Saint Anthony is a popular saint in the Catholic Church. Individuals, churches, and institutions reverentially adopt his name considering him as their patron saint. People seek his mediation for many needs, especially to find lost items. However, he is more than a powerful intercessor. He performed miracles, by the grace of God, while he was alive and continues to do so after his death. The principal characteristics of this saint were his love of poverty, the message of charity, zeal for Bible study and preaching the Word of God.
Biography of Saint Anthony
Anthony was born in Lisbon, Portugal on 15 August 1195, in a wealthy family and died on 13 June 1231, in Padua, Italy. His parents were Vicente Martins and Teresa Pais Taveira. Anthony’s former name was Fernando Martins. His parents educated him at the local Cathedral school. When he was 15, he joined the Augustinian religious community in Lisbon. After becoming a priest, while serving in Coimbra, Fernando met Franciscan friars settled outside Coimbra. Their simple and evangelical lifestyle attracted Fernando. During that period, the Moors beheaded five Franciscans in Morocco while they preached in that area. The Franciscans brought their bodies for burial to the Portuguese city where he lived. Their martyrdom attracted Fernando, and he joined the Franciscans with permission from his religious superiors. He changed his name to Anthony, the patron saint of the chapel. Anthony travelled to Morocco to preach to the Moors, fully willing to face martyrdom. However, he became ill there and had to return to regain his health. This shows his missionary zeal and love for poverty.
Anthony was famous for his oratorical skills and deep knowledge of scripture. One particular event brought him to the limelight. Once he was attending an ordination in 1222 in Forli. The Dominican and the Franciscan friars were present. But the organizers forgot to assign the homily to anyone. Realizing the slip, the superior asked Father Anthony to preach extempore. Though reluctant, Anthony complied out of obedience. However, his homily was so very impressive that all saw the inspiration of the Holy Spirit behind it. Anthony had gained deep knowledge in the Bible and he used to preach in very many places.
An incident in Anthony’s life was the reason for his popularity as the patron of lost or stolen items. Anthony had a book of Psalms that he treasured because it had his scribbling of notes and comments for teaching. During those days, books were valuable because the copies were handwritten and not printed. A novice who dropped out had taken Anthony’s book with him. Anthony prayed for finding the book without knowing how he lost it. Later, the ex-novice returned the book to Anthony.
Anthony was famous for preaching to heretics in Rimini. Once, while preaching to them, they ignored him and even mocked him. So, Anthony went to the seashore and preached to the fish. An enormous number of fish came up to the water level and appeared to listen to his preaching. Those who saw the miracle went to the city and called their friends to see the miracle. At the end of the sermon, Anthony blessed the fish, and they swam away. This miracle prompted the heretics to find God’s power in Anthony. Thus, Anthony freed the city of Rimini from heresy. Because Anthony was a successful preacher to the heretics, he got the nickname, “The Hammer of Heretics.”
Artists portray Saint Anthony as holding a white lily and Baby Jesus on an open Bible. The white lily symbolizes his purity, and the Bible stands for his love for the Word of God. The appearance of the Infant Jesus with Saint Anthony is strange because Anthony was born centuries after Jesus. Apart from the picture of the Holy Family, Saint Anthony is the only saint depicted as holding Infant Jesus. The reason is a vision Anthony had of Infant Jesus while he was praying in private at a friend’s house. The host of the house found Anthony conversing with Infant Jesus during his prayer. Anthony requested the host to keep it secret until his death.
Among the many stories of miracles associated with Saint Anthony, a famous one is “The Miser’s Heart.” Once the funeral of a rich man was taking place in the city of Tuscany. Seeing the solemn funeral, Anthony said that the dead man did not deserve such an honour because he loved money and exploited the poor. Quoting Jesus words, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt 6:21), Anthony commented: “His heart is in his money-box.” Anthony’s words upset the family and friends of the deceased. They wanted to prove otherwise. They had a surgeon cut open the dead body. To their surprise, the heart was missing. Then the family found his heart in his treasure box.
While returning to Padua after a retreat at Camposampiero, Anthony died on 13 June 1231, at the young age of 35. Respecting his request, the monks buried Anthony in a small church of Santa Maria Mater Domini. The monks later built a large Basilica above it in 1301. Legend holds that when Anthony died, the children cried in the streets and church bells rang by themselves. When his body was exhumed 30 years after his death, his tongue was found incorrupt and moist. The Church sees it as a sign of his God-given gift for preaching. His tongue, jaw, and vocal cords are still displayed in the Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua.
Pope Gregory IX canonized Anthony of Paduva on 30 May 1232, at Spoleto, Italy. Considering the spiritual richness of his preaching, Pope Pius XII declared Saint Anthony as the Doctor of the Church on 16 January 1946. Believers in Portugal, Spain, and Brazil call Saint Anthony as a “marriage saint,” because there are legends of him reconciling couples.
People do charity in honour of Saint Anthony called, “Saint Anthony’s Bread.” There is a story behind this. A mother, who lived near the Basilica of Saint Anthony, left her 20-month boy Tommy in her kitchen. There was an enormous pot with water boiling on the fire in the kitchen. While the boy was playing, he took a stool and peeped into the pot. He fell into the boiled water with head down as he was trying to touch his image reflected on the water. When the mother returned soon, she pulled the boy out and found him dead. Hearing the cry of the mother, the neighbours and friars from the Basilica came there. Seeing the friars, she prayed to Saint Anthony to revive the child’s life. She pledged to donate bread equivalent to the weight of her child to the poor. While praying, the child arose as if from sleep. This miracle was the origin of the practice of the faithful donating bread to the poor on the feast day of Saint Anthony. It is their offering of gratitude for the favours received through the saint’s intercession. Since bread is not as important as in the ancient times, the friars encourage to give alms to the poor instead.
1. Following the model of Saint Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscans, Saint Anthony also loved poverty and encouraged supporting the poor. Let us follow his example of simplicity, humility, and charity.
2. Saint Anthony’s enthusiasm to read the Bible and preach made him a marvellous lover of the Word of God. Let us also imitate him in reading, studying, and communicating the word of God.
3. Saint Anthony was a zealous missionary and even wanted martyrdom, though God’s plan was otherwise. Even if we cannot be active evangelists in the mission territories, let us be missionaries of our homes, workplaces, and communities. We also need to support the missionaries by our prayers, encouragement, and financial support.
4. Saint Anthony preached to the heretics and non-believers and led all to God through Jesus. Our devotion to the saint shall not limit us to asking of favours. Let us seek his help to imitate Christ and to lead us and others to heaven.