Today is the feast day of Saint Anthony of Padua. Ora pro nobis.
by Beverly Stevens
Photos by Erica Mc Cullagh
He is one of the most famous saints of the Church, known universally as the super-competent manager of the celestial “Lost and Found” department. (“Tony, Tony, come around; something’s lost and can’t be found” is a prayer whispered by millions.)
For those of us accustomed to this familiar relationship, however, it may come as a shock to learn who Saint Anthony of Padua, O.F.M. actually was. For though he only lived 35 years, Anthony was renowned during his lifetime for his forceful preaching and expert knowledge of scripture – and for his miracles.
So well regarded was he, in fact, that in all of the 2000-year history of the Church, Anthony was to become the second-most-quickly canonized saint, after Peter of Verona. Anthony was canonized by Pope Gregory IX on 30 May 1232, at Spoleto, Italy, less than one year after his death.
Fernando’s Life Plans, Changed
Fernando Martins de Bulhões was born in 1195 to an aristocratic Lisbon family and initially joined the Augustinians at the age of fifteen. He was the guest master for their abbey containing the famous library at Coimbra, when his whole world suddenly changed.
Franciscan friars had settled at a small hermitage nearby; their Order had been founded only eleven years before. News soon arrived that five Franciscans had been beheaded in Morocco; the King ransomed their bodies to be returned and buried as martyrs in the Abbey.
Inspired by their example and strongly attracted to their simple, evangelical lifestyle, Fernando obtained permission to join the new Order, upon his admission adopting the name ‘Anthony.’ He then set out for Morocco; however, he fell seriously ill and on the return voyage his ship was blown off course and landed in Sicily. When he found his way to northern Italy, Anthony was finally assigned to a rural Franciscan hermitage, due to his poor health. There he lived in a cell in a nearby cave, where he spent much time in private prayer and study.
ANTHONY THE HOMILIST: One Sunday in 1222 a number of Dominican friars visited for an ordination and a misunderstanding arose as to who should preach. The Dominicans were renowned for their preaching, but had come unprepared, thinking that a Franciscan would be the homilist. Anthony was entreated him to speak whatever the Holy Spirit should inspire him with; his homily that day created a deep impression and began his career as a speaker. By 1224, St Francis of Assisi, founder of the Order, entrusted Anthony with the theological preparation for his priests.
Anthony focused on the grandeur of Christianity in his homilies and when a few years later he was sent as the envoy from the Franciscans to Pope Gregory IX, the Pope commissioned his collection, Sermons for Feast Days (Sermones in Festivitates). Gregory IX himself described him as the “Ark of the Testament.”
ANTHONY THE MIRACLE WORKER: The stories of Anthony’s 13th century miracles make fascinating reading for today’s Catholic. Despite their obvious folkloric tone, it is the miracles’ utter originality that impresses most. One comes away thinking that such astonishing occurrences can only be fairy tales — or the special kind of reality that seems to envelope the saints. As there are far too many miracles to recount here, we’ll focus on three of the most famous:
THE KNEELING MULE: The teaching of the Real Presence was disparaged in northern Italy during the 1200s, as the gnostic heresy of the Albigensians had spread from France. One day, Anthony was publically challenged. “The heretic stood up and said: ‘I’ll keep my beast of burden locked up for three days and I will starve him. After three days, in the presence of other people, I’ll let him out and I’ll show him some prepared fodder. You, on the other hand will show him what you believe to be the body of Christ. If the starving animal, ignoring the fodder, rushes to adore his God, I will sincerely believe in the faith of the Church.’
“The saint agreed straight away. God’s servant entered a nearby chapel, to perform the rites of the Mass with great devotion. Once finished, he exited where the people were waiting, carrying reverently the body of the Lord. The hungry mule was led out of the stall, and shown appetizing food. The man of God said to the animal with great faith: “In the name of virtue and the Creator, who I, although unworthy, am carrying in my hands, I ask you, o beast, and I order to come closer quickly and with humility and to show just veneration, so that the malevolent heretics will learn from this gesture that every creature is subject to the Lord, as held in the hands with priestly dignity on the altar”.
God’s servant had hardly finished speaking, when the animal, ignoring the fodder, knelt down and lowered his head to the floor, thus genuflecting before the living sacrament of the body of Christ.”
