St. Anthony was born, of noble lineage, in Lisbon, Portugal on 15th August 1195. He was baptised ‘Fernando’ in the city’s Cathedral. As a youth, he was very pious and seems to have been called to the religious life from an early age.
Perhaps no one was really surprised when Fernando entered the local monastery of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine in 1210. He was still only a youth, but he wanted to dedicate his whole life to God in seclusion. Fernando was ordained to the priesthood, and went on to become very proficient in both Theology and Sacred Scripture.
Fr. Fernando lived a life of virtue in the monastery, and was a good example to all who knew him. One day, in 1220, five Franciscan friars came passing through on their way to Morocco, to preach to the Saracens. They sought hospitality in the monastery. A short time later, the remains of these friars were carried past the monastery, on their way home for burial: they had suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Saracens. To-day we venerate these friars as St. Berard and Companions, the Franciscan Proto-Martyrs.
Fr. Fernando was deeply moved by the martyrdom of the Franciscans. He, too, desired to go and preach to the Saracens, and suffer martyrdom for the sake of Christ. Perhaps he also felt, at the same time, an attraction to the Franciscan way of life. He decided to ask permission to leave the monastery and enter the Franciscan Order. Fr. Fernando was indeed given the permission, and no doubt the monks were very sad to see him leave.
Fr. Fernando was received into the nearby Franciscan friary. He was given the religious name of ‘Anthony’ – in honour of St. Anthony of the Desert, the patron of that friary.
Fr. Anthony expressed his desire to go to Morocco and there he was sent. Very shortly after his arrival in that land, however, he became so ill that he had to return home. The sea journey home was interrupted by a storm, and his ship ended up on the shores of Italy. Fr. Anthony was to remain with the friars in Italy. He was assigned to various friaries doing menial work, as no one was yet aware of his vast knowledge of Theology and Sacred Scripture.
Preacher and Teacher:
Fr. Anthony was quite content in his hidden life as a friar. Providence, however, had other plans in store for him. One day there was an important ordination Mass at which many friars, including himself, were to be present. A well-seasoned priest has been chosen to preach the sermon at the Mass, but for some reason he was unavailable. There was no one to be found who was willing to be a replacement preacher, and the Franciscan Provincial gave an obedience to Fr. Anthony to preach. Nobody present expected to witness what happened next: Fr. Anthony went on to preach the sermon with eloquence, displaying his vast knowledge of scripture and theology. Everyone was stunned.
The news of the sermon spread abroad, eventually reaching the ears of St. Francis himself. St. Francis gave Fr. Anthony general permission to preach anywhere. And not only to preach – St. Francis also desired Fr. Anthony to teach theology to the friars. Francis wrote to Anthony to this effect:
“To his dear Brother Anthony, Brother Francis sends greeting in the Lord. It is my wish that you teach the brethren sacred theology; yet in such a manner as not to extinguish in yourself and others the spirit of prayer and devotion, according as is prescribed in the Rule. The Lord spare you!”
Francis would often later refer to Anthony as ‘my bishop’.
Gift of Tongues:
Many preachers down through the centuries have been given the Gift of Tongues, a charism granted by the Holy Spirit. It allows them to preach in languages they have not learnt, and to be understood by their listeners. We read in Acts II how this charism was granted to the Apostles on the day of Pentecost. Fr. Anthony was no exception. We read in the Fioretti [The Little Flowers of St. Francis] how, on one particular day, Fr. Anthony preached in the Roman Consistory before the Holy Father and the Cardinals. The cardinals were from many different nations and yet they understood Fr. Anthony in their own languages, languages of which Anthony had no prior knowledge. The Pope was astonished at Anthony’s knowledge of Sacred Scripture and called him an ‘Ark of the Covenant’ and ‘Treasury of Holy Scripture’.
Hammer of Heretics:
In those days there were many heresies abounding throughout Europe, and these heresies threatened the unity of Christendom. Heresies such as Albigenses and Waldenses, to name just two. Anthony travelled up and down the country preaching against such heresies. He preached not only with his wealth of knowledge, but also by his holiness of life. God worked many conversions through him, and he became known as Anthony, the Hammer of Heretics.
Fr. Anthony’s fame as a wonder-worker spread throughout Italy and beyond. As well as the gift of tongues, he possessed other charisms of the Holy Spirit. We know he had the gift of healing, the gift of prophecy and the gift of bi-location (the ability to be in more than one place at the same time). There are even cases of him raising the dead to life.
