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Seasonal Reflection: Saint Known as the Humble Theologian

In commemoration of the Feast of All Saints celebrated Nov. 1, a Ministry of the Word friar reflects on the life of St. Anthony of Padua, particularly his reputation as a prominent theologian. Throughout November, saints and souls are traditionally remembered.

St. Anthony of Padua is known most of all as the wonder worker and finder of lost things. The older you get, the more you invoke him under the latter title. But Anthony was more than that. He was a great and humble theologian. St. Francis recognized his theological knowledge and humility. As the first semester of the academic year is quickly progressing, it is good to reflect on Anthony the theologian.

I remember taking my oral comps before the scholars of the Franciscan Institute in 2005. They asked me to talk about Anthony. In the conversation, I said: “Anthony was a theologian after the heart of Francis.” They all vibrated with the phrase and later one of them told me how much he liked the expression.

But what does it mean? It means many things but basically Anthony had a profound knowledge of theology, a good way of teaching it and a prayerful, humble attitude about it. He was not a know-it-all nor was he proud. He simply knew God from his prayer and his books, and inspired his students and listeners.

His theological background came from the Augustinians and their famous school of Coimbra in Portugal. Those teachers had been trained in the University of Paris under the well-known school of St. Victor, Hugh, Richard, and others. It was heavily oriented toward St. Augustine and his theology of love, seeking, the Trinity, and other aspects.

The Franciscan sources bear this out. One commentator even calls Anthony the first theologian of the Franciscan school, even before Alexander of Hales. Anthony had a photographic memory so that he could quote the Bible almost word for word, and he was proclaimed the Evangelical Doctor for that reason among others.

When Anthony joined the Franciscans, he landed in Italy at Assisi in a chapter without a job so a kind provincial sent him to novitiate to wash dishes. He never complained about his apparent downgrade but did his job humbly. Then his impromptu ordination homily in Forli unveiled his deep theology and his humble way of communicating it. He was sent to convert the heretics in France but also preached to the Pope and his cardinals. Later Gregory IX (Cardinal Hugolino), his friend, called him the “hammer of heretics.” But that sounds like Anthony bludgeoned them intellectually. I doubt that was his real method. He humbly spoke the gospel truth and that won them over by the hundreds. He convinced them as much by humble love as by reasoned truth.

When the question came up for Anthony to teach theology to the young friars, some say it was Elias’s idea, and that well may be. But before Anthony accepted, he wanted permission from Francis because he knew the mind of Francis on know-it-all theologians — hence the Letter to Anthony. In it Francis calls him “my bishop” even though Anthony was not one. It is a term of endearment and esteem. Francis also reminds Anthony not to extinguish “the Holy Spirit and his holy operation,” advice similar to that given to the preachers and the friars in the Rule, but also apropos to a theologian in a special way.

Anthony went on to become the model Franciscan theologian according to the mind and heart of Francis. As such, he inspires us down to the present day.

— Fr. Raphael, co-director of Holy Name Province’s Ministry of the Word, resides at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston.