Although later an official in the royal Spanish court, St. Anthony Claret was the son of a weaver, and he himself learned and practiced the craft, as well as the craft of printing.
Throughout this craftman’s period, this deeply religious young man intended to enter the service of the Church. Although ordained a diocesan priest in 1835, he still thought he was called to the religious life. Would it be as a Carthusian hermit or a Jesuit missionary? His own uncertain health eventually provided the answer. The hermit’s life was too rigorous for his frail constitution, and when he became a Jesuit novice and then took ill, the Jesuit superior advised him to go back home and work as a missionary among his own people.
For the next ten years, Father Anthony traveled through his native Catalonia, giving missions and retreats, with the Holy Eucharist and the Immaculate Heart of Mary as his constant themes. Thus he came to be one of Spain’s best-known preachers. To promote home missions still more effectively, he not only aided St. Joaquina de Mas Vedruna, foundress of the Carmelite Sisters of Charity, but also in 1849 founded, to continue his missionary efforts, the “Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary,” (C.F.M.), better know as the “Claretians.”
In 1850, Father Anthony was named archbishop of Santiago, Cuba. During his initial pastoral tours of this archdiocese, he saw that religious reform was an urgent necessity. There were too many common-law marriages; there were too many children born out of wedlock. But not all Cubans were ready to accept reform. A violent anti-Christian clique tried several times to take the archbishop’s life. One man almost succeeded. He seriously wounded Claret after the archbishop had converted the would-be-assassin’s mistress to a better life. The assailant was condemned to death, but St. Anthony pleaded successfully for his life. Meanwhile Anthony the saint was also helping his Cuban people by promoting modern agricultural techniques and establishing credit unions for the poor.
In 1857, Isabella II, the reigning queen of Spain, called the archbishop home to become her confessor. Actually Anthony stayed away from her court activities as much as possible, and renewed his preaching apostolate. (He is said to have preached 10,000 sermons in his life!) Once again, he also promoted knowledge and devotion by positive means. At Barcelona he established the Libreria Religiosa, which distributed thousands of religious and cultural works. He himself wrote some 200 of these books and pamphlets. He likewise set up a science laboratory, a museum of natural history, and schools of music and languages. But in his efforts as a communicator he continued to be motivated by his deeply charismatic spirituality.
Despite Anthony’s detachment from court life, he became the object of vicious slander on the part of the queen’s enemies. When the latter revolted and deposed Isabella in 1868, the archbishop also had to flee the country. He went to Italy and took an active part in the First Vatican Council. Then he settled, for the time being, at Narbonne, France, hoping that he might be soon re-admitted to Spain. But he died in exile on October 24, 1870. Pope Pius XII canonized this very modern churchman in 1950.
The Claretian Fathers came to the United States in 1902. Since then they have been active in the care of the Spanish-speaking. They likewise do considerable publishing, in the spirit of their founder. (U.S.Catholic is one of their publications.) In 1925 they inaugurated the national shrine of St. Jude in Chicago. American popular devotion to this “saint of the impossible” owes much to the efforts of these disciples of St. Anthony Claret.
–Father Robert F. McNamara