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The Legend of Saint Anthony

By Edited Jun 8, 2015 2 0
 
With the Christ Child
 
St. Anthony, St. Anthony
Turn around,
Something is lost
That needs to be found.
 
Millions of people around the world are taught this rhyme in childhood. St. Anthony, whose death and feast day is June 13, is relied upon to help us find what we have lost. Items large and small are said to have been found after contacting St. Anthony. Instead of asking Anthony to find us something, let us try to find out about the life of this most interesting saint, and the legends that surround him . 
 
Although Pope Leo XIII declared him "the saint of the whole world,” St. Anthony is usually linked to Padua, Italy. He is known as “Saint Anthony of Padua” everywhere but in Portugal (and South America), where he is known as "St. Anthony of Lisbon." Portugal’s claim on Anthony relies on these facts: he spent all but the last ten years of his life there, and was - quite literally - born and raised in the shadow of the Lisbon Cathedral.
Lisbon
 
Lisbon’s Cathedral provided shade for Anthony’s home, and refuge for his family when the Moors sailed up the Iberian Coast to raid Portugal. The Moors had occupied Lisbon from 716 until 1145, when an army of Crusaders and Portuguese drove them out. The Moors remained fond enough of Lisbon to try reclaiming it, though without success. The very name Lisbon denotes Moorish influence. They named the city Al Aschbuna (a variation of the Phoenician title Alisubbo, or “friendly bay”). Over time the city became known as Lissabona, then Lisboa in Portuguese, Lisbon in English.
 
The Portugal of Anthony’s day was still fending off the Moors, which may account for Anthony’s parents naming him Ferdinand, after Ferdinand the Great, the Portuguese version of El Cid, who led the Reconquista that reclaimed Portugal for the Portuguese. Ferdinand (Anthony) de Bulhoes’ parents are alternately depicted as descendants of warriors and royalty, or as being poor and humble. The latter is more likely true, as historians note that homes along the west side of the Cathedral, like Ferdinand’s, were humble dwellings.
 
Because of his later miracles, St. Anthony’s childhood has been posthumously painted with legends of miracles, many of which were (dubiously) discovered centuries after his death. On the other hand, given his title of ‘Wonder-Worker,’ a presumption of childhood miracles is at least logical. What we know for facts, however, is that Ferdinand’s early years were marked by the Moorish threat; by unruly Crusaders who at times overstayed their welcome; by plagues, epidemics, crop blights, and famines; and by weather disasters - earthquakes, floods, even total eclipses of the Sun on two successive years. Things were so chaotic that the country’s capital remained at the fortress of Coimbra, instead of returning to Lisbon.
 
 The Augustinian
 
Ferdinand was sixteen when he passed through the iron gate of Lisbon. A short walk brought him to Saint Vincent’s, where in 1210 he applied for admission to the Order of Canons Regular of St. Augustine. That he was accepted at such a young age, apparently with no patron, may be evidence that young Ferdinand was already advanced in sanctity.
 
The Augustinian Rule required intensive study of the sacred sciences, blended with prayer, contemplation, and service to the poor. Ferdinand found himself visited frequently by friends and family, and this proved a distraction, particularly when he was urged to leave religious life and apply his talents in a secular direction. In 1212 his superior allowed him to transfer to Santa Croce, the Augustinian monastery in Coimbra. 
 
Ferdinand spent eight years at Coimbra, immersing himself in a life of prayer, contemplation, and study. He became a scholar and an intellectual. Blessed with a remarkable memory, he also displayed an aptitude for all branches of theology. 
 
Although it is disputed by some Franciscans, it is likely he was ordained in Coimbra. It is undisputed that at Coimbra Ferdinand met his first Franciscans. They came from a nearby convent, dusty, penniless, barefoot, and cheerful.  Clad in coarse gray tunics with hemp ropes, they begged alms from the Augustinians. One day five Franciscans stopped at Santa Croce on their way to Morocco to evangelize Muslims. Ferdinand made their acquaintance. The five knew not a word of Arabic but were determined to die as martyrs for the faith. 
 
The Franciscans took a boat to Morocco and began evangelizing. Twice attempts were made to deport them, but they eluded the deportation and continued publicly denouncing Mahomet as “a vile slave of the devil.” They were tortured and ordered to renounce their God. They refused and were beheaded. 
 
The remains of the first five Protomartyrs of the Franciscan Order (SS. Berard, Peter, Otho, Adjutus, and Accursius) were brought back to Portugal amid many solemn processions, and received a royal welcome at the Augustinian Priory of Santa Croce, where they were entombed. It proved a turning point in Ferdinand’s religious career. He asked the Franciscans if he could join their order, on one condition: that he be allowed to travel immediately to Morocco to be martyred.
 
