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Seasonal Reflection: St. Anthony of Padua

by Emeric Meier, OFM

Meier, EmericIn anticipation of the Feast of St. Anthony on June 13, a friar based at a ministry named for the popular saint, describes the stories of St. Anthony who joined the Order just 11 years after its founding.

Nearly 100 years had passed. Now, the look back came with eyes moistened by nostalgia. Its vision stretched events of that golden era beyond the rigidity of facts. It broadened them to epic proportions. Yet, the stories in The Little Flowers of St. Francis became an Italian classic. And beneath its romantic veneer of exaggerations, a certain amount of rock-bottom information does reach out to those who might stand watching.

One hundred years had also passed since Anthony of Padua (some say of Lisbon) had gone to his God. And amidst the charm flowing from his particular story in these Franciscan folk tales, some hints peek out as to the role he played in the Church of his time. And of the equal importance, the role he played in the still-young Franciscan Order. His presence brought a calmness to suspicions some had raised over this wandering fraternity. Other such wanderers had come and gone. They, too, had concocted slogans to justify their existence. Most invoked the Holy Spirit for their instigator. Most died along the wayside, victims of their own arrogance and ignorance. Understandably, some occupying significant positions in the Church wondered out loud whether this latest band of vagabonds who followed this romantic fool from Assisi would not taste the same bitter fate.

anthony2At first glance, the Anthony story from The Little Flowers resembles merely a pious event. St. Anthony is preaching at a gathering of cardinals, with the pope also in attendance. The geography intermingled with the faces of the group reveal something international — dignitaries from various nations. The element of wonder seeps between the lines of these wonder tales because each one hears this preaching friar in his own language. Thus, the title of the story: “Saint Anthony Preaches in One Language and is Understood by People of Different Languages.”

The setting of the narrative of course is not modern. No one offered simultaneous translation. Therefore, this verbal outburst points to an event approaching biblical likeness. Told deliberately to echo the Pentecostal drama, it mirrors the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. And if future readers have not grasped this similarity, the storyteller himself points out how “it seemed that the ancient miracle of the apostles had been renewed.”

Feeding With the Rich Food of the Holy Spirit
Therefore this spiritual folk tale describes for onlookers a charismatic event. It further introduces into this experience the figure of St. Anthony as a charismatic figure. It labels him “that admirable vessel of the Holy Spirit.” And, it describes his preaching as “filled with the breath of the Holy Spirit, inflamed by the tongue of an apostle.” As the story draws to an end, it concludes that he had fed both pope and cardinals “with the rich food of the Holy Spirit.

Some say context provides meaning. That observation lends some support to moving more deeply into the lower layers of this story. The major element in its context would be the make-up of the audience to whom the friar addresses his remarks. Anthony is portrayed preaching to the leaders of the Church. He is addressing members of the hierarchy. It is within that gathering that the Holy Spirit is reported as moving as a powerful force.

Most charismatic movements leading up to the time of the Franciscans had found their niche far from the official arms of the Church. Many had gained popularity not only from inspiring the faithful but also from attacking the abuses of the institutional Church. And the attacks probably became more fierce as followers multiplied. These pilgrims of a new and purified Christian community presented themselves as a righteous force against the wrongs the Church… and its leadership. Imagining themselves inspired instruments, these change agents saw themselves jump-starting grass-route grumbling into established challenges from the lower levels of medieval society. The aim of their complaints usually tilted upward toward those who functioned at the top.

Most of these evangelical movements sprung up in the 12th century. The beginning of the 13th saw reform intentions sprinkled more broadly through the air. Those at the top had heard cries for change raised from below. By 1213, that urgency had taken shape in the call for The Fourth Lateran Council, which met in 1215. That council announced a new crusading thrust throughout Christendom. One prong of its twofold attack would direct itself to the Holy Land and the taking of the holy sites. The other prong would release new energies toward reform at home.

Older Catholics may remember the atmosphere surrounding the calling of a Council. Pope John XIII announced one such convocation in 1962. During the days of preparation, the faithful were asked to pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Such a gathering of Church leaders was regarded as a charismatic moment. The Second Vatican Council witnessed to the workings of the Holy Spirit, whose inspiration remember began at the top. It was a papal voice that sounded its necessity. That voice allowed the institutional Church to assume its charismatic role, invoking the Spirit to create another Pentecostal-like renewal.

Preaching the Charismatic Renewal of the Church
St. Francis founded his Order in 1209. St. Anthony joined in 1220. In between those two dates, a reform dynamic was spreading, spurred on by the 1215 Fourth Council of the Lateran. The forces of that convocation would stretch itself into something of an afterglow. By the time Anthony came upon the scene, the Church had lived a rebuilding agenda for five years. Much talk had settled into plans for implementation. Anthony walked out onto this particular point in Church history as though someone envisioned as a new model of leadership. He exhibited a ministry that was charismatic but also resting upon an exceptional theological education.

Poorly educated clergy was seen as one cause of the need for a council. He could be trusted to know the teachings of the Church while possessing a witnessing power that could preach that message with enormous conviction. He became a charismatic figure preaching the charismatic renewal of a Church Council. The power of the Spirit people found in this one person was overwhelming. He housed a spiritual surge that could flow from the bottom up and from the top down. He fulfilled his function as leader in an institutional Church but with the power of charismatic gifts.

Despite the voice that urged St. Francis to “Rebuild my house,” the little man from Assisi never set out to reform anyone but himself. Nor did he instruct his followers to do so. He merely attempted to live the Gospel. What reforms came from Francis and his followers came more as a byproduct of living their own lives according to the Rule they all promised to observe. And so with Anthony, who never set out to combat the enemies of the Church but to make it more convincingly a Gospel community. He urged the faithful both at the top and the bottom of the social and ecclesiastical scale to devote themselves more fervently to the message of the Scriptures and the Church. And because of that intention, the pope in our story from The Little Flowers of St. Francis labeled him, “The ark of the covenant and the repository of Holy Scripture.”

— Fr. Emeric is on staff at St. Anthony Shrine, Boston, where a commemoration of the ministry’s 65th anniversary is planned for June 13.