SATURDAY READING: A Short Life of Saint Anthony of Padua, by Leonard Foley

From Saint Anthony of Padua: His Life, Legends, and Devotions, Jack Wintz, Editor

Anthony was born in 1195 (thirteen years after Saint Francis) in Liston, Portugal, at the mouth of the Tagus River, from which explorers would later sail across the Atlantic.  His parents, Martin and Mary Bulhom, belonged to one of the prominent families of the city and were among those who had been loyal in service to the king.  The infant was baptized in the nearby cathedral at the foot of Castelo Sao Jorge, which still dominates the city.  His parents named him Fernando.  Fernando Bulhom attended the cathedral school and at the surprisingly young age of fifteen entered the religious order of Saint Augustine.  “Whoever enters a monastery,” he later wrote, “goes, so to speak, to his grave.”  For Fernando, however, the monastery was far from peaceful, because his old friends came to visit so frequently.  Their vehement political discussions hardly provided an atmosphere for prayer and study.

After two years of this, the young man asked to move and was sent to Coimbra, one hundred miles north.  This was the beginning of nine years of intense study, including learning the Augustinian theology that he would later combine with the Franciscan vision.  Fernando was ordained a priest probably during this time.

Anthony Joins the Franciscans 

The life of this young priest took a crucial turn when the bodies of the first five Franciscan martyrs were returned from Morocco.  These holy men had preached in the mosque in Seville, almost being martyred at the outset, but the sultan allowed them to pass on to Morocco, where, after continuing to preach Christ despite repeated warnings, they were tortured and beheaded.  Now, in the presence of the queen and a huge crowd, their remains were carried in solemn procession to Fernando’s monastery.

Overjoyed and inspired by the martyrs’ heroic deaths, Fernando came to a momentous decision.  He went to the little friary the queen had given the Franciscans in Coimbra and said, “Brother, I would gladly put on the habit of your Order if you would promise to send me as soon as possible to the land of the Saracens, that I may gain the crown of the holy martyrs.”  After some challenges from the prior of the Augustinians, he was allowed to leave that priory and receive the Franciscan habit, taking the name Anthony, after the patron of their local church and friary, Saint Anthony of the Olives.  He was allowed to take vows immediately, as the Order did not yet require a novitiate.

True to their promise, the friars allowed Anthony to go to Morocco, to be a witness for Christ and possibly a martyr as well.  But, as often happens, the gift he wanted to give was not the gift that was to be asked of him.  Anthony became seriously ill, and after several months he realized he had to go home.

Detour to Italy 

He never did arrive home.  His ship ran into storms and high winds and was blown east across the Mediterranean.  Months later, he arrived on the east coast of Sicily.  The friars at nearby Messina, though they didn’t know him, welcomed him and began nursing him back to health.  Still ailing, he wanted to attend the great chapter of the Pentecost Mats (so called because the three thousand friars could not be housed and slept on mats).  Francis was there, also sick; however, history does not reveal any meeting between Francis and Anthony.  Since Anthony was from “out of town,” he received no assignment at the meeting, so he asked to go with a provincial superior from northern Italy.  “Instruct me in the Franciscan life,” he asked not mentioning his prior theological training.  Now, like Francis, he had his first choice – a life of seclusion and contemplation in a little hermitage near Monte Paolo.

Perhaps we would never have heard of Anthony if he hadn’t gone to an ordination of Dominicans and Franciscans in 1222.  As they gathered for a meal afterward, the provincial suggested that one of the friars give a short sermon.  Quite typically, everybody respectfully declined.  So Anthony was asked to give “just something simple,” since he presumably had no education.

Anthony also demurred but finally began to speak in a simple, artless way.  Suddenly, the fire within him became evident.  His knowledge was unmistakable, but his holiness was what really impressed everyone there.

Anthony Turns to Preaching 

Now he was exposed.  His quiet life of prayer and penance at the hermitage was exchanged for that of a public preacher.  Francis heard of Anthony’s previously hidden gifts, and Anthony was assigned to preach in northern Italy.  It was not like preaching around Assisi, where the faith was strong: here he ran into heretics, well organized and ardent.

The problem with many preachers in Anthony’s day was that their lifestyles contrasted sharply with that of the poor people to whom they preached.  In our experience, it could be compared to an evangelist arriving in a slum and driving a Mercedes, delivering a homily from his car and speeding off to a vacation resort.

The heresy of that time thus had its grain of truth.  The so-called “Pure” (Cathari) began by wanting to go back to gospel poverty.  Scandalized by the wealth of the church, they practiced strict poverty and engaged in manual labor.  But they also denied the validity of the hierarchy and the sacraments.  They saw themselves as the only “real” Christians.

Anthony saw that words were obviously not enough.  He had to show the Cathari gospel poverty.  People wanted more than self-disciplined, even penitent, priests.  They wanted the unselfish genuineness of gospel living.  And in Anthony they found it.  They were moved by who he was more than by what he said.  In Rimini, one hotbed of heresy, he was able to call the people together – that alone was a sign of his fame.

Despite his efforts, not everyone listened.  Legend has it that one day, while preaching to deaf ears, Anthony went to the river and preached to the fishes.  That, says the traditional tale, got everyone’s attention.

Anthony traveled tirelessly in both northern Italy and southern France – perhaps four hundred trips – choosing to enter the cities where the heretics were strongest.  Yet the sermons he has left behind rarely show him taking direct issue with the heretics.  As the historian Clasen interprets it, Anthony preferred to present the grandeur of Christianity in positive ways.  It was no good to prove people wrong.  Anthony wanted to win them to the right, the healthiness of real sorrow and conversion, the wonder of reconciliation with a loving father.  The word fire recurs in descriptions of him.  And though he was called the “Hammer of Heretics,” the word warmth described him more fully.

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