The Franciscan Order at the time was very loosely structured, and Ferdinand was allowed to join, after getting permission from his Abbott. The permission was readily given, which seems a bit curious. One would think his Abbott would have been reluctant to lose the talented and pious Ferdinand, or would have at least made Ferdinand make a retreat to test his new vocation.
 
But Ferdinand’s Abbott appears to have been a rather worldly sort who aroused the suspicions of popes Innocent III and Honorius (both investigated the Abbott concerning some startling charges), and may have also aroused the indignation of Ferdinand, at least judging by one of his sermons while at Santa Croce, in which Ferdinand declared that “the devil gains more souls through the bad example of prelates than he does through the bad example of all others.” So perhaps the Abbott was not distressed at losing Ferdinand.
 
The Franciscan
 
In leaving the Augustinians for the Franciscans, Ferdinand gave up an ordered life for a disordered one; quiet scholarly pursuits in the cloister for a life outdoors with no guarantee of shelter at night; companionship with scholars for companions who were by comparison practically illiterate; and his homeland of Portugal for unknown lands. Another change he made was his name. For the last ten years of his life he would be known as Brother Anthony.
 
Anthony’s namesake was St. Anthony of Egypt, who lived a solitary life of prayer, severe penance, and fasting before founding monasteries in Egypt that still exist today. Anthony of Egypt lived to be one hundred and five on a diet of old bread. He fought against the Arian heresy with St. Athanasius, who wrote a biography of St. Anthony of Egypt that greatly influenced St. Augustine, and consequently, the Augustinian Order.
 
Brother Anthony adapted quickly to Franciscan life, and within a few months left Portugal forever for Morocco and martyrdom. Since Francis of Assisi wanted his spiritual children to travel like the Apostles in the Gospels, two by two, Anthony had a traveling companion. Upon arriving at Morocco Brother Anthony was immediately “smitten with a grievous illness which lasted all winter, giving him no respite whatsoever.” He languished for months, and probably would have died without the care given him by his fellow friar. 
 
It became evident Brother Anthony would not recover in Morocco. He decided, against his will, to return to Portugal. Some accounts have it Anthony’s companion returning with him. Other accounts have the companion being martyred in Anthony’s stead. In either case, Anthony left Morocco crestfallen, cursing his weak flesh, and pondering Providence.
 
Storm at sea
 His boat encountered a fierce storm. Below deck in his dark room Brother Anthony felt the boat lurch, heard the wind and waves roar, and listened to the wood creak and crack. Driven off course by the gale, the boat foundered on the eastern coast of Sicily. Anthony staggered inland for some miles, searching for life. To his surprise he stumbled into a community of Franciscans living in straw roofed huts. 
 
It was here, near the town of Messina, that Brother Anthony finally recovered from his illness. He did not speak the Italian dialect of his fellow Franciscans, and they did not speak Portuguese. After two months the Sicilian friars left on a two hundred league journey to Assisi for a General Chapter of the Franciscan Order to be convened by Francis himself. Brother Anthony walked silently among them. His silence continued at the General Chapter, which focused on the growing pains of the Franciscan Order. Afterwards all the friars were given assignments, except for Anthony, “an insignificant novice whom nobody knew,” who “was judged useless and remained unclaimed, unwanted by any.” 
 
The Chapter broke up and the friars left on their assignments. Brother Anthony stood alone. He pulled on the sleeve of the friar nearest him, and asked (in Latin) if he could follow him. The friar, Brother Graziano, asked if Anthony was a priest. He answered yes. It happened that Brother Graziano, the Minister for Romagna, needed a priest to celebrate Mass for a group of lay brothers in Montepaolo, so he allowed Anthony to accompany him. Anthony “said not a word of his studies, nor of the services he had performed,” wrote his earliest biographer. “His only desire was to follow Jesus Christ and Him Crucified.”
 
Anthony’s silence continued in Montepaolo. He asked permission to live in a nearby cave as a hermit, and this was granted, with the stipulation that he offer daily Sacraments to the lay brothers. Brother Anthony settled into his grotto with his daily piece of bread and water, “and there he passed the day, teaching the flesh to obey the spirit.” Sometimes his penances were so severe the lay brothers had to come and  carry him down the hill for Compline. When he was among the brothers he volunteered to perform the most menial tasks, and was relied upon to wash dishes and scrub the kitchen floor.
 
Finding St. Anthony
 
A year later the community traveled to Forli for ordinations. Brother Anthony went with them, although had he known he was about to be found he may well have stayed in his cave. 
 
Although it was customary to have a sermon at ordinations, this detail had been overlooked. Father Graziano requested several friars to speak a few well chosen words, but all seemed stricken with unusual modesty, even for Franciscans. Graziano eventually became desperate enough to ask Brother Anthony to speak. Anthony demurred but Graziano persisted, and since his request now seemed a matter of obedience, Anthony rose to speak.
 
