St. Anthony of Padua, Doctor of the Church
The years in Portugal
St. Anthony was born in Portugal in 1195; on 15th August according to Baroque tradition. He was the son of the nobleman, Martino de Buglioni and Donna Maria Taveira, who lived a few metres away from the cathedral. He was christened with the name Fernando.
He spent his formative years under the cultured guidance of the canons of the cathedral. Many of his school companions were boys who were considering the priesthood as a career. It is likely that young Fernando's commitment to join the priesthood was born among his close friends.
In fact, the moral mediocrity and corruption of the society around him convinced Anthony to choose this path.
He entered the Augustinian monastery of St. Vincent, outside the walls of Lisbon, where he lived uncompromisingly according to his evangelical ideal.
Among the Augustinians
He stayed at St. Vincent for approximately two years. But, distracted by continuous visits from friends, he asked to be transferred elsewhere. He thus undertook his first great journey to Coimbra, then the capital of Portugal. The new monastery of Santa Cruz was about 230 km from Lisbon.
He was seventeen years old and was to live in this monastery of nearly 70 members for eight years from 1212 to 1220.
These were very important years in the young saint's humanistic and intellectual development. He was surrounded with good teachers and a vast, up-to-date library.
Fernando completely dedicated himself to the study of human and theological sciences in an attempt to remove himself from the tensions in the community. The years in Coimbra left a deep mark on the future apostle's personality and existential development.
Moreover, he already began to show signs of his solitary nature. He was a man indifferent to outward appearances and ostentations of any kind, without social ambitions or a desire to be seen in public, unless spurred on by the duty of spreading the Gospel. When it was time to leave Coimbra, he had become a man of mature stature.
His theological training, based on a solid biblical and patristic tradition, had been firmly engrained.
Fernando the priest
Fernando was ordained a priest in the monastery of Santa Cruz in Coimbra, probably in 1220.This would have made him twenty-five years old, and it thus appears that the canonical rule which forbids ordination before the age of thirty was for some reason waived for Fernando.
The Franciscan choice
Witness of blood
Towards the end of the summer of 1220, Fernando requested and obtained permission to leave the Canons Regular of St. Augustine to embrace the Franciscan way of life. Although it is not certain whether he had personally met the first Franciscans to arrive in the Iberian Peninsula, he had certainly heard about them and found their way of life appealing.
At that time, the mortal remains of several Franciscans, who had been martyred for their faith in Morocco, had been placed in two silver chests and transported by Prince Pedro and his retinue to Ceuta. They were then transferred to Algeciras, then to Seville and finally to Coimbra, where they were laid to rest in the Augustinian Church of Santa Cruz.
The deeds of the martyrs were written down and miracles were spoken of, which increased devotion to Franciscanism among the local people. Fernando's request to join the followers of Francis of Assisi stemmed from a strong vocation to missionary life and, in particular, from his desire for martyrdom in imitation of these friars.
Anthony the missionary
In September 1220, Fernando removed the white tunic of the Augustinians and was invested in the coarse habit of the Friars Minor.
He abandoned his baptismal name for that of Anthony, the Egyptian hermit, after whom the Franciscan Hermitage of St. Anthony dos Olivais was named.
After a brief period of study of the Franciscan Rule, Anthony was sent to Morocco.
The itinerary he followed is unknown. It is very likely that Anthony was accompanied by another friar, a standard Franciscan practice, however, this man too is unknown to us.
Having arrived in the territory of the Miramolino, in Marrakech, it is said that Anthony was welcomed as a guest into the home of a resident Christian family. To communicate with the Muslims, Anthony may have spoken Arabic, not so surprising as he had grown up in bilingual Lisbon, or he may have relied on the linguistic abilities of this companion.
However, because of an undetermined tropical illness, Anthony was unable to fulfil his mission preaching of the Gospel to the Muslims.
The illness was so severe that, while not giving up his aim of martyrdom, he was obliged to leave Morocco and to return home to Portugal.
But fate was again to play a part, when a storm and unfavourable winds carried the ship off course to Sicily. Tradition says that St. Anthony disembarked at Milazzo (Messina). As his talents were still unknown, his new community did not give Anthony any responsibilities. His Sicilian convalescence lasted for about two months.
Anthony then left Sicily for the Italian mainland to take part in the General Chapter being held in Assisi from May 30 - June 8, 1221. As a recent foreign recruit from Lisbon, Anthony was not known and probably spent the nine days of the assembly isolated and alone, immersed in observation and reflection.
When the General Chapter came to an end, none of the Ministers Provincial appeared interested in taking this undistinguished friar back with them to their jurisdictions. But Anthony was finally noticed by Friar Gratian, the Minister Provincial of Romagna. Having heard that the young man was a priest, Friar Gratian asked Anthony to come with him.
Hermit at Montepaolo
In the company of Gratian of Bagnacavallo and other friars from Romagna, Anthony arrived at Montepaolo in June 1221.
His days were spent in prayer, meditation and humble service to his brothers.
During this period, the future saint was able to mature his Franciscan vocation, renew his ascetic practices and purify himself in contemplation.
Most biographies state that Anthony remained at Montepaolo until Pentecost (May 22), or at the latest, until September of the same year.
Right from the start, given his obvious devotion, the brothers treated Anthony with reverence.
Having seen that one of his companions had transformed a grotto into a solitary cell, Anthony asked if he could use it.
Thus, every morning, after community prayers, Anthony hurried to his grotto (which is still carefully preserved today), to live alone with God in the discipline of penitence, intimate prayer, prolonged readings of the scriptures and contemplation.
For the canonical hours and for meals, Anthony joined his companions.
But by his fervent penances he so exhausted his fragile health with fasts and vigils that, more than once, when the sound of the bell called him to community events, it is said that Anthony tottered in and would have collapsed had the other friars not held him up.
