As Catholics celebrate the feast day of St. Anthony on June 13, Stephen Lynch, OFM, former rector of St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, offers this detailed summary of his life and work.
Anthony died at age 36. From age 15 – 25, he lived as a Canon Regular of St. Augustine. He was a Franciscan priest for the last 11 years of his life. He amazed his listeners with his speaking skill and knowledge of the Bible. Anthony was made a saint only a year after his death.
Anthony’s 13th century world was divided into two camps: Christian and Muslim. Those two hostile camps were guided by the sacred writings of the Bible and the Koran. Islam controlled much of the Western world of Anthony’s day.
It was in Coimbra, Portugal, that Anthony met the Franciscan missionaries Berard and his five companions. They stopped at Coimbra on their way to Morocco. St. Francis of Assisi, shortly after he founded the Franciscan Order, sent these first Franciscan missionaries to preach Jesus Christ to the Muslim world in the year 1220. They were in Morocco only a short time when they suffered martyrdom for their Christian faith. Their bodies were returned to Italy. On the way back to Italy, they were laid in state in the Coimbra Augustinian monastery where Anthony resided.
Thanks to these first Franciscan martyrs, Anthony discovered his vocation as a Franciscan. The blood of martyrs is not only the seed of faith, but also the seed of vocations. The story of their martyrdom so inspired Anthony that he decided to become a Franciscan missionary. He asked and received permission to go as a missionary to Morocco. The great goal of Anthony’s life was to die a martyr. But Anthony was soon to learn a hard lesson. The goal he set for himself, and the goal God had in mind for him turned out to be quite different.
Anthony had hardly arrived in Morocco when he became gravely ill and was forced to return home. As a missionary, Anthony did not preach one sermon, convert one Moor, lose even one drop of his blood at Saracen hands. Anthony failed in the most cherished goal of his life. But his failure did not leave him bitter, cynical or filled with self-pity. He realized God had other plans for him. Anthony’s challenge was to discover what God wanted, rather than what he wanted. Anthony saw failure as a kind of heaven-sent guidepost telling him that God was leading him in another direction. Failure in what Anthony considered the primary goal of his life, to be a martyr, turned into the vehicle by which he became the extraordinary saint that he is today.
Life in a Franciscan Hermitage
In order to discover what God had in mind for him, Anthony went to live in a little Franciscan hermitage on the top of Monte Paolo for about one year. Long periods of solitude and prayer were interspersed with manual labor, such as cooking and washing dishes for the community. On top of this mountain, Anthony worked out in his personal life the wisdom of the 46th Psalm: “Be still and know that I am God.” On this mountain, God gave Anthony the gift of understanding the importance of letting God be God in your life.
Anthony then shared this gift of wisdom with others in his great ministry of preaching. Anthony delivered sermons before huge crowds in Florence and Padua, where he was later buried. He showed deep concern for the common people, who loved him as their protector.
The eloquence of Anthony’s preaching and the holiness of his life made a profound impression on everyone, including St. Francis of Assisi. We have only one recorded encounter between two of the church’s greatest saints. St. Francis wrote a short, personal letter to Anthony appointing him as the first Franciscan teacher of theology. Francis of Assisi and Anthony of Padua were contemporaries. Francis was born in Italy; Anthony in Portugal. Anthony died at age 36 on June 13, 1231. Francis died at the age of 45 in the year 1221.
The secret of Anthony’s remarkable spiritual life can be explained by two of Anthony’s special devotions — a profound devotion to Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and a tender devotion to Mary as his spiritual mother.
Devotion to God Mightier Than All Else
Pope Pius XII suggested we go to St. Anthony, not just for favors, but to learn the path of holiness of life. St. Anthony modeled the great teaching found in the Book of Wisdom: Devotion to God is mightier than all else.
When I was rector of St. Anthony Shrine in downtown Boston in the’80s, I saw the power of St. Anthony’s intercession. People by the thousands came to pray before his statue. Many were seeking help from pain and suffering that challenged their faith in God. Some were in deep depression, even bordering on despair. While St. Anthony did not always remove their pain and suffering, he helped them to bear their cross as Jesus did, with courage, patience and firm conviction that God loves them despite His permitting them to suffer.
St. Anthony helped them to understand the great truth taught by St. Paul: “Jesus learned obedience to the Divine Will and came to realize his own perfection through the things that he suffered.”
St. Anthony gives us hope when things appear hopeless. While there is probably much to be said for the song, “I did it my way,” St. Anthony’s life was a different song: “I did it God’s way.”
— Stephen, a resident of Providence, R.I., writes frequently for religious and secular publications.