He mumbled some opening remarks. The friars understood his topic to be “Christ became obedient for us unto death, even unto the death of the Cross.” Brother Anthony’s voice gradually became more distinct, even resonant. He quoted Scripture and commentary from Church fathers. He was now clear and concise, and there was an unction to his words that stirred the hearts of his audience.
 
When Brother Anthony finished his remarks, his fellow Franciscans were “stupefied at such totally unexpected eloquence and evidence of learning.” They had viewed Anthony as a pious but odd little foreigner, who was good at menial chores but very quiet and reclusive - on the whole, undistinguished. 
 
Father Graziano took credit for finding St. Anthony. It was rare, even a “great cause for wonder and consolation that Brother Anthony should unite in himself two gifts not usually found together in one man - humility and learning.” Graziano gave Anthony the “obedience” of preaching, thus ending his hidden life of penance and contemplation. He was sent from town to town, to instruct and to fight heresy.
Saint Anthony
 
Preaching was a skill undeveloped in many Franciscans, who modeled themselves after their founder, who tended to be spontaneous and ardent. Brother Anthony combined Francis’ zeal with a thorough knowledge of Scripture and the Church Fathers, and an engaging style.  The Franciscan Pere Callebaut says: ‘ Neither sanctity nor science were infused into him on entering the Friars Minor. Under the guidance of generous and faithful brethren his initiation and first steps in the ways of holiness and in the science of theology took place in the monasteries of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine.‘ 
 
Although Anthony’s preaching began in Italy, his varied audiences had no trouble understanding him, even though there were numerous different dialects even in one region. Perhaps Anthony’s ease in making himself understood was due to the gift of tongues some writers have credited him with. Or perhaps once Anthony realized he was supposed to be preaching, he used his remarkable memory and intellectual skill to master the various dialects of his listeners. 
 
One of St. Anthony’s first legends occurred when he came to preach in a town called Rimini. What follows sounds fantastic to modern ears, but I can only relate the legend as it is. A doubter challenged Anthony: he would withhold food from his mule for three days. Then the doubter would present his animal with a choice: a pile of hay or Anthony holding the Blessed Sacrament. If the hungry mule adored the Blessed Sacrament instead of the hay, the doubter swore he would convert. 
 
On the third day a crowd gathered as the man led his mule to where Anthony stood, near a pile of hay. All the witnesses saw the same thing. Anthony spoke to the mule, which turned from looking at the hay and bowed its head before the Blessed Sacrament. The animal held its position for a long time. It is said the doubter converted immediately. 
donkey legend
Such crowds came to hear Brother Anthony that often he had to preach outdoors. He also attracted the attention of Francis of Assisi. The two never met, but Francis wrote Anthony at least once, saying: 
 
“It would please me if you would read sacred theology for the brethren, provided that they do not through study extinguish within themselves the holy spirit of prayer and devotion enjoined by our rule. May you be blessed (Purcell, p. 119).”
 
Francis’ request was that Anthony teach theology at the new Franciscan school in Bologna. It was quite a concession for Francis, who was appalled when he returned from the Holy Land to find some Franciscans deep in study. Brother Anthony was different, however. He was, in Francis’ words, “a bishop after my own heart.” The term bishop was used in an honorary sense, signifying that Anthony was a learned man. Francis also saw Anthony’s humility and charity; he was indeed a man after Francis‘ own heart. 
 
St. Anthony of Padua
 Although Anthony is often depicted by artists as a thin, pale replica of St. Francis, in reality he looked very Portuguese: swarthy, short, more heavy than thin. “Anthony was of bronzed complexion and in stature was less than middle height, but corpulent and dropsical,” according to one blunt chronicler. In Lisbon churches there are statues of Anthony as a round little altar boy.
 
Final Years 
 
Anthony’s teaching career was fruitful, but short - like his life. After teaching at Bologna, he journeyed to France to confront the Cathar heresy. It was during this time, perhaps in Toulouse, that Anthony was seen holding the Christ Child; a statue depicting this encounter has become an enduring icon. 
St. Anthony with Christ child
 Anthony had a realistic view of human nature, appreciating human frailties but not indulging them, as a passage from this sermon shows: 
 
“With a fallen brother we must show ourselves neither too tender nor too hard, neither soft as flesh nor hard as bone; in him we must love our own human nature while hating his fault…” (Purcell, p. 125).
 
It is said that Anthony demonstrated this charity by performing miracles. One legend has Anthony comforting a monk he met at a monk with  thoughts of suicide. Brother Anthony clothed the monk in his own tunic, and the temptations ceased. 
St. Anthony the healer
 Another legend has Anthony counseling a novice with doubts about his calling. It is said that when Brother Anthony breathed on the novice’s face his vocation was confirmed. 
 
