St. Anthony of Padua preached the ‘grandeur of Christianity’

Father John A. Kiley

St. Anthony of Padua, whose feast is June 13, is often depicted holding an open Bible on which the Christ child sits with a hand raised in blessing. The tender image does not commemorate an event in the saint’s life but rather the saint’s whole life. The Lisbon-born saint, although fondly invoked as the finder of lost articles, is properly recalled as a scriptural scholar. As art tries to illustrate, when St. Anthony read, pondered and prayed the Bible, he truly encountered Jesus. The Bible is God’s living word in print as Jesus is God’s living Word in flesh. In accord with the saint’s appreciation of finding God in Scripture, Pope Pius XII in 1946 proclaimed St. Anthony to be a Doctor of the Church, with the designation “Evangelical Doctor,” recalling the brightness and brilliance of the Gospel analyses that emerge from his writings.
St. Anthony was born Fernando Martins de Bulhœs on August 15, 1195, in Lisbon, Portugal. At the age of 15, he entered the Augustinian Canons Regular near Lisbon. In 1212, distracted by frequent visits from family and friends, he asked to be transferred to the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Coimbra where he was ironically placed in charge of hospitality. While he was in Coimbra, Franciscan Friars settled nearby at a hermitage dedicated to St. Anthony of the Desert. Fernando was strongly attracted to the friars’ simple evangelical lifestyle. The Franciscans had been founded only 11 years.
When news arrived that five Franciscans martyrs had been beheaded in Morocco, Fernando obtained permission to leave the Canons Regular to join the new Franciscan foundation. He entered at a small hermitage in Olivais, adopting the name Anthony after Anthony of the Desert. He then set out for Morocco. Falling seriously ill in Morocco, he sailed back for Portugal to regain his health but his ship sailed off course and he landed in Sicily. Still in poor health, he headed north, reaching a rural hermitage in Romagna. There he had recourse to a cell a friar had made in a cave, spending time in private prayer and study.
In 1222, his impromptu sermon at an ordination created a deep impression on his audience. All were moved by his rich voice, his arresting manner, the substance of his talk, and his knowledge of Scripture. St. Anthony was then sent to Bologna where he came to the attention of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis held a strong distrust of theological studies in the life of his brotherhood, fearing it might lead them to abandon their commitment to real poverty and service. In St. Anthony, however, he found a kindred spirit who shared his vision and could also provide teaching to members of the order seeking ordination. In 1224, St. Francis entrusted the pursuit of studies for any of his friars to the care of St. Anthony.
According to historians, St. Anthony preached “the grandeur of Christianity.” His method included an allegorical and symbolical explanation of Scripture. In 1226, after attending the general chapter of his order at Arles and preaching in Provence, both in France, St. Anthony returned to Italy and was appointed Provincial Superior of northern Italy. He chose the city of Padua as his location. In 1228, he served as envoy from the Franciscans to Pope Gregory IX. At the papal court, his preaching was hailed as a “jewel case of the Bible” and he was commissioned to produce a collection of talks, “Sermons for Feast Days.” Gregory IX described St. Anthony as the “Ark of the Testament.”
The traditional practice of praying for St. Anthony’s help in finding lost articles is traced to an incident in Bologna. St. Anthony had a book of Psalms that was important to him, since it contained his notes and comments used in teaching. A novice who left had taken the psalter with him. A Franciscan friar, given the vow of poverty, would have found such a book difficult to replace. When St. Anthony realized his psalter was missing, he prayed for its return. The thief was moved both to return the book to Anthony and to return to the order. The stolen book is preserved in the Franciscan friary in Bologna.
St. Anthony died in Padua on June 13, 1231, at the age of 35. Upon his death, St. Anthony’s tongue, jaw and vocal cords were chosen as relics for later veneration in a large reliquary. His body was buried in the small church of Santa Maria Mater Domini in Padua, near a convent he had founded. Thirty years later, the tongue still glistened as if it were part of a live body, a tribute to his gift of preaching. Due to his increasing celebrity, a large basilica was begun in 1232 and completed in 1301. The older burial church was incorporated into the larger structure as the Chapel of the Dark Madonna. St. Anthony was canonized by Pope Gregory IX on May 30, 1232, less than a year after his death.