Friday, June 13, 2008

June 13: Feast of St. Anthony of Padua, ofm

After Francis and Clare of Assisi themselves, there is probably no Franciscan saint who is more loved and revered than Anthony of Padua. As Robert Ellsberg writes in his wonderful collection of meditations, All Saints, Anthony’s abiding popularity—since the 13th century—has had “less to do with the memory of his spellbinding preaching than with his posthumous career as a miracle worker.” Most especially, Anthony seems to have excelled in the lost and found department: “Tony, Tony, look around! Something’s lost and can’t be found!” I, for one, have had to turn to him more than once, let me tell you.

But the real story of Anthony of Padua (actually, Anthony of Lisbon) is much richer than the popular legends associated with him. Most biographers agree on the essential outline of his life and career: Anthony was born to a wealthy family in Portugal in 1195, and entered into the Augustinian order at Coimbra. He became interested in the, then still-novel, Franciscan movement, and actually ecountered the first group of friar-missionaries on their way to preach the Gospel in Morocco (circa 1219). These five men, the so-called protomartyrs of the Order, will killed shortly after their arrival in North Africa. Shortly afterwards, Anthony witnessed the return of their remains to Europe, an event which left a lasting impression on him.

Deeply moved and inspired by the example of these first Franciscan missionaries, Anthony himself received the friars’ habit and set off to Morocco, only to fall sick soon after his arrival. Upon his attempted return trip to Portugal, his storm-tossed ship landed, instead, on the coast of Sicily. From Messina, Anthony made his way to Assisi, and was eventuallyput to work in the kitchen of a rural hospice run by the friars.

History and tradition tell us that one day, on the occasion of an ordination, Anthony was called, at the last minute, to preach the homily. He astonished the congregation with his eloquence and with the depth of his understanding of Scripture. As his reputation spread, Anthony was asked to take on the role of itinerant preacher. His commission (or “obedience”) was from St. Francis himself: “Brother Francis sends greetings to Brother Anthony, my Bishop. I am pleased that you teach sacred theology to the brothers providing that, as is contained in the Rule, you ‘do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion’ during study of this kind.”

For ourselves as friars, this brief admonition of Francis to Anthony is of no small importance. It states, or rather nearly understates, the proper role of intellectual development in our lives: that the ‘head’ should not totally eclipse the ‘heart’ in our pursuit of the truth. It has put the friars in good stead over the centuries. Our intellectual tradition has blossomed, and even today, the friars promote scholarly endeavors—but, again, not at the expense of our essential, spiritual commitment.

Anthony died young—he was only 36 years old. He may well have been exhausted by his travel and labors. His remains were buried in Padua (hence, the purloined title), which to this day continues as an important pilgrimage site.

People continue to revere the memory of St. Anthony of Padua and his statue is a common site in Catholic churches around the world. And he still has many friends and admirers. I know, I am one of them. Even as a kid I liked St. Anthony. He never seemed stuffy, remote, or inaccessible, but rather seemed to mirror (at least in my imagination) something of the warmth and gentleness of Jesus himself. Ellsberg quotes from the writings of Anthony himself in this regard:

“O Sweet Jesus, what is there sweeter than Thee? Sweet is Thy memory, sweeter than that of honey or any other object. Thy very name is a Name of sweetness, a Name of Salvation. For what does the name Jesus signify, if not Savior? Therefore good Jesus, for Thy own sake be to us a Jesus.”

It’s kind of amazing, isn’t it, that a seemingly obscure figure from the thirteenth century should still have such a hold on people’s spiritual imagination. But, there you go.

Postscript: Personally, I find most film biographies of the saints to be rather unappealing—sentimental, pious, and lacking in credibility. Nevetheless, I can recommend a dvd/video about St. Anthony which really tells a believable tale and does it well. Anthony: The Miracle Worker of Padua (2005, 95 minutes, color), directed by Umberto Marino, is a recent Italian production (with English/Spanish subtitles) which provides a realistic portrayal of Anthony as a human being who struggled throughout his life with questions of faith and commitment. It is available through a number of sources, including Ignatius Press ( Enjoy!