Today is the feast day of St Anthony of Padua.
Anthony was born around 1195 in Lisbon, now in Portugal but then recently freed from Muslim rule. He was part of a rich Portuguese family, but at 15 he chose to enter the Augustinian Abbey of St Vincent, much against his family’s wishes. However, it was the news of the martyrdom of five Franciscans in Morocco at the hands of Muslims, which moved him so deeply that he asked to be released from his Augustinian vows to join the Franciscan order. After this was granted, he sailed to Morocco, but he was taken ill and eventually realised that he needed to go home to Portugal. He never arrived. His ship ran into storms and high winds and was blown east across the Mediterranean. Months later he arrived on the east coast of Sicily. The friars at nearby Messina, though they didn’t know him, welcomed him and began nursing him back to health. His future changed after a chance command to deliver a sermon at the rural hospice of San Paolo, Forli, where he had been admitted as a sickly young friar. News travelled quickly that he was an inspired and gifted preacher.
Eventually he was attached to the general chapter to Pope Gregory IX, after preaching in Lombardy, and attachments to a Franciscan foundation in Arles, as well as teaching at Toulouse and Montpelier Universities. Fr Leonard Foley says:
The problem with many preachers in Anthony’s day was that their life-style contrasted sharply with that of the poor people to whom they preached. In our experience, it could be compared to an evangelist arriving in a slum driving a Mercedes, delivering a homily from his car and speeding off to a vacation resort.Anthony saw that words were obviously not enough. He had to show gospel poverty. People wanted more than self-disciplined, even penitent priests. They wanted genuineness of gospel living. And in Anthony they found it. They were moved by who he was, more than what he said.Despite his efforts, not everyone listened. Legend has it that one day, faced with deaf ears, Anthony went to the river and preached to the fishes. That, reads the traditional tale, got everyone’s attention.Anthony traveled tirelessly in both northern Italy and southern France—perhaps 400 trips—choosing to enter the cities where the heretics were strongest. Yet the sermons he has left behind rarely show him taking direct issue with the heretics. As the historian Clasen interprets it, Anthony preferred to present the grandeur of Christianity in positive ways. It was no good to prove people wrong: Anthony wanted to win them to the right, the healthiness of real sorrow and conversion, the wonder of reconciliation with a loving Father.
In 1226, Anthony was appointed provincial superior of northern Italy. He was based in Padua, which had an important university. During the Lent of 1231, he preached his last and most famous Lenten sermons. The crowds were so great—sometimes 30,000—that the churches could not hold them, so he went into the piazzas or the open fields. People waited all night to hear him. He needed a bodyguard to protect him from the people armed with scissors who wanted to snip off a piece of his habit as a relic. After his morning Mass and sermon, he would hear confessions. This sometimes lasted all day—as did his fasting.
He became ill and retired with two other friars to a retreat, where he dwelled in a cell constructed for him beneath the branches of a walnut tree. He died at the Convent of Poor Clare, Arcella, aged only thirty-six. Legend has it that children cried in the streets at the sad news of his death, and the church bells rang of their own accord.
In less than a year of his death, in one of the fastest beatifications of all time, Pope Gregory IX declared him a saint.
The reason for invoking St. Anthony’s help in finding lost or stolen things is traced back to an incident in his own life. As the story goes, Anthony had a book of psalms that was very important to him. Besides the value of any book before the invention of printing, the psalter had the notes and comments he had made to use in teaching students in his Franciscan Order.
A novice who had already grown tired of living religious life decided to depart the community. Besides going AWOL he also took Anthony’s psalter! Upon realising his psalter was missing, Anthony prayed it would be found or returned to him. And after his prayer the thieving novice was moved to return the psalter to Anthony and return to the Order which accepted him back.