THE LIFE OF SAINT ANTHONY
by John Cooper ofm cap.
Anthony was born at Lisbon in Portugal in 1195.(1) He was baptised “Fernando” in the Cathedral Church of old Lisbon. On the font is written: “Here the waters of holy baptism cleansed Anthony from all stain of original sin. The world rejoices in his light, Padua in his body, heaven in his soul.” (2)
His father, was a revenue officer and knight (3) at the court of Alfonso II, king of Portugal. When Fernando was 15 years old, he joined the community of Canons Regular of St Augustine in Lisbon. However, because of the constant visits of his family, he asked to be moved to another house of the Order.
At seventeen he was transferred, more than 175km away, to the Augustinian Monastery of Santa Cruz at Coimbra which was renowned for its biblical scholarship. Here he spent nine years in intense study. There is every indication that during this time he learned the Sacred Scriptures off by heart. However, it is possible that he was not ordained during this period as it was a custom of the time to be ordained at the age of thirty.(4)
When he was 25 years old he was inspired to die for Christ by the martyrdom of the first Franciscan Friars whose bodies were brought back from Morocco to Coimbra where he was studying. He was deeply affected by their deaths because five months before, he had been guest master and looked after these same friars and knew them by name. Berard, Peter and Otto, were priests; Adiuto and Accursio were brothers. They had tried out of love to convert the Sultan of Morrocco and gave their lives for the sake of the Gospel. Fernando also wanted to die for Christ. In his enthusiasm he went to the Franciscan Friary at Coimbra, and said to the friars, “If I may go to Morocco and imitate these brothers, I will gladly join you.”
Soon after, with the reluctant permission of his Augustinian superior he joined the Franciscan Friars taking the name “Anthony” after the patron of the friary at Coimbra called St Anthony of the Olives. Anthony probably took vows immediately as there was no novitiate at that time.(5) Within a few months he was sailing for Morocco to achieve his dream of martyrdom.
However, God had other plans for this generous young man. Soon he became so ill with malarial fever that it was necessary for him to set sail for home. On the return voyage a violent storm arose and the ship had to turn and run before the wind. They were blown all the way to Sicily where they found safety in the harbour at Messina. In this city Anthony found a group of Franciscan Friars and hearing of a great meeting of the friars at Pentecost he happily accompanied these friars north to Assisi.There on the 23rd of May, 1221(6) he attended the great Chapter of Mats and was one unknown, new, foreign friar among the thousands gathered for the meeting.
St Francis was very ill during the meeting and he had to whisper to Br Elias his Vicar, who then shouted out Francis’ admonitions to the friars. No doubt St Anthony saw St Francis and was inspired by him, but it is not recorded that they met at this time. As the Chapter broke up St Anthony was ignored by everyone. None of the Provincials really wanted this foreign friar. For some reason St Anthony did not impress anyone. Was it simply humility? Was he distracted? His biographers say that he looked rather simple and even stupid.(7)
We can only guess at the poignancy of this moment. Perhaps St Anthony, thwarted in his desire for martyrdom, discovered in the poverty and simplicity of St Francis, a new way to achieve his goal of martyrdom. He had died to his family and his country; now he could die to himself. He could enter into the spirituality of Martyrdom which St Francis himself was perfecting in the furnace of love and self sacrifice. To grasp this better it is necessary to study the Admonitions of St Francis which St Anthony would have heard at this great Chapter of Mats. Thus we might understand that St Anthony did not so much seek to hide his talents at this point in time, but to die to them. Perhaps he did this because that is what he thought the Lord wanted him to do.
Finally as all the friars were leaving he caught the attention of Friar Gratian, Provincial of Romagna (North Italy), who sent him to a small hermitage at Monte-Paolo near Forli. In this small fraternity he lived a simple life doing menial tasks like cleaning and gardening, setting tables and washing dishes. He was known only as a simple brother who lived cheerfully among his brethren in contemplation and fraternity; in poverty and joy – for 12 months.
In 1222, when St Anthony was 27 years old, a number of Dominicans and Franciscans were ordained by Bishop Ricciardellus Belmonti. St Anthony was present at the reception given at the Dominican Priory after the ordinations. It seems that the preacher who was to speak at this occasion did not arrive, so the provincial asked if someone else would give a short sermon to suit the occasion. No one was willing to just get up in front of such a group and preach, so they all declined the invitation. The provincial then ordered Br Anthony to say a few simple words.