Preaching to the fishes:
The Fioretti also tells us the following, well-known, miraculous story. Fr. Anthony was in the city of Rimini, in Italy, preaching with the special intention of bringing the heretics there back into the fold. Anthony found the heretics quite obstinate in their refusal to even listen to him. He was inspired to go down to the sea and begin preaching to the fishes. In no time the sea was full of fishes, all with heads above the water, seemingly taking in all of Anthony’s words. The fish would bow their heads as if agreeing with Anthony. On finishing his sermon, Anthony cried out: ‘Blessed be the eternal God, because the fishes of the waters give God more honour than heretical men, and animals lacking reason listen to His Word better than faithless men!’ This was enough to soften the hearts of his listeners, and the heretics amongst them were converted back to the true Faith.
Miracle of the mule:
On one occasion Fr. Anthony was preaching the Faith – the location is uncertain – when he was challenged by one of his hearers, an unbeliever, about the dogma of the Real Presence, transubstantiation. The unbeliever made a challenge to Anthony: he would deny food to his mule for three days, after which he would bring it to the town square and offer it oats; at that same time Anthony was to come into the square carrying the Host; if the mule refused the oats and bowed down before the Host, he would convert to the Faith.
For all of the three days Anthony fasted and prayed. When the eventful day arrived the hungry mule was brought into the square and a bag of oats placed before it. At the same time Anthony came into the square carrying the Monstrance, and, in the Name of God, commanded the mule to bow down before its Creator. At this command the mule at once left the bag of oats and went over to kneel before the Blessed Sacrament. The whole crowd were astonished, and the unbeliever asked to be received into the Church.
St. Anthony and the Christ Child:
It seems the image of St. Anthony that is seen most often is the one which portrays him holding the Christ Child in his arms. Indeed, it is one of the most popular images in the Church. So what is its origin?
On one occasion Anthony was a guest of a noble family – we believe it to be in the region of Camposampiero, a town not too distant from Padua. During the night the host noticed a light emitting from under the door of Anthony’s room; when the host looked into the room he beheld the heavenly vision of the Christ Child standing upon an open book by Anthony’s desk, conversing with the saint.
To-day, a shrine has been built on this particular spot.
Finder of lost objects:
St. Anthony is often invoked as Patron of Lost Objects. What is the reason for this? Several versions of the story exist. In one version, a novice decided not to persevere in religious life and left the novitiate – but taking Anthony’s psalter book with him! Anthony prayed for the book’s safe return. The thief was moved by remorse and returned back to the friary with the book.
There is a pious custom whereby some people write the letters S.A.G. on the outside of the envelope before posting it. The letters stand for ‘St. Anthony Guide’. The sender is asking St. Anthony to ensure the safety of the letter and to guide it to its intended recipient.
One day, in 1231, Anthony was staying in the friary at Camposampiero when he became ill. Sensing that his end was nigh, Anthony desired to be brought back to his beloved Padua to die. On the way home the friars stopped in Arcella, just outside the city of Padua, so Anthony could rest at the Poor Clare monastery there. It was there that Anthony died at the relatively young age of 36 years, mourned by all of Italy and beyond. It was a Tuesday, 13th. June. His remains were eventually brought back to Padua. To-day his tomb is located in the Basilica del Santo in Padua.
Doctor of the Church:
Anthony was canonised in the year following his death. His volumes of Sermons are still in print to-day, even in the English language. In 1946, Pope Pius XII declared him a Doctor of the Church, only the second Franciscan to be thus honoured. Because of his writings on Scripture he is known as ‘Doctor Evangelicus’ (the ‘Evangelical Doctor’).
St. Anthony is one of the most venerated saints in the church. His feast day is the 13th. June, the date of his death. Because he died on a Tuesday, that particular day has always been traditionally used in the Franciscan Order for the ‘St. Anthony Devotions’. In Portugal, the land of his birth he is known as ‘St. Anthony of Lisbon’. In other countries he is known as ‘St. Anthony of Padua’. In the city of Padua he is known simply as ‘Il Santo’ (‘The Saint’).
The three shrines associated with St. Anthony in the Veneto region of Italy, viz. Basilica del Santo, Camposampiero and Arcella, are all under the care of the Conventual Franciscans. Visit their website at: www.santuariantoniani.it