St. Anthony of Padua was born in the year 1195 at Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, where his father was a captain in the royal army. Already at the age of fifteen years the youth had entered the Congregation of Canons Regular of St. Augustine, and was devoting himself with great earnestness to study and to the practice of piety in the monastery at Coimbra, when a significant event, which occurred in the year 1220, changed his entire career.
The relics of St. Berard and companions, the first martyrs of the Franciscan Order, were being brought from Africa to Coimbra. At the sight of them, St. Anthony of Padua was seized with an intense desire to suffer martyrdom as a Franciscan missionary in Africa. In response to his repeated and humble petitions, the permission of his superiors to transfer to the Franciscan Order was reluctantly given. At his departure, one of the canons said to him ironically: “Go then, perhaps you will become a saint in the new order.” St. Anthony replied: “Brother, when you hear that I have become a saint, you will surely praise God for it.”
In the quiet little Franciscan convent at Coimbra he received a friendly reception, and in the very same year his earnest wish to be sent to the missions in Africa was fulfilled. But God had decreed otherwise. St. Anthony scarcely set foot on African soil when he was seized with a grievous illness. Even after recovering from it, he was so weak that, resigning himself to the will of God, he boarded a boat back to Portugal. But a storm drove the ship to the coast of Sicily, and St. Anthony went to Assisi, where the general chapter of the order was held in May, 1221.
As he still looked weak and sickly, and gave no evidence of his scholarship, no one paid any attention to the stranger until Father Gratian, provincial of Romagna, had compassion on him and sent him to the quiet little convent near Forli. There St. Anthony remained nine months occupied in the lowliest duties of the kitchen and convent, and to his heart’s content he practiced interior as well as exterior mortification.
But the hidden jewel was soon to appear in all its brilliance. St. Anthony was sent to Forli with some other brethren, to attend the ceremony of ordination. At the convent there the superior wanted somebody to give an address for the occasion. Everybody excused himself, saying that he was not prepared, until St. Anthony was finally asked to give it. When he, too, excused himself most humbly, his superior ordered him by virtue of the vow of obedience to give the sermon. St. Anthony began to speak in a very reserved manner; but soon holy animation seized him, and he spoke with such eloquence, learning, and unction that everybody was fairly amazed. When St. Francis was informed of the event, he gave St. Anthony the mission to preach all over Italy. At the request of the brethren, St. Anthony was later commissioned also to teach theology, “but in such a manner,” St. Francis distinctly wrote, “that the spirit of prayer be not extinguished either in yourself or in the other brethren.”
St. Anthony of Padua himself placed greater value on the salvation of souls than on learning. For that reason he never ceased to exercise his office as preacher along with the work of teaching. The concourse of hearers was sometimes so great that no church was large enough to accommodate the audiences and he had to preach in the open air. He wrought veritable miracles of conversion. Deadly enemies were reconciled with each other. Thieves and usurers made restitution of their ill-gotten goods. Calumniators and detractors recanted and apologized. He was so energetic in defending the truths of the Catholic Faith that many heretics re-entered the pale of the Church, so that Pope Gregory IX called him “the ark of the covenant.”
Once he was preaching at Rimini on the seacoast. He noticed that a group of heretics turned their backs to him and started to leave. Promptly the preacher turned to the sea and called out to the fishes: “Since the heretics do not wish to listen to me, do you come and listen to me!” And marvelous to say, shoals of fish came swimming and thrust their heads out of the water as if to hear the preacher. At this the heretics fell at St. Anthony’s feet and begged to be instructed in the truth.
The blessings of St. Anthony’s preaching were not confined to Italy. St. Francis sent him to France, where for about three years (1225-1227) he labored with blessed results in the convents of his order as well as in the pulpit. In all his labors he never forgot the admonition of his spiritual Father, that the spirit of prayer must not be extinguished. If he spent the day in teaching, and heard the confessions of sinners till late in the evening, then many hours of the night were spent in intimate union with God.
Once a man, at whose home St. Anthony was spending the night, came upon the saint and found him holding in his arms a child of unspeakable beauty surrounded with heavenly light. It was the Child Jesus.
In 1227, St. Anthony was elected minister provincial of upper Italy; and then he resumed the work of preaching. Due to his taxing labors and his austere practice of penance, he soon felt his strength so spent that he prepared himself for death. After receiving the last sacraments he kept looking upward with a smile on his countenance. When he was asked what he saw there, he answered: “I see my Lord.” Then he breathed forth his soul on June 13, 1231, being only thirty-six years old. Soon the children in the streets of the city of Padua were crying: “The saint is dead, Anthony is dead.”
Pope Gregory IX enrolled him among the saints in the very next year. At Padua a magnificent basilica was built in his honor, his holy relics were entombed there in 1263. From the time of his death up to the present day, countless miracles have occurred through St. Anthony’s intercession, so that he is known as the Wonder-Worker. In 1946 he was also declared a Doctor of the Church. All three branches of the First Order and the Third Order Regular observe his feast on June thirteenth. (Cf. Habig, Everyman’s Saint.)
ON THE VENERATION OF ST. ANTHONY
1. Consider how highly St. Anthony is honored by Holy Church. His feast is celebrated by the whole Catholic Church, and the priests celebrate holy Mass in his honor. In Franciscan churches, not only is this feast observed with great solemnity, but every Tuesday devotions in his honor are conducted before the exposed Blessed Sacrament, at which devotion all the faithful can gain a plenary indulgence. In Padua, where a magnificent basilica has been erected in his honor, he is called the Saint, as if there were no other that can compare with him, as when we style God’s Mother the Holy Virgin. Among Catholics there is hardly anyone who does not know the dear saint with the Infant Jesus. — Do you pay him due honor? Do you use the opportunity to gain the indulgence on Tuesday?
2. Consider that, judging by the measure with which God permits St. Anthony to be honored here on earth, his power in heaven must be very great. The experience of the whole Catholic world testifies to the fact. From the day of his death to the present time, he has been invoked in the most diverse needs, and these prayers are answered in a most remarkable manner. — Have you not had the experience yourself? Call upon him with confidence in every necessity, and in case of serious trouble make the devotion of the nine Tuesdays.
3. Consider that in a special way St. Anthony is invoked as the restorer of lost objects. God usually gives the saints a power of intercession in keeping with the way by which they were distinguished in life. Now St. Anthony once missed a book of the Psalms which he valued very highly because he had written so many comments on the Psalms in it. He prayed earnestly to his dear Jesus to restore the book to him, and behold, soon afterwards a young man who had taken the book came to him, driven by some indescribable fear, and brought it back to him. Pray to St. Anthony and to the Divine Child with similar fervor, and you will experience his power. But let us not only pray for lost temporal things, but particularly for the more precious gifts of the soul. For example, let us pray for that devotion we used to have and have lost, for our lost patience, our lost zeal for all that is good. May he gladden us by restoring it so that we may one day rejoice with him in eternal bliss.
PRAYER OF THE CHURCH
O God, may the votive commemoration of St. Anthony, Thy confessor and doctor, be a joy to Thy Church, that she may always be fortified with spiritual assistance and deserve to enjoy eternal happiness. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.