When Anthony asked how he could be of service to the community, the guardian of the friary assigned him to wash the crockery and sweep the floors.
Preacher and teacher
The hour of the call
In September, 1222, the Dominicans and Franciscans gathered together at the cathedral in Forlì for the ordination of some of their community members. As was the custom, a sermon was to be offered at the liturgy, but for some reason no one had been chosen to give it.
The superior of Montepaolo asked Anthony to speak after the others had declined because they were not prepared. The young friar tried to avoid the summons, but he bowed to the superior's insistence and began to speak serenely. As his speech progressed in articulate Latin, the words became more entrancing.
In spite of his initial reticence, Anthony's profound knowledge of the Bible and his engaging eloquence could not help but shine through and impress all who were present.
After the ordination ceremony, the formerly unnoticed Portuguese brother, the quiet and dutiful hermit, was thrust into the centre of attention of his community. He returned to Montepaolo and bid farewell to his peaceful grotto, asking his brother friars to remember him and to pray for him.
Anthony the preacher
After the revelation of Anthony's abilities at Forlì, his superiors asked him to preach in the towns and villages of Romagna. Thus St. Anthony began his mission as a preacher. He spoke to the people, sharing in their lowly and troubled lives. He alternated his commitment to education with works for peace; he taught theology to the friars, heard confessions and confronted heretics in private and public.
Romagna was also afflicted by civil war: the cities were torn apart by suspicion, conspiracy and the violence of rival families. As if this were not enough, the heresy of the Cathari was rampant and attracting more and more followers.
The Church was slow to react and when it did, its response was unsuccessful. The heretics continued to spread distorted theories and sow dangerous doubts.
An important incident took place at Rimini in 1223 where, according to tradition, St. Anthony overcame the obstinacy of one heretic, who did not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Theologian in Bologna
Toward the end of 1223, Anthony was invited to teach theology in the city of Bologna.
For two years he taught the fundamental truths of the Catholic faith. For two years from the age of 28-30, he taught the basic truths of faith to clergy and laypeople using a simple but efficient method. He first read a sacred text and then interpreted it in an involving way which spoke to the listener's faith.
St. Anthony was thus the first teacher of theology of the newly-established Franciscan Order, the first link in a chain of theologians, preachers and writers, who over the centuries have brought honour to the Church.
"Anthony, my bishop"
Francis of Assisi was hesitant about his brother friars dedicating themselves to the study of theology, as the Rule made clear. But given Anthony's solid foundation and his moral integrity, an exception was made.
The authenticity of the brief letter sent to Anthony by St. Francis is now widely accepted by scholars.
The text, translated from the Italian version of Kajetan Esser, is as follows:
"To brother Anthony, my bishop, I wish you health. I approve of your teaching theology to the brothers, provided that, on account of this study, you do not diminish the spirit of holy prayer and devotion, as is ordained in the Rule. Be well."
The great Franciscan scholar Raoul Manselli saw this letter as authorisation for Anthony to teach sacred theology to the friars. The letter is thus "a text of considerable importance" having "great value and significance for the entire history of the Order which must be understood and explained in view of its importance".
And in his itinerant apostolate, both in Italy and in France, Anthony began introducing intensive preaching into the catechetical training of the new recruits of the Order, therefore "he must have already received the permission granted in Francis' brief letter… "
It seems that Francis' initial hesitation regarding the study of theology reflected the mistrust that often existed between the learned and the unlearned of his day.
Francis never wanted his brother friars to forget 'humility'.
Theologian for his brothers
The friars asked St. Anthony to come and teach theology.
They were in touch with the people and were saddened and alarmed at the inferiority of the young Franciscan Order, which together with the Dominicans was called by an ever-growing number of faithful to fill the gap left by the diocesan in the areas of pastoral work and religious instruction.
The teaching of Theology emulated the initiative of the Dominican Order, known as the "Order of Preachers", which established a theological school in Bologna in 1219, while St. Dominic was still alive.
A lesson with St. Anthony
What would a theology lesson with St. Anthony have been like?
According to the methods of the time, which Anthony also followed, allegory played an important role in explaining doctrine, as did constant references to the Bible.
This style encouraged:
- a clarity of concepts,
- expressions which avoided useless redundancies,
- a concern to be persuasive and practical,
- involvement of the entire person (rationally, emotionally and imaginatively),
- all of which persuaded the listener to follow the biblical dictates in daily life.
Doctor of the Church
Among his contemporaries and in the generations immediately afterwards, Anthony was held to be a master of Christian knowledge and an unequalled biblical scholar.
One historian says that St. Anthony possessed such eminent knowledge that he was able to use his memory instead of books, and he knew how to express himself with abundant grace in mystic language. The profoundness of his lecturing entranced his listeners.
The Roman Curia welcomed Anthony to preach to them, and afterwards Pope Gregory IX complemented him by calling Anthony "the Ark of the Testament".
In 1931, the seven-hundredth anniversary of St. Anthony's death, the Congregation of Rites discussed Anthony's teachings. They stated:
"Se sia da confermarsi il culto di Dottore tributato per secoli a sant’Antonio di Padova e se sia da estendersi alla Chiesa universale, con ufficio e messa del comune dei dottori". "The cult of Doctor, attributed for centuries to St. Anthony of Padua, is to be confirmed and extended into in the liturgical office of the universal Church".
Pope Pius XII had the honour of affirming this title on January 16, 1946, with the Apostolic Letter Exsulta, Lusitania felix ('Rejoice, happy Portugal'). "St. Anthony is a Doctor of the Church with the title "doctor evangelicus".
In fact, this formal apostolic recognition delayed by seven centuries was merely a confirmation of a belief that had come into existence shortly after Anthony's death.
(to be continued)