Saint Anthony of Padua was already one of his contemporaries master of Christian wisdom and an author of immortal works. Charged with the teaching of theology by Saint Francis of Assisi himself, he is one of the saints most loved and venerated by Catholics.
If we read the story of Saint Anthony of Padua we immediately realise some similarities between him and Saint Francis of Assisi, the saint who will have such an important role in his religious and life experience for Anthony himself.
Born in Lisbon in 1195, he was the firstborn in a noble family. His father Martino Alfonso de’ Buglioni was a knight of the king who boasted descent even from Goffredo di Buglione, the legendary commander of the First Crusade. Anthony was baptised with the name of Fernando, and it is interesting to note that, once he took his vows and changed his name, he chose one that retains the same etymological meaning as his baptismal name. In fact, Fernando means “bold, courageous in peace”, while Anthony means “courageous, invaluable who fights for peace”.
Not that Fernando was a man of war, on the contrary. He was probably initiated into the craft of arms, like all the young people of his social class, and as they could enjoy the fun in vogue at the time. But from a young age he showed a different attitude, more inclined to contemplation and prayer, so much so that, just fifteen years old, he wanted to become part of the regular canons of the Holy Cross, those belonging to the Augustinian order who lived in the Abbey of San Vincenzo in Lisbon.
Fernando did not remain an Augustinian for long. He lived for eight years in the monastery, devoting himself above all to study in the great library and undertaking theological studies. Above all, he did not want to get involved in the internal disagreements of the order, caused by the controversial conduct of the prior. We must bear in mind that the Europe in which Fernando lived was plagued by many problems of political and religious origin. Deep social and cultural changes, the birth of the Communes, the development of commerce, and the birth of the bourgeoisie were transforming the structure of the world. The Church herself experienced profound changes and was shocked by a profound renewal that will lead to the construction of Gothic cathedrals, the prolongation of the Crusades, heresies, an ever-increasing political and secular interference by the Popes, on the one hand, and the birth of new clergy figures linked to a more contemplative and apostolic dimension, from the Augustinians, Dominicans and Franciscans.
In 1219, Fernando had the opportunity to learn the story of five Franciscans, three priests and two lay brothers, sent by Francis of Assisi as missionaries to Morocco, to convert Muslims to Christianity. They also passed through Coimbra, where Ferdinand was staying and had a great ascendancy over him. In particular, when their decapitated bodies were returned to Coimbra, the young priest decided to leave the Augustinian order and enter the Franciscan one, in September 1220. It was then that he changed his baptismal name from Fernando to Anthony, the name of the monk to whom Olivais di Coimbra was dedicated, home of the Portuguese Franciscans. The Franciscans of the Romitorium also joined him, asking to be able to leave as a missionary in Africa.
The bad health, further strained by a tropical fever, forced Anthony to a premature return. But as he sailed to Spain, his ship, caught in a storm, sank on the coasts of eastern Sicily. Here Anthony and Filippino of Castile, the confrere who was travelling with him, learned that Francis had summoned all his brothers on the occasion of Pentecost for a General Chapter that would be held in the valley around the Porziuncola. Anthony and Filippino set out on foot to climb Italy and take part in this exceptional event, which gathered more than three thousand friars and which will be remembered as the Mat Chapter, due to the mat huts built as accommodation for the occasion.
Anthony stayed for the duration of the Chapter, which lasted from 30 May to 8 June 1221. His participation was not very active. He did not take part in the discussions regarding the state of the Order, the new Rule, or the expeditions of missionaries. He stood aside, observing, meditating, but in the end, he was equally noticed by Friar Graziano, supervisor of the Franciscan friars in Romagna. He, struck by his humility and spirituality, took Anthony with him to the hermitage of Montepaolo, near Forlì. Here, Anthony would live for a year together with six other friars, in prayer and penance.
The following year the bishop of Forlì was looking for a new preacher. Anthony spoke before him and all the other priests gathered and enchanted them with his eloquence, wisdom and spirituality. Thus he began to preach through the villages and cities of Romagna. In a time plagued by civil wars, feuds between families and clans, and heresy, Anthony was a bearer of peace, a supporter of balance and gentleness. The only ones against whom he was outraged were those nobles who should have watched over the safety and well-being of ordinary people and instead ignored them thinking only of their interests. To this particular human category, he gave the name of mute dogs and apostrophised them harshly in his Sermons.
Anthony also stood proudly against heretics, strong in his vast theological knowledge and doctrine, the only weapons that could not be opposed against the heretical movements that raged everywhere in the Europe of the time. Inspired by his struggle against heresies, Anthony pointed out the essential need to found the first Franciscan theological studentship in 1223 in Bologna.
Despite his shyness and natural tendency to remain on the sidelines, Anthony still managed to play an important part in the changes that would profoundly change the Franciscan movement in those years. His firm claim to the importance of the study of doctrine was certainly one of the greatest influences. But this did not stop Anthony from preaching, on the contrary, he was ordered to enlarge his area to include Emilia, the Marca Trevigiana, Lombardy and Liguria. It seems that it was while he was in Rimini, dominated by a strong presence of Cathars, who, unheard by the people, decided to turn to the fish of the sea, who rushed around him to listen to his words. In the face of this episode, it is impossible not to think about Saint Francis and his special relationship with animals, and his preaching to birds.
In Bologna, home to one of the most important theological universities of the time, Francis himself entrusted him with the task of studying and spreading theology. Strengthened by this new experience, Anthony later went to France to counteract the heresy of the Cathars and Albigensians. Here, he was awarded the name of the hammer of heretics.
