Saint Anthony was born in Lisbon, the Capital of Portugal, August 15, 1195, thirteen years after the birth of Saint Francis of Assisi. His parents being of noble extraction and virtuous, sent their loving son, Fernando, as he was called in baptism, to the Canons of Saint Augustine to receive an education suitable to their rank in society. Under the tutelage of the holy Canons his progress in science and virtue was remarkable, and when of proper age he entered amongst them to be beloved and revered by all. He loved prayer, silence and meditation, and with a zeal that was more than earthly; he delighted in the study of the Sacred Scriptures, and the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.
In his convent at Lisbon, being frequently disturbed by visits of his friends and relations, and preferring a life of complete retirement, he asked his superior to remove him to another one far away from friends. This petition was granted, and he was consequently transferred to the monastery of the Holy Cross near the city of Coimbra. Here he continued his religious and holy life, to the edification of all who had the happiness to come near him. Here, too, he was directed by God to leave the Augustinians, and become a follower of Saint Francis of Assisi.
The Franciscans went frequently from their convent at Coimbra, to the Augustinians for alms. On these occasions Saint Anthony had ample opportunity to study their mode of life. Their modesty and humility pleased him very much, and he desired to join them. In addition to this, an event took place which decided his choice. The bodies of the first martyrs of the Franciscan Order were brought back from Morocco, where they had been martyred, to Spain for interment. On seeing them, Anthony became more and more enflamed with an ardent desire to die for Christ. He thought the best opportunity to accomplish his wish would be to become a Franciscan himself, and then go amongst the Mussulmans. Permission was granted him, though reluctantly, to leave the Augustinians and join the Franciscans. When leaving his beloved brethren in religion, one of them said to him: “Go, they will soon canonize you.”
“Should you ever hear of this, do not forget to return thanks to God,” was Anthony’s reply.
Anthony received the Franciscan habit in 1221, and changed his name, Fernando, into Anthony in honor of the Patron Saint of the convent wherein he was admitted. Shortly after he obtained permission to go to Africa, and set sail for the chosen field of his labors. On the voyage he was taken seriously ill, and compelled thereby to return. Contrary winds, however, dashed his vessel on the shores of Sicily instead of Portugal. But in these winds was the direction of Providence; for, no sooner had he landed than some friars of Saint Francis met him, and he was told that a general chapter was celebrated at Assisi, presided over by Saint Francis himself. He instantly resolved to go thither, and see the renowned saint of whom he had heard so much. The chapter being finished, Anthony with his companion was left alone, and when others had dispersed to their various missions, they remained almost forgotten: in truth, no one was eager to take in these sickly and emaciated friars from a distant country and only Brother Gratian had compassion for them. Brother Philip, the companion of Anthony, was sent to Castello and afterwards to Tuscany; Anthony was permitted to accompany Brother Gratian to Bologna. Here he occupied his time principally in prayer, meditation and humble work until it pleased Divine Providence to elevate him to a place among the most illustrious of men.
About this time Anthony, with some friars from his convent, and a party of Dominicans, were sent to be ordained, and on their journey, they stopped at a Franciscan monastery. When taking their repast, the superior of the convent requested that one of the Dominicans would address the community, but every one excused himself as not being prepared. The superior then told Saint Anthony to do so. Anthony at first hesitated, excusing himself, saying that he knew better how to wash dishes than to preach. The superior, however, insisted on having his address. Anthony obeyed, and having conquered his humility and modesty, delivered an address that surprised everyone present. It was full of fervor and unction, and judiciously interwoven with sentences from the Bible and from the writings of the Fathers of the Church. Everyone rejoiced at the discovery of this mine of eloquence. Saint Francis, who was notified of this happy event, gave orders that Anthony should, immediately after his ordination, devote himself to the study of Scholastic Theology, before starting to preach to the people. Anthony did so, and in a very short time, made such wonderful progress as to be considered competent to teach theology himself, and only waited for his appointment which subsequently came from Saint Francis in the following letter:
“Brother Francis to his beloved Brother Anthony, health in the Lord:
“I am willing that thou shouldst interpret holy theology to the brethren, in such manner, that the spirit of prayer (as I most ardently desire) be not extinguished in thyself or others, according to the rule which we follow. Farewell.”
Saint Anthony obeyed Saint Francis, and taught theology, to the admiration of all who attended his lectures, at Bologna, Montpellier, Tolouse and Padua.
Saint Anthony, however, is more renowned as a preacher of the word of God and a worker of mira cles, than as a doctor of theology. He went all over Italy, into Sicily and the southern part of France. Whenever and wheresoever he appeared to preach in public, his fame had traveled before him. Whole towns and counties were on foot to hear hiin. Stores were shut up, work-shops deserted: everyone ran to see and hear the servant of God. The crowds of people were so large, that the largest churches could not contain them, and he was frequently obliged to preach from pulpits erected in the open plazas and churchyards.
Many were the miracles that accompanied his sermons. Once it happened that a certain town would not listen to his words. The inhabitants were heretics. Anthony went to the seashore, by which the city was situated, and called upon the fishes of the water to come and hear the words of the Almighty, as the people refused to do it. And, wonderful to relate! the fishes, large and small, came swimming to his feet, the little ones forming the first line, followed by the rest according to their sizes, and all listened attentively to his discourse.
The saint told them what God had done for them – how he had preserved them in the deluge – and how thankful they ought to be for this and all other benefits of their Creator. He then blessed them, and they left when he bade them return to the depths of the waters. The heretics seeing this miracle were moved to contrition and penance.
Not far from Verona, there was a cruel tyrant, called Ezzelino, who put to death many an innocent victim. Anthony sought an interview with him, and on entering the palace was admitted to his presence. Anthony addressed him thus: “Cruel monster! enemy of God! when will thy rage be satisfied, and when wilt thou cease to shed the blood of the faithful and the innocent? Know that for these things, the judgments of God will assuredly visit thee, and thine end will be terrible.” Ezzelino listened, was moved, promised amendment, kept his promise for a time, but fell back and died most miserably, as the Saint had foretold.
All kinds of sickness fled at the bidding of Saint Anthony. The lame walked, the blind saw, broken limbs were made whole, the dead came to life again, lost things were found, and even in distant lands his power was felt. He rescued from a disgraceful death his own father, who had been unjustly accused of killing a man. Anthony recalled the murdered man to life to bear witness to his father’s innocence, and then dismissed him back into the grave.
But Saint Anthony did not work alone for the outside world. His mission within the Order was great, as he most earnestly resisted the efforts of Brother Elias to make relaxations in the strict observance of the rule of Saint Francis.
Padua was the principal seat of his labors. Here he died June 13th, 1231, at the age of 36 years, in a little convent outside the city, and here a magnificent church was afterwards erected for his final resting place. He was canonized the following year by Pope Gregory IX, and ever since through all these centuries, his shrine has been a great attraction to pious pilgrims. At his death the children of Padua cried out in the streets – before his death had been made known: “Saint Anthony is dead. The Beloved Father has gone from us.”