By Ridley Casie Chitty
Most people know Saint Anthony of Padua as the saint who helps find lost and stolen items, but have you ever wondered why he is that particular patron saint?
The patron saint of lost things: The reason for seeking St. Anthony’s help in finding lost or stolen items dates back to an incident in his own life. According to the story, Anthony had a book of psalms. You must remember that this was before the era of printing and therefore all books had great value; in addition, the psalter contained the notes and commentaries he made for use in teaching the students of his Franciscan Order.
A novice already tired of living a religious life decides to leave the community. Besides leaving without official permission, he also took Anthony’s Psalter! Upon realizing that his psalter was missing, Anthony prayed for it to be found or returned to him, and after his prayer the novice thief was urged to return the psalter to Anthony and return to the Order, who accepted. The legend has somewhat embroidered this story. She has the novice stopped in his flight by a horrible demon, brandishing an ax and threatening to trample him underfoot if he does not immediately return the book. Obviously, a devil would hardly command anyone to do anything right, but the heart of the story would appear to be true. The stolen book would be kept at the Franciscan convent in Bologna. Anyway, soon after his death, people started praying through Antoine to find or recover lost and stolen items. And the “Response of Saint Anthony” composed by his contemporary and brother brother, Julien de Spires, proclaims: “The sea obeys and the chains break/And you restore lifeless limbs/As lost treasures are found/When young or old your help cries.”
Before becoming Antoine de Padoue: Anthony of Padua was born Fernando Martins de Bulhões on August 15, 1195 in Lisbon, Portugal. He was from a very wealthy noble family who wanted him to be educated, and they arranged for him to be educated at the local cathedral school. Against his family’s wishes, however, at the age of 15 he entered the community of canons regular at the Abbey of Saint Vincent on the outskirts of Lisbon. Life in the monastery was neither peaceful for young Fernando nor conducive to prayer and study as his old friends frequently came to visit and engaged in heated political discussions.
But the canons were famous for their dedication to study, and seeing the potential in young Fernando, they sent the youngsters to their main center of study, the Abbey of the Holy Cross in Coimbra. There young Fernando studied theology and Latin. He began nine years of intense study, learning Augustinian theology which he would later combine with the Franciscan vision.
Join the Franciscans: After his priestly ordination, Fernando was appointed guest master and responsible for the hospitality of the abbey. It was in this capacity, in 1219, that he came into contact with five Franciscan friars who went to Morocco to preach the Gospel to the Muslims there. Fernando was strongly attracted to the simple, evangelical lifestyle of the friars, whose order had only been founded 11 years previously. In February of the following year, news arrived that the five Franciscans had been martyred in Morocco, the first to be killed in their new order.
Seeing their bodies as they were brought back to Assisi, Fernando pondered the heroism of these men; inspired by their example and aspiring to the same gift of martyrdom, he obtained permission from the ecclesiastical authorities to leave the Augustinian canons to join the new Franciscan order. Upon his admission into the life of the brothers, he joined the small hermitage of Olivais, adopting the name of Antoine (from the name of the chapel therein, dedicated to Saint Anthony the Great), by which he was to be known. Brother Antoine then left for Morocco in fulfillment of his new vocation. Illness, however, stopped him in his journey. At this point he decided to head for Italy, the center of his new order.
Find your place among the Franciscans: During the trip there, his ship was pushed by a storm on the coast of Sicily and he landed at Messina. From Sicily he went to Tuscany, where he was assigned to a house of the order, but he encountered difficulties because of his sickly appearance. He was eventually assigned, out of pure compassion, to the rural hospice of San Paolo, near Forlì, in Romagna, a choice made after considering his poor health. There he seems to have lived as a hermit and was put to work in the kitchen, while being allowed to devote much time to private prayer and study.
One day, on the occasion of an ordination, many people visiting Dominican friars were present, and there was a misunderstanding about who should preach. The Franciscans naturally expected one of the Dominicans to occupy the pulpit, as they were renowned for their preaching; the Dominicans, on the other hand, had come unprepared, thinking that a Franciscan would be the homilist. In this dilemma, the head of the hermitage, who had none among his humble brethren fit for the occasion, appealed to Antony, whom he considered most qualified, and begged him to say all that the Holy Spirit would put in his mouth. Anthony objected but was overruled, and his sermon made a deep impression. Not only his rich voice and striking mannerisms, but the whole theme and substance of his speech and his moving eloquence captured the attention of his listeners. At that time, Anthony was commissioned by Brother Gratian, the local provincial minister, to preach the Gospel throughout the Lombardy region of northern Italy. As such, he caught the attention of the order’s founder, Francis of Assisi.