Shortly after Francis’ death, Anthony returned to Italy and participated in the new General Chapter, organised to elect his successor as head of the order. Giovanni Parenti was chosen, who appreciated and esteemed Anthony and who wanted him as provincial minister for northern Italy. With this important position, Anthony visited many cities in northern Italy and eventually decided to elect Padua as his residence. Here he dedicated himself to the drafting of the Sermons, one of the most important theological works of Catholicism, which earned him the title of Doctor of the Church.
He also continued with his work as a preacher, summoning crowds of faithful who came to Padua to meet him and hear him speak.
As a Minister, Anthony continued to lead a humble life, made up of fasting and deprivation, modesty, humility and a deep sense of justice and mercy.
In this regard, he wrote in the Sermons: “The life of the prelate must shine with intimate purity, it must be peaceful with the subjects, which the superior has to reconcile with God and with each other; modest, that is, of irreproachable customs; full of goodness towards the needy. Indeed, the goods he possesses, except what is necessary, belong to the poor, and if he does not give them generously he is a robber, and as a robber, he will be judged. He must govern without duplicity, that is, without partiality, and charge himself with the penance that would be up to others… May the prelates assert their words with the humility of Christ, commanding with kindness and affability, with foresight and understanding. For not in the great wind, not in the noise of the earthquake, not in the fire is the Lord, but in the whisper of a gentle breeze is the Lord.”
Anthony stayed in Padua for the duration of his mandate, also cultivating friendships and valuable relationships with religious people from other orders. When in 1230 his office came to an end he decided to settle here, where he died at the age of thirty-six in the hospice next to the monastery of the Poor Clares in the district of Arcella. It was 13 June 1231, and his canonisation took place the following year, 30 May 1232, by the will of Pope Gregory IX, who had known and greatly appreciated him.
The miracles of Saint Anthony
We have already mentioned the miracle of the fish, when Anthony preached to the fish of the sea, in Rimini, they rushed to listen to him. A miracle that immediately reminds us of Saint Francis of Assisi and in particular the preaching to birds.
The Canticle of the Creatures of St. Francis
St. Francis of Assisi is one of the most loved and venerated saints by the Catholic Church. Close to the poor, brother of the least, he made…
But it was only one of the miracles performed by Saint Anthony, not by chance known as the Saint of Miracles, or the Thaumaturgist, the one who performs miracles.
Let’s take a look at just a few.
There was the miracle of the mule, when Anthony, put to grips by a heretic who denied the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, was challenged to prove the contrary. To do so, the heretic closed a mule for three days of fasting, and then released it in front of a pile of fodder on one side and Anthony with the consecrated host in his hand on the other. Although hungry, the mule ignored the food and knelt before the sacrament of the body of Christ.
In Ferrara, instead, the miracle of the newborn who spoke took place. Urged by the Saint, a newborn child, suspected of being the result of a betrayal, recognised his legitimate father speaking despite having a few days.
The miracle of the bread of the poor had Tommasino as its protagonist, a child of a few months drowned in the water while he was in the house alone. The desperate mother invoked the help of the Holy One promising in return that she would give the poor as much bread as her child’s weight. Thus was born the tradition of pondus pueri: parents invoked the grace of Saint Anthony to protect their children by promising in return the bread for the poor equivalent to their weight. Tommasino came back to life.
The sermons of Saint Anthony
The Sermons (Sermones in medieval Latin, the language in which they are written) are the sum of the doctrinal and theological experience of Saint Anthony. With them the Saint examines all Scripture examining and deepening reading after reading the liturgy of Sunday Mass and feast days.
In fact, we can divide the Sermons into:
We can also consider them an instrument of formation for Christians in general and preachers in particular, because they provide a series of rules of life and good customs, as well as advice on how to teach the doctrine of the Gospel, enhance the sacraments, first of all, the Eucharist, live penance.
Anthony, a refined and elegant writer, dispensed with all his culture this work is rich in citations not only from the Sacred Scriptures but also from classical scholars of natural sciences, such as Aristotle and Solinus.
The six sermons dedicated to the Virgin Mary express a vision of Our Lady imbued with light, joy and life. For Anthony, Maria was a real, vibrant presence, a figure to be honoured every day with a cult full of love and trust.
Love and trust, but also faith and piety, because Anthony is convinced that Mary from heaven watches over all of us, and is willing to lend an ear and heart to anyone who calls for her help.
Marian Sermons can be divided into three groups:
- Mary and God
- Mary and us
- Mary as seen in herself
Anthony dwells on the Annunciation of Mary, on her Assumption into heaven, repeating already known events with an expressive freshness and an unattainable spiritual depth.
Prayer to Saint Anthony of Padua
There are many written prayers to address Saint Anthony. After all, devotion to the Saint began even before his early canonisation. Many have turned to him over the centuries, seeking help and counsel, comfort, as to an older brother who could intercede with God the Father.
We think of the famous Tredicina in Saint Anthony, one of the most famous devotions that are recited for thirteen days in preparation for its feast on 13 June. This devotional form arises from the belief that Saint Anthony grants each day to his thirteen devotees thanks, in addition, more generally, to his intercession with Jesus.
We also remember the prayer Si quaeris (If you look for) composed by Fra Giuliano da Spira two years after the death of the Saint and often sung in the Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua, but not only:
If you seek miracles,
behold, death, and error, and calamities, and the devil, are fled;
behold, the sick are made whole.
The sea calms down, the chains break;
the young and the old ask for and find health and the lost.
The dangers move away, and the necessities disappear:
this is attested by those who have experienced the protection of the Saint of Padua.
Glory to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, a world without end. Amen.