Saint Anthony, the Wonder Worker of Padua

Saint Anthony of Padua is always pictured holding a lily, symbol of his purity, and the Christ Child, symbolic of a unique mystical experience Anthony had during his life that was witnessed by a benefactor who gave Anthony a place to stay for the night. When passing the saint’s room, he observed that rays of unusual light came through the cracks of the door. Approaching the door, he saw Anthony kneeling as if in ecstasy, admiring and caressing a child of rare beauty, the Christ Child, who was tenderly embracing the saint.

By Dr. Joan M. Kelly

After St. Joseph (and perhaps St. Jude), could there be a more beloved and invoked saint than St. Anthony of Padua, whose feast we celebrate on June 13? Called upon as the reliable founder of lost articles, St. Anthony’s life and legacy are far greater than this role for which he is well known and revered.

Anthony's beginnings were far from northern Italy. He was born into a prominent family in the year 1195 in Lisbon, Portugal. Feeling called by God to the religious life, Anthony entered the Augustinians at the age of 15 and spent more than 10 years of intense study learning Augustinian theology, which ultimately led to his ordination in the year 1220. 

Franciscan priest
Most of us, however, correctly associate Anthony with the Franciscan order. Franciscans had been preaching at a mosque in Seville, Spain, and then Morocco where they were martyred. Their remains, with great pageantry, were carried to the monastery in Coimbra, Portugal, where Anthony was living at the time. Inspired by this sight, Anthony expressed a desire that he, too, become a Franciscan and win the martyr’s crown.

The young monk, still being called by his baptismal name, Fernando, took the vows of the Franciscan order and assumed the name Anthony in honor of the third-century patriarch of hermits, Anthony of Egypt.

Anthony’s desired martyr’s crown was not to be , however. The Franciscans did allow him to go to Morocco, but while there, he fell ill and needed to return home. Enroute, he was shipwrecked and landed on the coast of Sicily, where the nearby friars at Messina nurtured him back to health. 

Gift of preaching
In 1222, at an ordination of Franciscans and Dominicans, Anthony’s gift of preaching was recognized. No one volunteered to give the homily, and Anthony was asked to “give something simple” as he was only 27 years of age and had never made known his previous years of intense theological study. The zeal within him became evident as he spoke, and he made a favorable impression on the crowd.

Saint Francis of Assisi reassigned Anthony to preach in northern Italy. His quiet life of prayer and penance at a hermitage were exchanged for that of a public preacher. Anthony preferred to preach the grandeur of Christianity to heretics in a positive way rather than in an argumentative manner. And Anthony always blended his teaching and preaching with an equal amount of prayer and contemplation. 

Miracles
Many great miracles occurred too during his preaching and teaching, which became the basis for traditional tales about him. For example, in Rimini, when people ignored him, it is said that thousands of fish gathered around Anthony at the mouth of the Marecchia River and attentively listened to him preach the Word of God. 

And, of course, there is the famous story of the Miracle of the Mule. A heretic stated he would only believe the bread and wine became the Body and Blood of Christ if his mule knelt down and adored the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. The mule’s owner starved the mule for three days. On the day of the test, Anthony consecrated the host. The hungry mule had two choices, the Eucharist made present by St. Anthony, or some fodder presented by the heretic. The mule knelt down and adored the Eucharist!

Anthony eventually became the first teacher of the Franciscan Order, instructing his brother Franciscans by the special appointment of Francis of Assisi, the founder of the order.

Saintly tongue
In 1231, Anthony preached for the last time in Padua during the Lenten season. A crowd of 30,000 was present. The great energy expended during the Lenten season, along with fasting and prayer, left Anthony very weak, and he went to a small town near Padua to rest. As death approached, he wanted to return to his beloved Padua, but the wagon’s journey was too much for the dying Anthony. He was forced to stop at Arcella, only blessing Padua from a distance. He was 36 years old when he died on June 13, 1231. He had been a Franciscan for just 10 years. Thousands came to view his body, and his tomb in Padua’s Basilica to this day remains a pilgrimage site of extraordinary grace and miracles. The tongue of Anthony, symbol of the words of wisdom that flowed from his mouth, remains miraculously incorrupt.

