On Sunday 13 2021 the universal Church, and particularly, the Franciscan Order, celebrate with great joy the feast of St Anthony of Padua. In the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, during his weekly catechesis on this saint, delivered on 10 February 2010, St Anthony “is one of the most popular Saints in the whole Catholic Church, venerated not only in Padua, where a splendid Basilica has been built that contains his mortal remains, but also throughout the world”. The question naturally emerges: Why is St Anthony of Padua or of Lisbon so popular?
Before answering this basic question directly, let us give a quick glance to his biography. Fernando was born to a noble family from Lisbon around the year 1195. As a young man he felt the call to join the Canons of St Augustine. His first monastery was that of St Vincent’s in Lisbon itself; he later he was transferred to the Holy Cross Monastery in Coimbra, famous for its cultural contribution in Portugal. Since he was deeply convinced of his vocation, the young Canon Fernando gave himself entirely to the Biblical studies as well as to the studies of the Fathers of the Church. In this way he earned that sterling theological preparation that later on would give abundant good fruit in its time both in his academic and pastoral life.
The year 1220 was a great turning point in his life, when the relics of the first five Franciscan missionaries sent to Marocco and were brutally martyred were put on display. Canon Fernando was moved by their incredibly heroic example of faith that he immediately wanted to emulate their holy witness. Moved by his ardent wish to follow Christ in the way they did Fernando approached his superiors and requested them to exempt him from his vows to the Augustinian Canons, to become a Friar Minor. When his request was approved, he joined the Franciscans and took the name of Anthony. Full of zeal he too headed towards Marocco in the hope of undergoing the heroic martyrdom suffered by those holy five Franciscans.
However the Lord had other plans for the brave and generous Anthony. After a short period of illness, divine Providence not only made him set out to Italy but also permitted him to take part in that well-known Chapter of the Mats, which took place in Assisi around the year 1218, where Anthony met St Francis in person. Following this marvellous experience Anthony lived a hidden life in a friary at the Northern Italian city of Forlì. It was here that the Lord greatly surprised Anthony once more. For this most humble and great intellectual and preacher another important mission was awaiting him in total silence.
One day some Franciscan and Dominican friars were sent to Forlì for the ordination. Our saint was accompanying his Provincial Minister. As the time for ordination came it was noted that there was no preacher to preach for the occasion. Hence, the superior, as a sign of fraternal respect and charity, turned to the Dominicans in the hope that a member of the Order of Preachers be found to address a few words to the members of the congregation. Since everyone refused because they felt that they were not ready for the task, Anthony was chosen in their stead. They ordered him to say whatever words this spirit of God would endow him with. Anthony obeyed them wholeheartedly. Initially he spoke slowly and softly but as time went on he soon showed his real ability for preaching by explaining with great fervour the deepest sense of the Bible coupled with the doctrine. His charismatic preaching left the congregation simply speechless. And, from that moment, Anthony commenced his preaching ministry which took him to Italy and France. His strong and compelling style of preaching brought back to the Church many people.
This account from St Anthony’s life strongly reminds me of Pope Francis’ morning meditation in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae of Monday 8 May 2017: “The Spirit is the gift of God”, the Pope explained, “of this God, our Father, who always surprises us: the God of surprises”. This is “because he is a living God, a God who abides in us, a God who moves our heart, a God who is in the Church and walks with us; and he always surprises us on this path”. Thus, “just as he had the creativity to create the world, so he has the creativity to create new things every day”, the Pope continued. He “is the God who surprises”.
Even if he was practically the first theology teacher within the Order of the Friars Minor, since this moment of teaching in Bologna, Anthony felt the need of being blessed by St Francis. Hence, at his appointment for such a prestigious post St Francis sent him the following note: I am pleased that you teach sacred theology to the brothers providing that, as is contained in the Rule, you “do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion” during study of this kind. Very wise, fraternal and down-to-earth words from the Poverello!
With his appointment as the Provincial Superior of Northern Italy, Anthony kept preaching and governing his province. As he finished from his term as provincial he went to a peaceful place close to Padua where, as in the past, he spent time there on different instances. Scarcely a year after Anthony died at Padua’s city gates, precisely on 13 June 1231. Being one of his listeners, Pope Gregory IX described him as the “Ark of the Testament”. The numerous miracles attributed to his powerful intercession led the Church to officially canonize him in 1232, a year following his death.
One of the most beautiful quotes from his extraordinary homilies is the one taken from the sermon he preached at the Abbey of St Martin in Limoges.
So the religious soul finds in the heart of Jesus a secure refuge against the wiles and attacks of Satan, and a delightful retreat. But we must not rest merely at the entrance to the hole in the rock, we must penetrate its depths. At the mouth of the deep hollow, at the mouth of the wound in his side we shall, indeed, find the precious blood which has redeemed us. This blood pleads for us and demands mercy for us. But the religious soul must not stay at the entrance. When she has heard, and understood, the voice of the divine blood, she must hasten to the very source from which it springs, into the very innermost sanctuary of the heart of Jesus. There she will find light, peace, and ineffable consolations (no.5).
For all these reasons popular piety rightly calls St Anthony glory of the Friars Minor, ark of the testament, sanctuary of heavenly wisdom, destroyer of worldly vanity, conqueror of impurity, example of humility, lover of the Cross, martyr of desire, generator of charity, zealous for justice, terror of infidels, model of perfection, consoler of the afflicted, restorer of lost things, defender of innocence, liberator of prisoners, guide of pilgrims, restorer of health, performer of miracles,restorer of speech to the mute, restorer of hearing to the deaf, restorer of sight to the blind,disperser of devils, reviver of the dead and tamer of tyrants. That is why we pray to St Anthony to deliver us from the snares of the devil, the thunder, lightning and storms, and from all evil of body and soul.
Through your intercession and throughout the course of our life St Anthony protect us, you who are a great saint of the Franciscan movement and of the entire Church! Amen!