St Anthony Turns Lost into Found

Author: Charles Paolino

St Anthony Turns Lost into Found

Charles Paolino
Permanent Deacon
Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey

On the Saint of Padua for his Memorial, 13 June

"Tony, Tony, turn around", goes an old couplet, "something's lost and must be found".

The Tony in this rhyme is St Anthony of Padua, and if the tone seems casual it may be because Anthony is among the most popular of saints.

The Franciscan, whose feast day is 13 June, the date of his death in 1231, is well known to the devout and the worldly alike as the "finder of lost articles". In this capacity, he has been invoked for eight centuries, often in the more reverent words composed by his fellow friar, Julian of Spires:

"The sea obeys, and fetters break, and lifeless limbs thou dost restore, while treasures lost are found again when young and old thy aid implore".

St Anthony became associated with lost articles because he himself is said to have lost, and regained, a book of Psalms in which he had made notes to use in his teaching.

According to this widely accepted story, the book was taken by a novice who had decided to leave the Franciscan community in which Anthony taught. Anthony prayed that the Psalter would turn up, and it did — along with the errant novice, who returned to the Franciscan fold.

Of course, there was much more to St. Anthony's life than the incident that made him famous, so to speak.

He was born Fernando Martins de Bulhoes in August 1195 in Lisbon, Portugal. In fact, in his native country he is called St Anthony of Lisbon. His parents, wealthy members of the nobility, intended him for a career in the Church, although they did not have in mind the kind of career he chose.

After studying at the cathedral school in Lisbon, he brushed aside any notion of a prestigious post and at 15 joined the Canons Regular of St Augustine, a strict community housed outside the city walls. It turned out that this move was not far enough to suit the young man, because his study and prayer were repeatedly disrupted by visits from his friends and relatives.

Two years later, therefore, he got permission to relocate to the mother house of his congregation, located in Coimbra, 195 km north of Lisbon. He remained there for eight years. During that time, Ferdinand was impressed by a group of Franciscans who took up residence in the area in a hermitage dedicated to St Anthony of Egypt, a 3rd century hermit.

Then, in 1220, Ferdinand witnessed the return to Coimbra of the bodies of five Franciscans whom he had met the year before and who had been executed while preaching in Morocco. Ferdinand — who had grown up among Muslim people in Lisbon — decided to go to Morocco himself, and he joined the Order of Friars Minor, adopting the name Anthony.

He did go to Africa in 1221, soon became chronically ill, and sailed again for Portugal, but his ship ran into bad weather and was grounded on the coast of Sicily. While he was recuperating, Anthony learned that a general Pentecost chapter of the friars would be held that spring in Assisi, so he travelled there.

After Assisi, he joined a community of friars near Forli in the Emilia-Romagna region in northeast Italy. It was a pivotal event in his life. Anthony might have remained an obscure friar in the out-of-the-way monastery were it not for an ordination rite scheduled to take place there with a large number of Dominican monks on hand. Through a breakdown in planning, no homilist had been assigned for the liturgy, and the Dominicans objected that they were not prepared to preach.

The superior turned to Anthony who agreed more out of obedience than out of confidence and, after a halting start, he delivered an eloquent homily that had a dramatic impact. After this incident, the minister provincial dispatched Anthony to preach throughout the region of Lombardy, and he built a lasting reputation for the content and presentation of his homilies, illuminating the scriptures, denouncing heresy, and calling for social justice.

Anthony also had an intermittent career as a teacher of young friars after getting Francis of Assisi to endorse the idea in 1224. Francis, at that point, was wary of anything that might undermine the core ideals of Franciscan life — fraternity among the friars and commitment to the poor. His concern was expressed in his answer to Anthony:

"It pleases me that you should teach sacred theology to the brothers as long as — in the words of the rule — 'you do not extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion with study of this kind'".

Anthony did teach at Bologna, and at Montpellier and Toulouse in the south of France. Ultimately, Anthony joined a small group of friars outside Padua between Venice and Verona, and he influenced local authorities to establish a relief program for people who were heavily in debt.

During Lent in 1231, he preached at several locations in Padua each day. Exhausted, he retired to a hermitage outside the town, but he contracted a serious illness and died at the age of 36.

Numerous miracles were attributed to him, and Pope Gregory IX declared him a saint less than a year later — 30 May 1232. Anthony's remains were placed in 1236 in the Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua, which was still under construction.

This man, who died 773 years ago, is one of the most familiar figures in Christian art. Since the 17th century, he has been portrayed in paintings and statues holding the infant Jesus, a lily, or both. There has been a great deal of speculation about the significance of these traditions, including an apparition of the infant while Anthony was engaged in solitary prayer and the symbolic association of the lily with purity, innocence and integrity.

Because he was so active in Italy, Anthony has been a traditional favourite of Italians, and churches established among Italian expatriates were often dedicated to him.

An example is St Anthony of Padua parish in Red Bank, New Jersey, established as an ethnic parish in 1920 during a period of heavy Italian immigration to the United States that was stemmed by the imposition of quotas in 1924.

Deacon Arthur Fama, who ministers at the church, estimated that from 25 to 30 percent of the parishioners have an Italian background, but that the number of Latino members has grown significantly in recent years.

Deacon Fama said the parish conducts a nine-day devotion to St Anthony in connection with his feast, and that it continues the tradition of distributing "St Anthony's bread" on the feast day.

"We obtain rolls for that day", the deacon said, "and they are blessed by the priest or by me and given to people who come to Mass". The bread is symbolic of the charity that St Anthony practiced and inspired in others.

St Anthony is, perhaps, memorialized nowhere more prominently than in the American city that bears his name — San Antonio, Texas, the seventh largest city in the United States. The place and the river that runs through it were first named in his honour by a group of Spanish explorers and missionaries who arrived at the spot on 13 June 1691.

One hundred and forty-five years later, San Antonio was the scene of a celebrated battle when a Mexican army at least a thousand strong seeking to regain control of southern Texas overwhelmed the Alamo, a fort being defended by about 200 Americans, including the famed frontiersman Davy Crockett. The Alamo had been built in 1724 as a Spanish mission dedicated to St Anthony.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10 June 2009, page 16

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069