Remarkably, Anthony was canonized by Pope Gregory IX within 11 months of his death. In 1946 Pope Pius XII declared St. Anthony of Padua a Doctor of the Church, an indication that his outstanding holiness and eminent learning have influenced and will continue to indelibly shape the Church and our Christian understanding for all time. In the history of the Church, only 36 men and women have achieved this designation.

Symbolism
Saint Anthony of Padua is always pictured holding a lily, symbol of his purity, and the Christ Child, symbolic of a unique mystical experience Anthony had during his life that was witnessed by a benefactor who gave Anthony a place to stay for the night. When passing the saint’s room, he observed that rays of unusual light came through the cracks of the door. Approaching the door, he saw Anthony kneeling as if in ecstasy, admiring and caressing a child of rare beauty, the Christ Child, who was tenderly embracing the saint.

Saint Anthony often has a loaf of bread extending from his outstretched hand. The charity called “Saint Anthony’s Bread" was formalized in the 1890s by Louise Bouffier of Toulon, France. Louise managed a small bakery and, one morning, she could not open the shop door with her key. Neither could the locksmith, who advised Louise that he would have to break the door open. While he went to get the tools, Louise prayed to St. Anthony that she would give some of her bread to the poor if the door could be opened without force.

When the locksmith returned, he tried the lock again and was easily able to let Louise in to her shop. True to her word, Louise made sure that the poor of Toulon received their due. Promising the gift of alms to the poor for prayers answered by St. Anthony has been a custom ever since this incident of Louise Bouffier and the locked door.

Lost articles
Finally, the question most often wanting an answer needs to be addressed. How did St. Anthony become the finder of lost articles? 

Saint Anthony himself lost a precious book once that he feared would never be found again. While staying at a Franciscan monastery at Montpellier, teaching and preaching to his fellow Franciscans, St. Anthony kept with him a book of Psalms that he copied by hand, which had notes and commentary that he used while teaching theology to his students. This was during the 13th century when books were scarce and not easily produced. 

A young novice who left the order took the precious book with him. This caused St. Anthony a great deal of stress. He had no idea where this young man had gone. The situation seemed helpless.

Trusting in God, St. Anthony prayed that the novice would have a change of heart and return the book. A short time later, the young man turned around and gave the book back to St. Anthony, asking for his forgiveness. He also returned to the order, and St. Anthony forgave him. This book is preserved today in the Franciscan monastery in Bologna, Italy.

After his death, this story became well known, and St. Anthony’s reputation as the finder of lost articles became widespread throughout the world and continues to grow down to the present day. 

A mother's devotion
My late mother had tremendous devotion to St. Anthony of Padua. In fact, she chose her wedding day to be the Saturday nearest the approaching feast of St. Anthony which happened to be June 8, the year of her marriage. And my mother passed her ardent devotion to this saint on to me.

Growing up in Massachusetts, every shopping trip into downtown Boston ended with a visit to St. Anthony’s Shrine, better known by the locals as the Arch Street Shrine. In those days, just prior to the changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council, St. Anthony’s Shrine was always crowded. I have fond memories of my mother and many other people lighting a candle before the statue of this beloved saint.

And June 13, the feast of St. Anthony, was well celebrated in our home. I always sent my mother a bouquet of lilies on this day, and lilies graced her casket at the time of her death in tribute to her life-long devotion.

If you have not yet discovered the life and legacy of the glorious Wonder Worker of Padua, it is never too late to find out. Saint Anthony of Padua is a ready helper in time of need to those who call upon him.

Saint Anthony of Padua, pray for us!

Artwork: "Baby Jesus with St. Anthony of Padua," Elisabetta Sirani, 1656, Bologna, Italy, public domain.
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