Next to Mary, St. Anthony is perhaps the most often invoked of all saints. Although the Italian city of Padua claims him by reason of his death there, Lisbon claims him by reason of his birth, for Anthony was Portuguese by nationality.
Born Ferdinand de Bulhoes, he was the son of a nobleman, who sent him to Lisbon’s cathedral school. Talented, but also very devout by nature, the lad joined the Augustinian Canons when only 15. But he found that their monastery was too close to Lisbon for his own spiritual good. At his request, therefore, he was transferred to the Augustinian house at Coimbra. There he devoted himself intensively to prayer and study.
In 1220, Don Pedro of Portugal brought back from Morocco the remains of several Franciscan missionaries who had lately been martyred by the Moors. Deeply moved, Fernando began to wish that he, too, might die for Christ. He therefore joined the new Franciscan order. (It had received papal approval only eleven years before.) Given the religious name of Anthony or Antony, he was soon permitted to sail for Morocco in order to preach to the Muslim Moors.
Martyr he would not become, however. God had other plans. Soon after his arrival in Africa Anthony was stricken with a prolonged illness, which necessitated his recall to Portugal after only a few months. He did not even reach Lisbon. Adverse winds blew his ship far off course, so that it finally docked at Messina in Sicily!
Learning at Messina that an important assembly of the Friars Minor was about to take place in Assisi, Anthony set out for there and arrived in time for the meeting, which opened on May 30, 1221. St. Francis of Assisi was on hand, although he had just resigned the headship of the order. The meeting concluded with the reassignment of the friars. Anthony was officially transferred from the Portuguese to the Italian province of the Franciscans and sent to a little friary in out-of-the-way Forli.
The Italian friars did not yet know the talents of this quiet Portuguese newcomer. However, not long after his arrival in Forli, he was called upon to substitute as preacher at an ordination ceremony. Yielding out of obedience, Anthony preached a sermon that so thrilled the audience that his superiors sent him out to preach throughout northern Italy and southern France. He quickly achieved an enviable reputation as a missionary, particularly because of his ability to convert some of the brightest of the Albigensian heretics who were operating in the regions assigned to him.
Anthony’s career was now cut out for him: it would not be martyrdom but oracular preaching. Though not physically pre-possessing (he was short and pudgy), he had skill, learning, charisma, and the power to work miracles that enabled him to convert the most hardened souls. Pope Gregory IX would call him “Treasury of Holy Scripture” because of his strongly biblical preaching. Assigned thereafter to residence in Padua, he toured the country, evangelizing, serving as an arbitrator, and defending the poor even against political bigwigs. In fact, this tireless apostolic work undermined his frail health, and he died at the early age of 39.
Inevitably, stories and legends clustered around this much-loved friar.
For instance, when he was preaching conversion to a heretical group at Rimini, and they would not listen, he was inspired to preach to the fish in the nearby river. The longer he preached, the more the fish gathered, giving every sign of understanding him. Impressed by this wonder, the heretics had a change of heart.
On another occasion his host saw Anthony in rapture, holding the Christchild in his arms. Pictures and statues of the saint usually depict this moment of his life. Still another story says that a novice made off one time with the saint’s psalmbook. Anthony prayed for its return. The guilty novice thereupon experienced such a frightening apparition that he hastened to bring back the purloined book. Perhaps St. Anthony’s skill in retrieving lost objects is based on this recollection.
But Anthony of Padua/Lisbon was not merely a spiritual clone of St. Francis of Assisi and a charismatic preacher. He was also a brilliant theologian, the first in the Franciscan order. In testimony of this brilliance, Pope Pius XII, in 1946, declared Anthony a doctor of the Church, and bestowed on him the title “Doctor Evangelicus”, “Evangelic Doctor.” His feastday is June 13.
–Father Robert F. McNamara