THE LIFE OF ST. ANTHONY OF PADUA
St. Anthony of Padua lived for 36 years (1195-1231) and is considered a phenomenon for his influence, universality, and lastingness. Gregory IX declares him: “Ark of the Testament” and “Repository of the Holy Scripture.” Leo XIII defines him: “The Everyone’s Saint.” Popular tradition calls him: “Hammer of the Heretics” and “Saint of Miracles.” Pius XII recognizes his wisdom by proclaiming him the “Evangelical Doctor.”
He has baptized Ferdinand in Lisbon, Portugal. His father Martin descended from the heroes of the first crusades. His name was common among the higher social class. His mother Teresa taught Ferdinand the fundamentals of the faith. From childhood, he made use of his free time to go to church. At 6 he was permitted to be an altar boy. At 16 he decided to be an Augustinian. To avoid the frequently distracting visits of his friends, he moved to Coimbra, a hundred miles from Lisbon. There he devoted himself to profound prayer and austere life, while he pursued his studies on the Bible and the Church Fathers. He had been there for eight years when, in all of Portugal, the martyrdom in Morocco of 5 Franciscan friars became great news. Their remains were transported to Portugal and were brought and enshrined precisely at his monastery. Praying before their tomb, he started to have a vocational crisis. He wanted to imitate them in their austere life, in serving Jesus Christ in poverty and joy, and maybe in their martyrdom. Then one day, two Franciscans begged for bread. He had the opportunity to know more about the Franciscans.
From Augustinian Ferdinand to Franciscan Anthony
After prayerful discernment, Ferdinand joined the Franciscans. Invested with the Franciscan habit he took on the name Anthony, after the hermit of the desert to whom the Franciscan hermitage was dedicated. After some time spent in solitude, prayer and penitential austerities, he, burning with a desire of martyrdom, went to Africa to preach the gospel to the Moors. He had scarcely arrived in Morocco when he became very ill, obliging him to return. But by contrary winds, his boat was driven to Italy. Informed that Francis was in Assisi, together with most friars for a big gathering, Anthony, sick and weak, went to meet him. And in his desire to nurture the company of Francis and the Franciscans there, he offered himself to the provincials and guardians. A guardian took him and sent him to the hermitage of Montepaolo, a little solitary convent near Bologna. There he devoted himself to the sacramental service of his new lay confreres.
A Moment of Grace
Perhaps, Anthony would never have been famous if he hadn’t gone to an ordination of Dominicans and Franciscans in Forli. There, it was found out that no one had been appointed to preach. The Dominicans were first approached, but everyone declined. The Franciscan provincial ordered Anthony to preach. He first demurred, but finally began to speak in a simple, artless way. The fire within him became evident. His knowledge was unmistakable. But it was his holiness that really impressed everyone there. The rest is history. St. Francis was informed of the discovery of Anthony's eloquence and sent him to study theology, and after a short time to teach theology to the Franciscans preparing for perpetual profession and ordination while not losing the Franciscan spirit of prayer and devotion.
The Role of Padua
The Franciscan Province of Emiglia and Romagna then comprised almost all of Italy in terms of the area, the number of friars and the existence of very prominent friaries. At that time the Minister Provincial of this province occupied in the Order a very eminent position, after that of the Minister General. The provincial house was at Bologna. When Anthony took his office, he began the visitation of every friary to get in touch with his confreres. He revisited the hermitage of Montepaolo.
Then he went to Forli, to Rimini, Ravenna and other friaries until he reached Padua. Padua, then, was a beautiful and rich city. Wool factories and businesses in the region were flourishing there. It took advantage of a university, among the most famous in Europe, where students of various nations came. Anthony arrived at the friary of Holy Mary Mother of the Lord. The Paduans received Anthony with great joy and veneration. All wanted to come close and to listen to him. The fame of his holiness had preceded him.
In a short time, the churches of Padua became insufficient to accommodate the thousands of faithful who arrive also from nearby cities, to listen to him. A lot of times the piazzas were not enough and they had recourse to the meadows, in open fields. In a short time, the Paduans esteemed him and loved him. His simple and ardent word had conquered their hearts; some decided to follow him embracing the Franciscan ideal. Anthony reciprocated with equal affection: they felt the same for one another; because of this, the provincial house was transferred from Bologna to Padua.
Eloquent Preacher and Defender of the Poor
In general, Anthony’s words pierced the hearts of his hearers. What he cultivated by humility, silence, mortification, contemplation and prayer, he would communicate to his listeners. The educated admired the loftiness of his thoughts and the strong images with which he painted the most sublime mysteries. He added an unspeakable dignity to the most obvious and common truths of religion and morality, yet a natural simplicity rendered his preaching intelligible and easy to grasp. Even his rebuttals and his very reproofs against heresies were not bitter or severe but amiable and insinuating. The most obstinate heretics and the most hardened sinners threw themselves at his feet, declaring themselves conquered. Dissension and animosities were transformed into reconciliation.
In Padua, the poor were very many. The rich, on the other hand, were very few and they dominated every commercial activity. In his untiring work of peace, justice, reconciliation and respect for each person, in particular, the weakest, the unprotected and the exploited, he opposed the fashionable vices like usury. Usury was the ordinary form of taking advantage of the poor. It came to be done by unscrupulous persons, which Anthony called “ferocious beasts which rob and devour.”
The poor were defenseless and without any power; when they did not settle their debts, they were condemned to jail by law; therefore, in poor families, misery upon misery accumulated. Anthony found the law unjust. He rallied for a municipal ordinance abrogating the law. Padua relented and the written declaration recognized his intervention.