THE LISTENING FISH: The story takes place in Rimini, a port on the Adriatic near Padua. On a Sunday morning, the Saint found the fishermen there not at Mass. He began to preach to them and met only with ridicule. Anthony then stood at the edge of the water, looked in the distance, and proclaimed so that everyone would hear:
“’From the moment in which you proved yourselves to be unworthy of the Word of the Lord, look, I turn to the fish, to further confound your disbelief.’
“And filled with the Lord’s spirit, he began to preach to the fish, elaborating on their gifts given by God: how God had created them, how He was responsible for the purity of the water and how much freedom He had given them, and how they were able to eat without working.
“The fish began to gather together to listen to this speech, lifting their heads above the water and looking at him attentively, with their mouths open. As long as it pleased the Saint to talk to them, they stayed there listening attentively, as if they could reason. Nor did they leave their place, until they had received his blessing.
ANTHONY & THE BABY JESUS: Anthony was welcomed by a local resident in an Italian town where he was to preach. His host gave him a room set apart, so that he could study and contemplate undisturbed. Soon, however, his curiosity about his famous guest overcame him and his host peeped through Anthony’s window. What he saw there has been immortalized in almost every Catholic Church in the world. “A beautiful joyful baby appear in blessed Anthony’s arms. The Saint hugged and kissed him, contemplating the face with unceasing attention. The landlord was awed and enraptured by the child’s beauty, and shocked when, after a long time spent in prayer, the vision disappeared; the Saint called the landlord, and he forbade him from telling anyone what he had seen. After the Saint passed away, the man told the tale crying, swearing on the Bible that he was telling the truth.”
SOMETHING’S LOST AND CAN’T BE FOUND: An incident in the university city of Bologna is the origin of the Saint’s fame as a finder of lost items, people and spiritual goods. Anthony possessed a book of psalms with valuable notes and comments for use in teaching his students. A novice who had decided to leave the Order stole the prized psalter. Anthony prayed his psalter would be found or returned. The thief was moved to restore the book to Anthony and return to the Order. The stolen book is said to be preserved in the Franciscan friary in Bologna.
THE FAME OF ST. ANTHONY SPREAD GLOBALLY with the former Portuguese Empire and with the diaspora of 19th and 20th century Italian emigrants. Stories of the Saint’s interventions are reported, therefore, from the four corners of the earth:
In Siolim, a village in the Indian state of Goa, St. Anthony is always shown holding a serpent on a stick . This is a depiction of the incident which occurred during the construction of the church wherein a snake was disrupting construction work. The people turned to St. Anthony for help, and placed his statue at the construction site. The next morning, the snake was found caught in the cord placed in the statue’s hand.
THE GRAVE OF SAINT ANTHONY OF PADUA: Anthony was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church on 16 January 1946, and his Basilica in Padua contains his mortal remains.
By Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877
St. Anthony, who derived his surname from the city of Padua, in Italy, because he spent many years there in preaching the Gospel, was a native of Lisbon, in Portugal. He received, in holy baptism, the name of Ferdinand, and was very piously educated by his parents. No sooner had he become acquainted with the dangers of the world, than he, in the fifteenth year of his age, to be safe from temptation, went into the cloister of the regular Canons, which is not far from Lisbon, where he also made his religious vows. As, however, he was disturbed too much there by the visits of his friends, he went, with the permission of his superiors, to Coimbra, into the monastery of the Holy Cross. To this house came, one day, five friars of the Order of St. Francis, who were travelling to Africa to preach the Gospel to the Moors. They suffered martyrdom, however, soon after their arrival there, and their holy bodies were brought back to the monastery of the Holy Cross, at Coimbra, and solemnly interred in the church attached to it. Antony, hearing how fearlessly these martyrs had preached the true faith and had suffered for Christ’s sake, conceived an intense desire to preach the Gospel to the heathen and to give his life for the word of God. Hence, he determined to enter the Order of St. Francis, that he might have an opportunity to gratify the wishes of his heart.
After much hardship, he was at length, when 20 years of age, received into the Order, and after his novitiate, he obtained permission to sail for Africa and preach the Gospel to the Saracens. Scarcely had he arrived there, when God proved him by a severe sickness, which exhausted all his strength, and forced him to return to Spain. The ship, however, in which he embarked for home, encountered contrary winds, and instead of going to Spain, was driven to Sicily. No sooner had he set foot on land, than he heard that St. Francis, the holy founder of his order, had called a general chapter at Assisium. He immediately went thither, in order to receive the blessing of the Saint, which was cheerfully given. When the assemblage dispersed, not one among the superiors was found willing to be burdened with Antony, who was greatly enfeebled by his long illness, and moreover, was thought to be not quite sane. The Father Provincial of the Roman province was at last moved with compassion, and sent him to a house called Mount St. Paul, which was situated in a wilderness. There St. Antony lived a most austere life, performing the most humble labor, and occupying all his other time with prayers and holy meditations.