It is said that he began to speak slowly at first and then more steadily. As he began to speak his words captured their imagination and their hearts caught fire under the power of the Holy Spirit. When he was finished all the friars realized that they were in the presence of a brilliant and powerful preacher. It was a dramatic moment. If Friar Anthony had not been ordained by this time his ordination would have occurred shortly after.
St Anthony was one of God’s surprises for St Francis. The founder of the Franciscans had a deep suspicion of learning and he manifested this quite clearly. For St Francis a “spirit of prayer and devotion” was more important than work, study or even preaching. However once the friars recognised St Anthony’s tremendous knowledge they asked him to teach them. He asked permission of St Francis first. Calling St Anthony “my bishop” out of respect, because a bishop is the teacher and guardian of the flock, St Francis wrote:
Brother Francis wishes health to Brother Anthony, my bishop. It pleases me that you teach sacred theology to the brothers, as long as – in the words of the Rule – you “do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion” with study of this kind.
One would think that the study of Theology and Scripture would lead to a “Spirit of prayer and devotion” but St Francis instinctively knew better and warned St Anthony to be discerning of the hearts of his students while he was teaching them.
From the time of his first sermon Anthony was always on the road, devoting his time and talents to the work of preaching and teaching. His fame spread quickly and soon he was commissioned by St Francis to preach everywhere. He journeyed to many places in Italy and also to many parts of Southern France on what became an evangelical crusade. His brilliant sermons and special style drew such huge crowds that the churches could not hold the people who came to hear him. A platform had to be set up outside in the town square because of the number of people who came to hear him speak. Soon the platform had to be built outside the town and cities. Eventually ten, twenty and thirty, thousand people were attending his sermons. At the news of his coming, shops were shuttered, markets suspended, and law courts closed. During the night before the sermon, the whole countryside became alive with flitting lights as people began to converge from all sides to the place he was to preach.
His sermons were electrifying, not simply because he was a good speaker: poise, delivery, conviction, personal charm, amazing memory, mastery of theology, scripture and various sciences, but also because he made a virulent attack on the prevalent sins of contemporary high society; their greed, their luxurious living, their tyranny. He spoke pointedly to Bishops and priests if he knew of their failure to live up to the high standards of their calling and especially when they failed to defend the flock given into their care. He called on those who were listening to repent and to face up to the challenge of living a Christian life. He and the friars with him spent a great deal of time after his sermons hearing confession.
Against heretics, St Anthony backed up his arguments with an amazing knowledge of Sacred Scripture. He presented the faith in a positive way capturing the imagination of the people. When heretics would not listen, he got their attention with miracles. At Rimini, a town on the Adriatic Sea, the people would not listen to him, so he turned towards the water and preached to the fish. Along with St Francis’ preaching to the birds it remains one of the most delightful stories from the lives of the saints.
We have two volumes of St Anthony’s sermons for Sundays and Feastdays, however they are not the ones he preached, but rather sermon notes for other preachers to use. In these he made abundant use of nature which he used as symbols. He often used the symbol of fire for “love and devotion” and in art he is sometimes shown holding a flame. In one of his sermons he writes, “When the Holy Spirit enters a soul, He fills it with his fire and lets it enkindle others.”
As well as his preaching Anthony was Guardian and minister over different friaries in France. It was when he was at Arles in France that St Francis appeared to the friars while St Anthony was conducting a Local Chapter. He was seen to appear in the doorway with his arms uplifted in the sign of the cross. It was a case of bilocation since St Francis was still alive and in Assisi at the time. After the death of St Francis, St Anthony was recalled to Italy and he became Provincial at Romagna in northern Italy. In 1228 he preached in Rome before Pope Gregory IX and also to the clergy and the people. Pope Gregory was so impressed that he called St Anthony an “Armory of the Bible.” He declared that he was sure that if all the bibles in the world were lost Friar Anthony could surely rewrite them.
At the turbulent General Chapter of the friars in 1230, St Anthony was elected to be included in a delegation that went before the Pope to ask for an explanation of the Rule and Testament of St Francis. The friars wanted to know if they were bound to obey the Testament of St Francis and if they had to live the whole Gospel or simply what was in the Rule. On September 28th 1230 Pope Gregory IX replied in the Bull Quo Elongati that 1. St Francis’ Testament had no binding power on the friars. 2. That only the evangelical counsels expressed in the Rule were binding on the friars.
