The Life of Saint Anthony, by Father Ambrose Ryan, O.F.M.

Anthony was not born in Padua, Italy; he was born at Lisbon in Portugal. The date was 1195 and his baptismal name was Ferdinand. His parents were substantial citizens and the family name was something like Bulhom, according to most scholars.

He was baptised in the cathedral church of old Lisbon, the Se Patriarcal, and on its ancient font, you read: “Here the waters of holy baptism cleansed Anthony from all stain of original sin. The world rejoices in his light, Padua in his body, heaven in his soul.”

Augustinian, then Franciscan

Anthony Bulhom received his early schooling from the clergy of the Se Patriarcal school and at fifteen years of age he joined the Augustinian monastery of Saint Vincent de Fora, Lisbon. When seventeen, in 1212, he transferred to the Coimbra monastery of Santa Cruz and there was taught for nine years by the very religious and very capable Canon John: the experience equipped him unusually well for the extraordinary life that was to be his.

When 25 years of age, and quite likely unordained – for in those days it was normal to receive priestly ordination at 30 years, he was lifted from Augustinian monastic observance into the itinerant missionary life of a Franciscan Friar Minor. It is a most interesting example of the strange ways of God’s providence in men’s lives.

The new Order of Friars Minor had been in existence less than twenty years when Ferdinand the Augustinian crossed to it. Despite its youth, the Order had made an astonishing beginning attracting hundreds of recruits. Some of these were already found in Coimbra, Portugal, and five of their number boldly ventured into the Saracen-held Morocco to preach Christ’s gospel. They were murdered (or, as we would hold, martyred) by the Saracens in January 1220, and their bodies were carried back to Portugal by local seamen and brought to Santa Cruz monastery, Coimbra.

Ferdinand, it is told, was very moved and irresistibly attracted as he knelt to pray beside the martyred bodies of Friar Berard and companions. And to their brethren from the Coimbra convent of Saint Anthony of the Olives (named for Anthony the Hermit) he said: “If I may go to Morocco and imitate these brothers, I will gladly join you.”

And this is what he did with due permission. As a friar minor, he became “Anthony”, the name no doubt being assumed in honour of Saint Anthony the Hermit, and within months, he crossed to Marrakesh, Morocco. But not for martyrdom! God’s Providence entered again and a persistent malarial fever laid him low until it was necessary to give up and set sail for home.

Italy

At sea, a violent storm arose and the ship ran before it to find harbour south of Messina, Sicily. Here Friar Anthony was delighted to find some of his new family of Franciscans, and with these, he headed north to come to Assisi, Italy, for the famous Chapter of Mats at Pentecost 1221.

Unheralded and unknown, he surely saw Francis of Assisi – the founder of the Friars Minor – at this Chapter, but there is no report that they met in person. It would not have been easy to do so with more than 3,000 men gathered for this unique meeting.

Friar Gratian, Provincial of Romagna (North Italy), took the new man under his protection and sent him to a hermitage at Montepaolo near Forli, and there he lived in prayer, poverty and study for twelve months.

In the summer of 1222, there was a priestly ordination ceremony at Forli conducted by Bishop Ricciardellus Belmonti. Ordained were Dominican and Franciscan friars, “amongst them Anthony” (as his first biographer put it). He was 27 years of age.

At a reception in the Dominican convent, following the ordinations, the new Father Anthony, was induced to speak. “He began without flourish – writes Father Clasen O.F.M. – but as he spoke his words became vivid and forceful until the assembly came under the spell of the Holy Spirit who spoke through him”.

And the friars minor, and all present, realised that a man of God and a ‘gifted intellectual’ was with them. In a later sermon, Anthony said: “When the Holy Spirit enters a soul, He fills it with his fire and lets it enkindle others. All things that draw near to Him feel his renewing warmth.” (Sermons of Saint Anthony).

Scholarly Man and Leader

The fame of Anthony – of Lisbon and later of Padua – rests on his deep sanctity and the burning zeal of his ten year period of missionary preaching. These are certainly the highlights of his life as it has come down to us. Actually, we have too few precise details about this friar, more famous around the world than the intimately known and extraordinary Francis of Assisi. Yet a few other facts of his life deserve to be told before we write of his preaching and his holiness.