After passing several years in this manner, he was sent with a few other religious to Forli to be ordained priest. The guardian of the monastery requested the Dominican priests, who had also assembled there, that one of them should make an exhortation or deliver a short sermon. As they all excused themselves from so doing, he said, more in jest than in earnest, that brother Antony should speak to those assembled. Antony obeyed, and delivered so eloquent a sermon that all were astonished at his knowledge and ability, as, until now, they had deemed him one of the least gifted. Not willing that his extraordinary talent should any longer be hidden, St. Francis himself had him ordained priest, and gave him a double employment, namely, to instruct his brethren in theology and also to preach. The duties of both functions were discharged by him, with great credit to himself and an indescribable benefit to others. He converted the most hardened sinners by his sermons, and among others induced twenty-two murderers to do penance and change their wicked course of life. The heretics he convinced so thoroughly of their errors, that they could not withstand him, on account of which he was called the “Hammer of the heretics.”
Many of them he converted to the true faith, among whom was Bonovillus, who had denied the substantial presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Not able to reply to Antony’s arguments he requested the following miracles. Having starved his ass for three days, he was to bring him food at the same time that Saint Antony should come with the holy Eucharist; and if the beast, before touching his food, should fall down before the Blessed Sacrament, he would believe the Saint’s words. At the appointed time, the Saint arrived with the Blessed Sacrament, accompanied by many Catholics, and addressing the ass, which was held by Bonovillus, he said: “I command thee, in the name of thy Creator and my Saviour, whom I, although an unworthy priest, carry at this moment in my hands, that you come, in all humility, and pay Him due honors.” Bonovillus, at the same time, threw down the animal’s food and called him to come and eat. But without touching the food, the ass fell down on his fore knees, and bent his head. The Catholics rejoiced at this incontestable miracle, but the heretics hid their heads and Bonovillus was converted. At Rimini, the chief seat of the heretics, he ascended the pulpit; but as no heretic would come and listen to him, the Saint went to the sea-shore, where just at that time many of them were standing, and called to the fishes to hear his words, as men would not be instructed. And behold! suddenly a great number of fishes raised their heads out of the water, as if to listen. Speaking for a short time of their Creator, he blessed and dismissed them. This miracle caused the heretics to listen more attentively to St. Antony and to follow his admonitions.
At another time, he made the sign of the cross over a goblet filled with poison, and drank it without being harmed. The cause of his doing this was that some heretics promised to return to the true Church, if he would drink the poison and not die. A perpetual miracle was the fact that, although he preached only in one language, yet all his hearers understood him, no matter what might be their nationality.
Who can count all the miracles God wrought through this Saint, or who can sufficiently praise the wonderful gifts with which he was graced? More than once it happened that at the same time when he was standing in the pulpit to preach, he appeared also in the choir and sang the lesson of the daily office of the Church, which was pointed out to him. He prophesied many future events and knew by divine revelation many secrets of the heart. There lived, in a French city, a writer, who publicly led a most immoral life. St. Antony resided for some time in this city, and as often as he met this man, he bowed very low to him. The writer, on perceiving it, was greatly incensed, as he believed it was done by the holy man only to deride him: hence he reproached him with menacing words. The Saint, however, replied: “Be not surprised that I show such respect to you before others. I have long prayed God for the grace to die a martyr, but it has not been granted me. You, however, will receive this honor, and therefore I evince such particular respect for you.” Although the writer laughed and made a mockery of this prophecy, yet the future showed that the Saint had spoken the truth. After the expiration of some time, this immoral man made a voyage to the Holy Land, in company with the Bishop of the city. On arriving there, he was seized by the Saracens, who demanded of him that he should deny his faith. He, however, remained firm in confessing it, and after having been greatly tormented, he suffered the death of a martyr.
