in a long line of educated Franciscan friars who, responsive to the Holy Spirit, nurtured within themselves an attractive blend of profound knowledge, humility and spiritual wisdom.

Such friars were successful in drawing like-minded recruits into the Order, making way for later generations of learned Franciscans such as Alexander of Hales (c. 1183-1245), St. Bonaventure (1218- 1274) and Blessed John Duns Scotus (1266-1308). Though the three remained humble friars, they all became great theologians at the University of Paris.

In addition to his ministry of preaching, Anthony also served for three years as the provincial minister of the friars in the critical region of northern Italy near Bologna. Anthony attended the general chapter of 1230 at Assisi and was part of a delegation sent by that chapter to Pope Gregory IX. That Anthony was part of this delegation suggests that he had a real role in advancing the pope’s reform agenda for the Church. Historian Dominic Monte, O.F.M., makes this observation in Francis and His Brothers: A Popular History of the Franciscan Friars (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2009).

Perhaps, one of the reasons the Franciscan movement has survived 800 years is because inspiring Franciscans—such as St. Anthony of Padua—were able to keep a healthy balance between their theological gifts and the gift of humility.—J.W.


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