These facts are: Anthony was a most capable teacher of the friars minor, and he was an inspiring leader in their midst.

As teacher, he holds the unique distinction of being personally appointed to teach theology to the friars by Saint Francis himself. “Friar Anthony, my bishop and theologian” wrote Francis. When you know that Francis of Assisi had a deep ingrained suspicion of learning, of showy learning, and manifested his opposition to it in several determined ways, you realize what a decision it was for him to appoint Anthony to teach the others. Father Clasen thinks that Francis’s decision in this matter “marked a turning point in the history of the Franciscan brotherhood.”

Anthony, of course, taught Sacred Scripture and he taught Saint Augustine – the Augustine that Canon John had opened up to him. Ever afterwards, the friars minor were to lean towards this “Augustinian” flavour in matters of philosophy and theology. He organised classes for the friars at Bologna, Italy, and soon at Montpellier and Limoges in France. None of his courses could have lasted more than a few months at a time, for he was heavily committed to public preaching year by year, yet his teaching left its mark.

The excellence of his mind may even now be gauged by a testimony of Canon Thomas Gallus, an Augustinian of Vercelli, Italy, a considerable scholar who knew Anthony as a personal friend. Thomas Gallus wrote: “As a close friend I have been able to observe in Brother Anthony of the friars minor a readiness to grasp mystical theology. For though he was not well read in natural sciences, he had a pure spirit and a burning heart and was a man on fire with God. All this enabled him easily to understand all the riches and depths of mystical theology with all his heart.” (Commentary on Dionysius.) It is a precious testimony.

As Leader of the friars, Anthony was Guardian and ‘Custos’ of Franciscan houses in France from 1225-27: Le Puy-en-Velay is one, the district around Limoges is the other. And he personally founded the convent of Brive in Central France where, to this day, his cult is best kept in France. Then back in Italy in 1228, he became Provincial of northern Italy at the Order’s Pentecost Chapter. After three years, he retired from this onerous office to remain on in his beloved Padua.

Preaching with Power

“A burning heart, on fire for God” wrote Thomas Gallus of his friend Anthony. And this is the image of Anthony the preacher handed down in northern Italy and southern and central France. It reminds one of Saint Paul’s “I came amongst you with power, invested with the power that raised Jesus Christ from the tomb.”

There is no possible doubt about the amazing success of the man as a preacher. In sober fact he set a standard in the Order of Friars Minor, a standard that was to influence many of his brethren for the Franciscans have had great renown in Catholic history for their enthusiastic gospel preaching.

Anthony began in the Romagna area of north Italy and moved around in Lombardy and Emilia: Rimini, Venice, Friuli, these are cities where his memory is preserved. “He began by speaking to half-empty churches,” (writes Alice Curtayne), “for good preachers were rare and preaching being in decline, there was a bored indifference to sermons. But he never preached twice in the same half-empty church. In general, the people’s response was prompt. The churches packed to hear him until windows and doors were filled with faces and all the square outside massed with people. Anthony was forced to take a platform out into the streets the better to command his audiences. But when the numbers mounted to thirty thousand, the streets and squares were found cramping, and the platform had to be carried out of the town to a bare hillside, say, or to a meadow, and thither that spectacular mass of people followed him. . . .”

“Within a year of his accepting the mission of preacher, when it was known in a city or town that he was coming, shops were shuttered up and the law courts closed in order that no one should be forced to miss the event. . . . When the crowds moving to one of his sermons crested a distant hill, some onlooker likened them to a dense flock of birds rising in flight.

“Their manner of listening made a deep impression on observers for these thirty thousand were in the habit of standing without movement, and voicelessly, listening together as one man might listen. But sometimes, when the saint paused, they sighed in unison, and then the sound was like a great wind soughing. Another eyewitness left on record this vivid detail: he said that large numbers used to assemble at the platform the night before the sermon to make sure of a good place. Crowds would be seen crossing the fields at night, carrying lanterns to guide themselves.”

Curtayne’s words may sound more like oratory than sober history, yet they can be reasonably verified. Rimini (Italy), Montpellier (France), Limoges (France), Padua (Italy) are four cities and country-sides which still bear witness in memorial stones and in partly written traditions to the amazing power of his preaching, and to the crowds that listened. And these are only a few of many, many places.

