Stories and Curiosities

Anthony of Padua: history of the saint

Saint Anthony of Padua was a Portuguese Catholic priest and friar of the Franciscan Order. Noted by his contemporaries for his powerful preaching, expert knowledge of scripture, and undying love and devotion to the poor and the sick, he was one of the most quickly canonized saints in church history.

Early years

Fernando Martins de Bulhões was born in Lisbon, Portugal.
His wealthy and noble family arranged for him to be instructed at the local cathedral school. At the age of 15, he entered the community of Canons Regular of the Order of the Holy Cross at the Augustinian Abbey of Saint Vincent on the outskirts of Lisbon.

In 1212, he asked to be transferred to the motherhouse of the congregation, the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Coimbra to study theology and Latin.

The Franciscan Order

While he was in Coimbra, some Franciscan friars arrived and settled at a small hermitage outside Coimbra dedicated to Saint Anthony of Egypt.
Fernando was strongly attracted to the simple, evangelical lifestyle of the friars, whose order had been founded only 11 years prior.
Inspired by their example, Fernando obtained permission from church authorities to leave the Canons Regular to join the new Franciscan order.

Upon his admission to the life of the friars, he joined the small hermitage in Olivais, adopting the name Anthony, by which he was to be known.

Anthony then set out for Morocco, in fulfillment of his new vocation. However, he fell seriously ill in Morocco and set sail back for Portugal in hope of regaining his health. On the return voyage, the ship was blown off course and landed in Sicily.

From Sicily, he made his way to Tuscany, and then to Forlì.

One day in 1222, in the town of Forlì, on the occasion of an ordination, a number of visiting Dominican friars were present, and some misunderstanding arose over who should preach. The Franciscans naturally expected that one of the Dominicans would occupy the pulpit, for they were renowned for their preaching; the Dominicans, though, had come unprepared, thinking that a Franciscan would be the homilist. In this quandary, the head of the hermitage, who had no one among his own humble friars suitable for the occasion, called upon Anthony, whom he suspected was most qualified, and entreated him to speak whatever the Holy Spirit should put into his mouth.

Anthony objected, but was overruled, and his sermon created a deep impression. Not only his rich voice and arresting manner, but also the entire theme and substance of his discourse and his moving eloquence, held the attention of his hearers. Everyone was impressed with his knowledge of scripture, acquired during his years as an Augustinian friar.

Death

Anthony became sick with ergotism in 1231, and went to the woodland retreat at Camposampiero with two other friars for a respite. There, he lived in a cell built for him under the branches of a walnut tree. Anthony died on the way back to Padua on 13 June 1231 at the Poor Clare monastery at Arcella (now part of Padua), aged 35.

According to the request of Anthony, he was buried in the small church of Santa Maria Mater Domini, probably dating from the late 12th century and near a convent which had been founded by him in 1229. Nevertheless, due to his increased notability, construction of a large basilica began around 1232, although it was not completed until 1301. The smaller church was incorporated into structure as the Cappella della Madonna Mora (Chapel of the Dark Madonna). The basilica is commonly known today as “Il Santo”.

Various legends surround the death of Anthony. One holds that when he died, the children cried in the streets and that all the bells of the churches rang of their own accord. Another legend regards his tongue. Anthony is buried in a chapel within the large basilica built to honor him, where his tongue is displayed for veneration in a large reliquary along with his jaw and his vocal cords. When his body was exhumed 30 years after his death, it was found turned to dust, but the tongue was claimed to have glistened and looked as if it were still alive and moist; apparently a further claim was made that this was a sign of his gift of preaching. On 1 January 1981, Pope John Paul II authorized a scientific team to study the saint’s remains and the tomb was opened on 6 January.

Anthony was canonized by Pope Gregory IX on 30 May 1232, at Spoleto, Italy, less than one year after his death.

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