Anthony’s last sermons were preached in lent in Padua. During this time there was a complete uproar in the city because the citizens could not provide enough accommodation or food for the crowds that invaded the city to hear him preach. The effect of his preaching in Padua was amazing: Quarrels were patched up, mortal enemies were reconciled, poor debtors were released from prison, restitution was made of illgotten goods, immoral men and women reformed their lives, thieves and criminals changed their ways, and the public life of Padua was very much improved.
After Easter, he and his companions went to a country estate to rest. There Anthony found a giant walnut tree which had six branches growing upward from the crown. With a sense of amusement like small boys the friars bound the branches together with woven willows and roofed it over with rushes to make a cool airy cell for the tired preacher.
Anthony was very ill. His years of preaching had worn him out and he had developed dropsy, which made breathing difficult. He had been finding it increasingly difficult to get about because his body had swollen up and refused to respond. On June 13th 1231 he knew he was dying, and because he did not wish to be a lot of trouble to his friend whose estate he was staying at, he asked the brothers if they would take him back to Padua. The Friars placed him on a peasant’s cart drawn by an ox and began the sorrowful journey back to the city. It was summer and with all the dust and heat he was soon unable to speak. They halted at the convent of the Poor Clares at Arcella. There they placed him upright again so as to help him breathe. He began to chant a Lauds hymn and so singing with the brothers and sisters, he died. He was only 36 years old.
The friars thought to bring the body of St Anthony quietly back to Padua to their convent, but children began running through the street crying out, “The holy father is dead; St Anthony is dead!”
For four days the people of Arcella and Capo di Ponte, where he died, tried to keep his remains. They blocked the bridge over the river and cut down a temporary one that was erected, but eventually, the Mayor of Padua outwitted them and the Bishop Jacopo Corrado, the clergy and the friars, and a procession of thousands of people brought he “Saint” back into the city of Padua.
Crowds of people poured into the Franciscan church to pray to the “Saint” and a steady stream of miracles caused a wave of enthusiasm among the populace. People flocked from all over the countryside to visit the tomb. The Bishop, the senate, the knights and university students, formed a council to put some order into these noisy gatherings. People started bringing candles to burn. Before the month was over the city of Padua sent requests for Anthony to be listed among the Saints.
St. Anthony’s canonization was one of the fastest on record. It took less than 12 months. He was canonised in the town of Spoleto by Pope Gregory IX on the 30th of May 1232. Of the 56 miracles accepted for his canonization only one was noted as having occurred during his life time. Perhaps the speed of his canonization process did not allow all the evidence of his miracles to be collected. When his body was exhumed to be transferred it was found that although his body had disintegrated his tongue was whole, life-like and of a natural colour. St Bonaventure, then the Minister General, seeing this miracle cried out, “O blessed tongue, you have always praised the Lord and led others to praise him! Now we can clearly see how great indeed have been your merits before God.”
- The year of his birth is disputed. Some say 1190. His date of birth is unknown, but because of his devotion to the Assumption it is given as the 15th of August. Text
- Fr Ambrose Ryan ofm. St Anthony of Padua A.C.T.S. Publications May 1984 notes this inscription and suggests that St Anthony’s surname was “Bulhom”. Text
- Charles Warren Stoddard Saint Anthony the Wonder-Worker of Padua Tan Books Rockford, Illinois 1971. This work is a reprint of an earlier work published in 1896 no doubt in honour of St Anthony’s 700 Anniversary. It gives St Anthony’s father as Don Martino de Bouillon who was descended from the illustrious Godfrey de Bouillon, who led the first Crusade and was the first Frankish King of Jerusalem. This Godfrey was the grandson of Vincenzo de Bouillon, who followed King Alfonso I in his campaign against the Moors and was made governor of Lisbon. This office became hereditary and St Anthony was heir to it. Anthony’s mother is given as Dona Teresa whose family reigned over the Asturias in the eighth century before the invasion of the Saracens. Text
- Exactly when St Anthony was ordained a priest is disputed. Was he ordained while he was an Augustinian Canon? Was he ordained before the Chapter of Mats? Was he ordained after he surprised the friars with his first brilliant sermon? Text
- The Bull: Cum secundum consilium, prescribes a novitiate but it was promulgated on the 22nd of September 1220 and by that time Anthony had already entered the Order. Text
- It was called the Chapter of Mats because over three thousand friars attended and there was no where to house them so they slept outside on mats. Text
- His early biographer, Friar John Pecham, himself a famous scholar, wrote, “No Provincial thought of asking for him.” Text