Public preacher, Franciscan teacher: Anthony’s superior, St. Francis, was cautious in education, as his protege possessed. He had seen too many theologians pride themselves on their sophisticated knowledge leading to an abandonment of their commitment to a life of true poverty. In Anthony, however, he found a kindred spirit for his vision, who was also able to provide the necessary teaching for young members of the order who might seek ordination. Francis wrote in 1224: “It pleases me that you teach the brothers sacred theology, provided that in such studies they do not destroy the spirit of holy prayer and devotion, as contained in the Rule. He thus entrusts the continuation of the studies of each of his brothers to the care of Brother Antoine. From then on, his skills were used to the maximum by the Church. From time to time he took another post, as a teacher, for example, at the universities of Montpellier and Toulouse in the south of France, but it was as a preacher that Antoine revealed his supreme gift.Anthony first taught in a convent in Bologna, which became a famous school. The theology book of the time was the Bible. In an extant sermon by the saint, there are at least 183 passages of scripture. Although none of his theological lectures and discussions have been written down, we have two volumes of his sermons: the Sunday Sermons and the Feast Day Sermons. His method included much of allegory and symbolic explanation of Scripture.
Anthony continued to preach by teaching the brothers and took on more responsibilities within the Order. In 1226 he was appointed provincial superior of northern Italy, but still found time for contemplative prayer in a small hermitage. Around Easter in 1228 (he was only 33), while in Rome, he met Pope Gregory IX, who had been a faithful friend and adviser to St. Francis. Naturally, the famous preacher was invited to speak. He did it humbly, as always. The response was so great that people later said it seemed like the miracle of Pentecost had repeated itself. 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. This, the traditional tale reads, caught everyone’s attention.
Death: Anthony fell ill with edema, and in 1231 went to the woods retreat at Camposampiero with two other brothers for respite. There Anthony lived in a cell built for him under the branches of a walnut tree. Antony died on his way back to Padua on 13 June 1231 at the Monastery of the Poor Clares of Arcella (now part of Padua), aged 36.
Various legends surround Anthony’s death: It is said that when he died, children cried in the streets and all the church bells rang on their own. Another legend concerns his language. Anthony is buried in a chapel in the great basilica built to honor him, where his tongue is displayed for veneration in a large reliquary. When his body was exhumed 30 years after his death, it was found to have turned back to dust, but the tongue would have glowed and appeared to still be alive and moist; apparently another claim was made that this was a sign of his preaching gift.
Teacher, preacher, doctor of scriptures: Among the Franciscans themselves, and in the liturgy of his feast, Saint Anthony is celebrated as an extraordinary teacher and preacher. He was the first teacher of the Franciscan Order, having received the special approval and blessing of Saint Francis to instruct his Franciscan brothers. His effectiveness as a preacher, calling people back to the faith, resulted in the title “Hammer of Heretics”. Equally important were his skills as a peacemaker and his calls for justice.
When canonizing Antony in 1232, Pope Gregory IX spoke of him as the “Arch of the Testament” and the “Repository of the Holy Scriptures”. This explains why Saint Anthony is frequently depicted with a light on or a book of scripture in his hands. In 1946, Pope Pius XII officially declared Anthony a Doctor of the Universal Church. It is in Anthony’s love for the word of God and his prayerful efforts to understand it and apply it to situations of daily life that the Church especially wants us to imitate Saint Anthony. While noting in its feast prayer the effectiveness of Anthony as an intercessor, the Church wants us to learn from Anthony, the teacher, the meaning of true wisdom and what it means to become like Jesus, who humbled himself and emptied himself for us and went about doing good.
But since the 17th century, we most often find the saint represented with the child Jesus in his arms or with the child standing on a book held by the saint. A story of Saint Anthony told in the complete edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saints (edited, revised and completed by Herbert Anthony Thurston, SJ, and Donald Attwater) projects in the past a visit of Antoine to the Lord of Chatenauneuf. Anthony was praying late at night when suddenly the room was filled with a light brighter than the sun. Jesus then appeared to Saint Anthony in the form of a little child. Chatenauneuf, attracted by the brilliant light that filled his house, was drawn to the vision but promised not to tell anyone until after Saint Anthony’s death.
Saint Anthony and the Lys: Most images of Saint Anthony of Padua depict him holding the Christ Child and with lilies. It is part of the tradition of Christian art to use lilies as a symbol of purity when depicting Our Lady or saints and even angels.