by Beverly De Soto
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.