There are many accounts of Anthony miraculously preserving his audience from downpours of rain. When one considers that his audiences at times numbered in the tens of thousands, keeping them all dry was no mean feat. Another time Anthony preserved from rain a maid-servant who was bringing the brothers a meager meal. there is an endearing tenderness in Anthony’s intentions in these miracles that speaks louder than debating the truth or exaggeration of the events. 
 
Anthony was not shy about confronting injustice. His famous altercation with Brother Elias, the self-appointed head of the Franciscan Order after Francis’ death, led to the election of a new Superior General of the Order. The exploitation of the poor by usurers was a frequent cause of indignation to Anthony. More than once his sermons on the subject led to enforcement of the existing laws against usury. In addition to confronting petty tyrants, St. Anthony also spoke out against corruption in the Church. His sermon against a bad bishop led that bishop (who was in the audience) to publicly repent before Brother Anthony. 
 
When Francis died in 1226, Anthony returned to Italy. He was elected provincial of Romagna. The following year he journeyed to Rome to preach before Pope Gregory IX, numerous cardinals, and a multitude from all nations. Here is another legend: it is said that everyone present heard Anthony in their own tongue. After the sermon Pope Gregory dubbed Brother Anthony “Ark of the Testament.”
 
In 1229, two years before his death, Brother Anthony made his permanent residence in Padua, Italy. His longing for solitude had not waned during his years of public preaching. In a Franciscan hermitage outside Padua he built a small cell in a large walnut tree and retired there to pray and write.
 
In June, 1231, Anthony took ill. He was taken to a friary in nearby Arcella. He made his confession and received absolution. He and the small group of friars with him sang a hymn to the Blessed Virgin, O Gloriosa Domina. Then Brother Anthony looked upward. His gaze became fixed. “I see my Lord,” he said, and died, at the age of thirty-six. An epitaph was written by Brother Anthony’s friend, Thomas of Vercelli. Himself a master of the spiritual life, Thomas wrote:
 
“Love often penetrates where human reason fails even to arrive - as I was able to experience in that holy friar St. Anthony of the Order of Minors, whose friendship I had the pleasure of enjoying. He - thanks to the purity of his soul and to the flame of divine love, which burned in his heart - was drawn with great ardor of mind and fervor of spirit toward mystical theology and acquired it on so large a scale that one would be tempted to say of him what was written of St. John the Baptist: ‘He was a lucerna ardens et lucens’ because burning interiorly, due to his great love, he could not but shine exteriorly (Huber, pp. 81-82).” 
 

* * * 

Brother Anthony was canonized a year after his death. Many miracles were reported during his lifetime. Many more miracles attributed to his intercession occurred after his death. 
 
Thirty two years after his death his relics were transferred to a Basilica built in his honor in Padua. It is said that during the exhumation, then Franciscan general (and later Saint) Bonaventure found Anthony’s tongue incorrupt. Over the centuries a host of popes have praised Anthony’s preaching, and his excellence in interpreting Scripture, doctrine, and mystical theology. In 1946 Pope Pius XII declared Anthony a Doctor of the Church. His relics are still on display and are venerated daily by faithful Christians. 
Relics of St. Anthony
 But for millions of people St. Anthony’s appeal is more personal. He helps us find things we have lost. To us he is simply Brother Anthony, a kind friend who seems to know where everything is. We simple folk admire his wisdom and eloquence; yet his life teaches us something too. He originally ‘misplaced’ God’s will, thinking it meant martyrdom in Morocco. He realized his error, and seems to have resolved to do nothing more of his own accord than to fast, do penance, and contemplate the Almighty. Eventually God’s will for him became clear. 
 
We know nothing of Anthony’s thoughts on this matter for he wrote nothing about himself. In looking at the facts of his life, however, it seems unlikely Brother Anthony ever aspired to be a preacher - yet that was God’s will for him. May St. Anthony help us find our own true callings, and aid us in following our paths. 
 
Sources
 
Mabel Farnum, Saint Anthony of Padua, His Life and Miracles, Didier, New York, 1948.
 
Very Rev. Raphael M. Huber, O.F.M. Conv., S.T.D., St. Anthony of Padua, Doctor of the Church Universal, A Critical Study of the Historical Sources of the Life, Sanctity, Learning, and Miracles of the Saint of Padua and Lisbon, The Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee, 1948.
 
Isidore O’Brien, O.F.M., Enter Saint Anthony, Life of the Wonder-Worker of Padua, St. Anthony Guild Press, 1943.
 
Mary Purcell, Saint Anthony And His Times, Doubleday & Company, 1960.
 
The (old) Catholic Encyclopedia.
 
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