In Padua and the nearby neighborhood, there reigned Ezzelino, a cruel man, an enemy of God and of men. This person had challenged three popes (Gregory IX., Innocent IV., and Alexander IV). He put to death in one day 12,000 persons who revolted against him. Fearless, Anthony sought an audience with him. When Ezzelino found out that Anthony wanted to talk to him, he became troubled, but in the end, relented.
Anthony, upon entering the house, in a loud voice spoke thus: “Cruel tyrant, the enemy of God, till when will you continue to shed innocent blood? Know that the justice of God will come upon you soon. Change your life or you will be damned eternally!” Nobody had ever talked that way to the tyrant. Anthony enumerated his murders, sacrileges, and plunders which called to heaven for vengeance upon his head and that those whom he had slain or oppressed were witnesses before God against him.
The guards waited for the tyrant’s command against Anthony. But Ezzelino listened without reaction. Blinded by a light that burst forth from the face of the Saint, he bowed his forehead, afraid and silent. And to their great astonishment, he descended from his throne, pale and trembling, and putting his girdle round his neck for a halter, cast himself at the feet of Anthony, and in tears begged him to intercede with God for the pardon of his sins.
But after the death of the saint, he relapsed into his former disorders and died a miserable death. The extremely high ethical and mystical ideal that animated his pastoral ministry was, however, often in conflict with the harshness of the situation of sin and injustice that weighed on the family, social and political structures of the cities and countryside that he passed through.
Anthony never lost faith and he burned up his short existence for the renewal of the lives of the most alienated masses and the institutions contrary to the dignity and well-being of human beings. His commitment also shows through clearly in the series of miracles sent to the Pope for Anthony's canonization. Miracles which, above all, worked for the protection of the poor and the relief of the ill who had no human aid, and, in particular, for the safeguarding of the family, with great tenderness for children, comfort for wives mistreated and offended by brutal husbands, and support for family bonds in any kind of difficulty.
Hearing Confessions and Writing Sermons
At the same time, Anthony received penitents. He would say: “the preacher sows the seed from the pulpit and gather its fruits in the confessional.” When he was hearing confession he would lose the sense of time. There were days when he would be hearing confession without interruption till sunset, not eating nor getting a breath of fresh air as if he were in the pink of health.
Previous to that, he was persuaded to write down his sermons. Anthony willingly consented and wrote the Sunday Sermons, a work of almost a thousand pages. He wrote them in the Franciscan hermitage of Arcella, connected to the monastery of the Poor Clares.
It was a reason for rest, as well. Other than the sermons, he wrote Sermons on the Feasts of Saints, the Moral Concordances in the Sacred Books, the Mystical Interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures, and the Sermons in Praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary, making him the greatest writer of the Order. Presenting them to his confreres he said: “Seek to be not boring in preaching, otherwise the people will stay away from the church. But above all gave a great example of the Christian life.”
Anthony Gets Sick of Ergotism
Anthony became sick with ergotism, a disease now known as "Saint Anthony's Fire," and, in 1231, went to the woodland retreat at Camposampiero, a hermitage 20 miles from Padua. The ground was damp at that time of year and it aggravated Anthony’s illness. One day, while he was in the woods, he found a walnut tree. He asked for a treehouse on top. He could go there and immerse himself in a sea of quiet.
The notice of the presence of Anthony in Camposampiero rapidly spread in all the surroundings.
Groups of friends and devotees were successful in reaching him. He would receive them smilingly, without giving any sign of impatience, and from the treetop, he has directed his words of exhortation: “Thanks, my brothers and sisters, for having come to visit me. Remember that earthly life is like a bridge, which is made for the crossing, not for stopping. I, also, am almost to the end, waiting for the Lord. Return home, with my blessing.”
Toward Sister Death
Over the walnut trees, Anthony passed some months. Over there he seemed to inhale better. But what effort to climb there! His thoughtful confreres lent him assistance, but they were ascertained of the rapid growing weak of his energies and the difficulty in breathing.
Anthony knew well of his nearing death. Early on June 13, 1231, the state of health of Anthony all of a sudden aggravated. Seeing that his end was near, he asked his confreres to bring him to Padua. It was 12 noon when his confreres laid him in a cart, drawn by cows, offered free by the good farmers.
Anthony, before leaving, thanked and blessed those present, who were praying and weeping. The cart moved slowly. The heat was oppressive and the street was so uneven that the cart jerked at every hole. The entourage would stop from time to time to allow a little bit of rest. After 5 hours of travel, nearing Padua, Anthony entered into agony. They held it opportune to stop at Arcella.
The Last Hymn to Our Lady
Anthony was placed in a room, where he remained immobile, without words and with closed eyes. The confreres, sad, were waiting for the end. In one moment, Anthony opened his eyes, gathered energy, raised his arms, and, with a thin voice, intoned a hymn to the Blessed Mary: “O Glorious Virgin.” It was the prayer of the son who invoked the help of his mother at the hour of death. After this hymn, his face became shining; he raised his eyes fixed toward the heavens as if he was seeing something. A confrere asked him what he was watching; he replied: “I see my Lord!”
The friars decided to keep secret the news of his death as they transferred the remains to Padua. A little while after, all Padua got hold of the news. Groups of children, filled with interior inspiration, ran through the streets of the city shouting: “the Saint is dead! Friar Anthony is dead!” Anthony, like Jesus, had his preferences: they were the children. During his lifetime, when he passed through the streets of Padua, these stopped their games and ran to him. He would stop and relate to them.
Oftentimes he welcomed them lovingly in the friary, without showing signs of impatience. It would be the mothers and the fathers to bring them so that he might instruct them and bless them. For Francis of Assisi, it was the skylarks that notified the people of his death. For Anthony of Padua, it was the children to spread the news that their friend was dead: he has left them, to return to “his Lord!”