A new Elias, a Prophet sent by God, a Hammer of heretics, a Burning Fire – these are ancient encomiums of the preacher Anthony.

And tradition is so insistent on the gospel signs that accompanied his preaching, namely, “that the sick were healed, the lame walked, lepers were cleansed” that it would be quite arbitrary to put them aside. One may say, of course, that the greater wonder still was the penetration of the gospel word into the minds and hearts of the hearers, for it is also traditional that spiritual conversions came almost en masse.

Miracles

An excellent modern life of Saint Anthony by Father S. Clasen O.F.M. – published in English by Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago 1961 – holds that the saint performed only a few miracles while living; the flood of wonders came after his death.

Two of the most famous are of Saint Anthony speaking to the fish at Rimini after the residents ignored him, and the Eucharistic miracle of Bourges.

The Bourges miracle is the one where the town’s leading Jew challenged Anthony to back up his belief in the real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist by a sign. It was agreed upon to starve an ass and then lead it before some sheaves of hay and a container holding the Eucharist, and see what would happen. The story is that the ass bent its front legs before the Sacrament before attacking the hay and the Jew converted.

Tradition gives us the story of the Child Jesus resting in the arms of Anthony, and we also have the wonder that happened at Arles, France in 1224. Anthony was speaking to the friars in a local chapter when suddenly Frances of Assisi – then alive and well at Assisi! – was seen to appear in the doorway with his arms uplifted in the sign of the cross. A case of bilocation.

Padua

Earlier it has been said that Anthony returned from France to Italy in 1228 and was then elected Provincial of the Romagna Province. Here he again taught and led the friars, and evangelised the people. Late in 1228, he was in Rome and preached before Pope Gregory IX and the clergy, as well as to the people. Gregory is said to have called him an “Armory of the Bible” after hearing his biblical sermons.

Padua now became a centre of attraction for the holy man and more and more did he come to visit the city. Then by 1229, he was a permanent resident.

In ancient times, the friars minor were called “Mendicants” and “Itinerants”, the latter because they wandered here and wandered there. Anthony was surely an itinerant. Portugal – Spain – Morocco – Sicily – Italy – Assisi – Romagna – Bologna. Then north to Arles – Montpellier – Toulouse – Le Puy en Velay – Limoges – Bourges – Brive; all in France. Then returning to Italy we can follow him to Monte Luco – La Verna (for several months) – Verona – Mantua – Rimini – Venice – and finally Padua.

In all these places, it would seem, the friars and the people have kept memories of his visits and of his goodness. The mildest of men in company, and with a heart of compassion for suffering and sin, he could be forceful against usury, double-dealing and unfairness. (There’s a record of him dressing down a bishop, and a good one, in the middle of a sermon with the words: “And now let me speak to you who wears the mitre!”) As said of Francis, so may it be said of Anthony: “He was not so much one who prayed, rather was he a person who was prayer.”

A born teacher, a born leader, and with superb gifts in both, he would as willingly bend his arms to wield a hoe in the field or to prepare a meal for his companions. A homely man.

In the last two years of his brief life, he captured the city of Padua. For his Lenten courses of sermons, the crowds were enormous, Paduans and country folk, hanging on his words. It was Christ and the multitudes over again!

Somehow, as you re-read the meagre details of Anthony’s life, you form the impression: how like, in so many ways, is his life with that of the Lord and Master!

Father Clasen details the splendid effects of Anthony’s preaching in the Paduan area: “Quarrels were patched up, mortal enemies reconciled, poor debtors released from prison and given their freedom, restitution made of ill-gotten goods. Immoral women reformed their lives, thieves and criminals changed their ways, the public life of Padua – which had been something of a disaster area – was considerably changed.”

The Senate of Padua city “on the plea of Friar Anthony” made a statute in 1231 “to forbid the imprisonment of a person for the sole reason that he had fallen into debts; his goods could be seized but he was to be allowed his liberty”.

In this same period, Anthony composed the only writings we have from his hand. It is a large volume of Sermons and sermon notes.

