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SAINT ANTHONY OF PADUA

Confessor and Doctor of the Church, c.1195-1231

 

 IF Saint Anthony is remembered today mainly as a saint to whom prayers are addressed when articles are lost, his own time had a quite different view of him. To people then, he was an inspiring preacher who could make the word of God live in their hearts as few other men could. Born in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1195, he joined a community of Augustinian canons when he was fifteen; after two years he was transferred to one of the order's houses in Coimbra, then Portugal's capital, and there, in 1221, he saw something that marked the turning point in his life: the relics of a number of Franciscan friars, who had been killed by the Moors in Morocco, being returned to Coimbra for burial. (Picture)

 Deeply impressed by the heroism of these men, Anthony decided to join the Franciscans and go to Morocco himself. After he had persuaded all the superiors involved to let him make the change, he was sent to Africa, but was unfortunate enough to become seriously ill, and had to start back for Portugal. When his ship was blown off course and landed in Sicily, Anthony, now thoroughly discouraged, abandoned thoughts of Portugal and Morocco and traveled up the Italian peninsula to Assisi, where Saint Francis was holding his last general chapter for his order. After the chapter, Anthony was sent, by his own request, to a hermitage at San Paolo, where he might have remained permanently if it had not been for an unexpected request for his services as a speaker.

 This occurred at an ordination ceremony that Anthony was attending with his superior. Through an oversight, no one had been appointed to give the sermon for the day, and none of the unprepared ecclesiastics were willing to give voice; in desperation it was finally suggested that Anthony the least qualified member there, apparently-give the sermon. The young man did so, and after a stumbling start amazed his audience by launching out into a profound and moving address. This burst of eloquence catapulted Anthony into fame; for the rest of his life, preaching, more than anything else, was his work. His order first sent him to northern Italy, which was infested with heretics of various sorts. He had great success there, not only because of his oratorical skill, but also because of his knowledge, which enabled him to give convincing refutations for the heretics' arguments. His acquaintance with Holy Scripture was especially profound, so much so that Saint Francis gave Anthony permission to fill the position of lector of theology in the order, a post Francis had not yet entrusted to anyone. About 1224 Anthony went to France for a two- or three-year period; he taught and preached there, his fame growing all the time. In 1227, after the death of Saint Francis, he returned to Italy, where he was stationed in the city of Padua.

 Anthony's preaching career reached its height in Padua; his appearances in the pulpit became the chief events in the city's life. He was outspoken against usury, or the charging of excessive interest on loans of money. This was a predominant vice in Padua and had such accompanying features as squalid debtors' prisons, filled with poor people who could not meet the exorbitant demands of the moneylenders. By preaching Christian charity, Anthony was able to curb the vicious practice, and even succeeded in getting laws passed that made it less easy for the usurers to jail people for debt. The poor, the oppressed, those most in need of charity and justice; these were the people Anthony worked for during the rest of his short life.

At thirty-six, his health ruined by overwork, Anthony died. Whether or not he was a miracle-worker during his lifetime has been disputed; there is no doubt, however, that he was such after his death. How the practice of praying to him for the return of lost articles originated is also obscure; some think it may have been inspired by a story (perhaps legendary) about a young friar who stole Anthony's psalter and, when the saint prayed for its return, had a vision of divine retribution that frightened him into returning the book. In art Anthony is often pictured with the Infant Christ, who is said to have descended and stood upon the book the saint was holding while he preached on the subject of the Incarnation. Anthony was canonized the year after his death and was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius VI in 1946.

 

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