St. Antony was as undaunted and fearless in punishing the wicked, when circumstances required it, as he was famous by the gift of prophecy. At that period Florence was governed by Ezelinus, who, among other cruel deeds, had executed 11,000 men of Padua, part of whom were in his service and part in garrison at Verona, because the inhabitants of Padua had rebelled. Nobody dared to oppose this tyrant in the execution of further barbarities but St. Antony, who had sufficient courage to go to him, and representing most powerfully his inhuman conduct, threatened him with the just wrath of the Almighty and the torments of hell, in case he repented not and abstained from, his tyranny.
During this menace flames of fire darted from the countenance of St. Antony, as Ezelinus afterwards related, which so thoroughly frightened the tyrant, that he fell trembling at the feet of the Saint, and most earnestly promised repentance. As he converted this and many other sinners by admonition, he moved others , in a different way to do penance. Many said that he had suddenly appeared before them at night and exhorted them to repent. “Rise quickly, said he at such times, and confess the sin by which you have offended the majesty of God.”
I should hardly know where to end, were I to relate all that St. Antony did to convert sinners, or how many future events he foretold. I will mention only a few more facts, from which the conclusion may be drawn that, as the holy man appeared in different places at the same time, so also, by the power of God, he was miraculously transported, in one moment, from one place to another. The father of St. Antony resided at Lisbon in Portugal, as treasurer of the royal revenues, the duties of which office he discharged with fidelity and integrity. One day, he was requested by some gentlemen in the king’s service to advance them some money out of the king’s treasury, making a verbal promise to return the same in a short time. The pious treasurer, who neither feared deception nor danger, gave them what they asked, without taking a written receipt. When the time arrived at which he had to deliver his account, he asked the officers for the borrowed money, but they denied having received any. This perfidy grieved the kind man deeply, and he knew not what to do. Seeking refuge in fervent prayers to God, he received help in a miraculous way through his son, who resided at that time in Italy. At the time he was to appear before the royal judge to be sentenced to return the missing money, his holy son suddenly appeared in the room, and addressed the officers in the following manner: “This kind man, my father, has advanced you, upon your request, a sum of money out of the royal treasury, on such a day, at such an hour, in such a place, as is well known to you. I warn you to return it to him and to indemnify him; otherwise, divine vengeance will strike you, and you will be heavily punished.” The guilty men were not less astonished at the presence of the holy man, than at his menaces and the revelation of their wickedness. They immediately testified in writing how much each of them had received, promising at the same time to repay it in a short time. No sooner was this done, than the Saint disappeared from their view.
This pious treasurer was in still greater danger at another time. He was accused of having committed murder, and sentence was to be executed on him and his servant on the following day. Antony was at Padua; but God revealed to him what had taken place at Lisbon. The Saint asked permission of his superior to seek some recreation out of the city. Hardly was he out of the place, when, like Habakuk, he was carried by an angel through the air to Lisbon. He went to the judge and represented his father’s innocence. Finding, however, no willing ear in the judge, he repaired to the grave of the murdered man, commanded him to rise, and leading him to the judge, he requested of him to say if his father was the man, who, with the aid of his servant had assassinated him. The risen man replied distinctly: “No: it was not he.” The Judge requested that St. Antony should demand of him the name of the real murderer: the Saint, however, replied: ” I have not come to bring death to a guilty man, but to rescue the innocent.” Upon this, his father and his servant were released, and Antony was carried back to Padua by the angel.
After this wonder-working servant of God had filled all Italy and France with the fame of his miracles and conversions, God revealed to him his approaching last hour. He repaired to an isolated spot, and having prepared himself for his end, he returned very sick to Padua, received extreme unction, recited the seven Penitential Psalms, and his usual prayer: “O Glorious Lady, &c.” The divine mother appeared to him with the child Jesus, and the Saint conversed with them most lovingly until his pure soul went to the abode of the blessed. This took place in 1231, when he was hardly 36 years of age. They desired to keep his death concealed from the people for some time, but the little children proclaimed it by calling out in the streets: “The Saint is dead.” Thirty-two years later, when his holy remains were raised, his tongue was found entirely incorrupt. St. Bonaventure taking it in his-hand, said: “O blessed tongue, which always praised God and taught others how to praise Him! Now we have evidence how great thy merits were before God!”
The Saint is generally represented with the divine Child, as He appeared to him and embraced him. The lilies are also dedicated to him as an emblem of his unspotted innocence and purity. It is well known that this Saint is invoked when things are lost or have been purloined. Countless occurrences show at this day that the intercession of this Saint is powerful at the throne of the Almighty. (3)