Death

At the early age of 36 years, death came to him. Following the Lent of 1231, which left him very exhausted he left the city of Padua to live in solitude at Camposampiero. A nobleman named Tiso had built him a hut under a large walnut tree with similar accommodation for his companion friars, of whom Luke Belludi was one. Here in retirement he dealt with God about his own life. “God permits his judgment to be exercised by the pious Christian” – wrote Anthony. “For the Christian judges himself and then God finds nothing in him that is worthy of blame”.

On Friday, 13 June 1231, when the friars’ bell called him to noonday meal, he left his hut to eat with the others. As he sat to table he had an attack of weakness and was taken to bed, but soon he asked the friars to bring him back to Padua. They got as far as Arcella with the holy man resting on a waggon. As he got worse, they stopped there. He made confession, took Viaticum, and then sang gently ‘O Gloriosa Virginum’ to Our Lady (O Glorious Virgin). One of the friars asked him, “What are you gazing at so intently?” And Anthony replied, “I see my Lord”. He was then anointed, joined the friars in the seven penitential psalms, and in about half an hour “his soul peacefully left his body and was received into the happiness of God’s infinite love.”

Padua Acclaims a Saint

It is said that the friars thought to bring his body quietly back to Padua knowing that the people of Arcella and Capo di Ponte would try to keep the holy man with them. They were frustrated, however, when children began to run through the streets of Padua calling out: “The holy father is dead; Saint Anthony is dead!”

For four days, the people of Arcella and Capo di Ponte strove to keep his remains. They blocked the bridge over the river and cut down a temporary one. Eventually by a ruse, the Mayor of Padua outwitted them and Bishop Jacopo Corrado, the clergy and friars, and a procession of thousands of people brought the remains in triumph back to the Friars’ church at Padua.

“Immediately after his death – writes Clasen – Anthony became the object of an extraordinary devotion, and miracle followed miracle as the prayers of the sick and the afflicted were answered by sudden cures and wonders”. A wave of enthusiasm followed, crowds flocked from the neighbouring towns and villages to visit the tomb. The bishop, the senate, the knights and university students, formed a council to put some order into these noisy gatherings. Candles of enormous size were brought and lighted – one of these needed sixteen men to carry it!

Scarcely a month had passed when the city of Padua sent official requests to Pope Gregory to canonise their man. The canonisation was held at Spoleto on May 30th, 1232.

Shrine at Padua

The Saint, Il Santo, this is how the Paduans have always referred to Saint Anthony. Our man, our treasure, our protector!

Soon they set to work to build him a shrine that would rival the magnificent church of Saint Mark the Evangelist at Venice, and this they succeeded in doing. When the new basilica was well under way in 1263, it was decided to exhume the remains and relocate them within it.

Saint Bonaventure, Minister General of the friars, was present and bore witness to a wonder. It was discovered on opening the coffin that the body had decayed leaving only the bones, but the tongue of the saint was seen to be fresh and intact. Reverently taking it up Bonaventure exclaimed, “O blessed tongue, you always praised the Lord and led others to praise Him! Now we see how great indeed were your merits before God!” (To this day, the tongue is preserved at Padua.)

Devotion to Saint Anthony

For nearly 750 years or so, devotions to The Saint, and petitions for favours through his intercession, have never flagged in the Catholic Church. These have always been of a popular, even domestic kind. Some thought when Pope Pius XII added his name to the list of important Doctors of the Church in 1946 that the intention was to restore a truer picture of this powerful personality to the people who had made him “The Finder of Lost Articles”. But only time shall tell.

At Padua, Italy, the Conventual Franciscans reverently maintain the beautiful basilica and guard the treasures of the ages accumulated around the tomb of the saint. Enthusiastic devotions are regularly conducted, and an endless flow of devotees and sightseers come and go from all parts of the world. From the frequently published lists of favours granted (consult: Il Messaggero di Sant’Antonio), one can see that his cult does not diminish. Many are the special shrines of Saint Anthony in the churches of the Catholic world.

– from the booklet SAINT ANTHONY OF PADUA: A Popular Saint – With Prayers and Devotions in His Honour, by Father Ambrose Ryan, O.F.M., Australian Catholic Truth Society #1701, 1977