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Friday, July 25, 2008

St. Anthony of Padua -- He found the Pearl of Great Price

by Susan Fox

"If you would be perfect, go sell what you have and give it all to the poor and you shall have treasures in heaven, and come follow me." 

These words of Jesus caused the rich young man in Matthew's Gospel to go away sad. He had kept all the commandments from his youth, and wanted to know what yet was lacking in his life. But he wasn't prepared for the answer, for - as Jesus told the disciples later - it is easier for a camel to pass throught he eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. But confronted with the same conundrum, not every man in history has responded the same.

This is the story of the rich young man who left everything to follow Jesus. He came to be known as the "Hammer of Heretics" and "Wonder Worker" for the converts he made and the miracles he performed.

He is St. Anthony of Padua. Born in the year 1195 to a rich Portugese family, Fernando de Bulhom was the beloved child of a knight in the court of King Alfonso II of Portugal. As the only child of Don Martinho de Bulhom, Fernando was expected to marry and take over the running of the family castle. He shocked contemporaries when he chose instead at the age of 15 to become a priest in the Canons Regular of St. Augustine. There he was given floors to scrub, trained in the art of preaching and ordained at the age of 25.

But the happiness of littleness and the path of humility that he sought eluded Fernando in the Canons Regular near his home in Lisbon. Like Christ Himself, he was accused by his friends and relatives of being mad, and worse, selfish for abandoning his parents. Never mind that his parents approved of his vocation. 

When he was 17, he transferred to the priory at Coimbra because visits from his friends were disturbing his peace. After his ordination to the priesthood in 1219, he was assigned to be guestmaster at the priory in Coimbra. He was bitterly disappointed as his basic job was to greet the wealthy patrons of the monastery, using his family name and connections. 

But God was prepared to present Canon Fernando with a call within a call. Only 10 years before, Francis of Assisi - another rich young man who had given up everything to follow Christ - had started his religious order dedicated to a life of simple poverty. It had grown rapidly. Since Francis's great desire was to convert the Saracens, some of his brothers, including former nobles, came into contact with Canon Fernando in Coimbra on their way south to Northern Africa. Many of Fernando's contemporaries regarded these "religious beggers" as mad because of their radical poverty. They slept on the ground, begged for their food, and in the beginning there were few priests among them. This challenged the assumption of the time that the life of holiness is for priests and nuns only.

Canon Fernando was moved when these little Franciscan brothers came and begged for his blessing as a priest. He began to dream of joining them and going off to become a martyr like the five Franciscan brothers killed by Muslim heretics about the time of his ordination. Fernando had a great hunger to win souls to Christ and the life of sanctity. And he saw that the five martyrs caused the half empty churches in Coimbra to fill up suddenly. Not only that, but he heard the confessions of many who changed their lives as a result of the examples of these Franciscans killed by the Saracens.

Canon Fernando was a brilliant preacher, but he saw that words alone weren't enough to win priceless souls. He saw clearly that one's whole life had to become a living example of the life of Jesus. And in the Canons Regular such a life was not possible as the order was living in comfort. He won approval to leave the Canons Regular to join the Franciscans in 1221. This was no easy task as he had to have the approval of every member of his house. And they were reluctant to let a member of the de Bulhom family leave the order. By this time, his father was governor of Lisbon, and possibly the most powerful man in the city.

But Fernando's passion was to imitate the life of Christ, to be scorned by the world and counted as nothing. Once and for all, he shed the de Bulhom name, and became simply Friar Antonio of the Franciscan Brothers. When he was younger and still living at home, Fernando had hoped to become a knight rather than a lord. His father had not prepared him for that vocation because he wasn't physically strong. But when he left home to join the Canons Regular, Don Martinho de Bulhom's faithful young squire, Don Ruggiero had followed Fernando into the order. Ruggiero had been training to serve the de Bulhom family as a knight. Now when Fernando became Father Anthony, Ruggiero chose to follow him and become a Franciscan. 

It was perhaps a sign that God had chosen Anthony to be his knight-errant, and Ruggiero - a big strong lad - became the saint's squire. Anthony believed his vocation was to be a martyr in Africa, like his namesake St. Antony the Great, who had wrestled demons and founded western monasticism. But he had something to learn yet about humbly doing God's will. 
Arriving in Morocco, he was too ill to preach to anyone - let alone die of martyrdom. He tried to return to Portugal which would mean humiliation and failure, but the ship he was on went astray and he ended up in Assisi, Italy in 1221 in time to participate in a general chapter meeting of his order. He met St. Francis of Assisi there. Francis would have been 40 years old, and Anthony was 26. Out of the chapter meeting in 1221, Anthony was assigned to preach all over Italy. 

At the time, Europe was plagued with the Waldensian heresy, which denied the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the validity of the Sacraments if not administered by a holy priest. One of the hotbeds for this heresy was the Province of Romagna in Italy. And the source of the heresy was the city of Rimini. It was to Rimini that St. Anthony was sent to preach first. He was accompanied by his faithful squire, Brother Ruggiero. 

Everywhere else his eloquent sermons drew large crowds, but in Rimini, no one listened. After a time, Ruggiero began to argue that it was foolhardy to continue. One day about three months after arriving in Rimini, Anthony stood on the edge of a bluff overlooking the sea. And he thought that it was true. No one was listening. He prayed. At that moment, thousands of fish thrust their heads above the surface of the water. They seemed to wait. Anthony thought how much their ordered ranks looked like people who had stood quietly to hear him preach in the past. "Then hear the word of God!" Anthony cried, "O fishes of the sea and of the river, hear the word of God these heretics refuse to hear!" And so he began to preach to the fish about the mercies of their Creator. 

As he spoke, a crowd of 50 people gathered behind him. And at the end of his talk, he blessed the fish and dismissed them. They disappeared underneath the water immediately. The people who gathered were afraid. Some were still holding onto their stubbornness. But the following day when Friar Antonio preached, there was a large crowd assembled to hear him. Rimini was on its way back to the true Church. 

God was generous with His miracles. When Anthony was preaching one day in Rimini, he was challenged by one of the leading heretics of the town, Bononillo, to prove the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Perhaps sensing that Bononillo believed, but wanted an excuse to drop his well-known objection to the Eucharist, Father Anthony calmly accepted the challenge. Bononillo's donkey was not fed for one day, and then he was brought to the village square. Father Anthony said Mass in a nearby chapel, and after the Consecration, he took the host out into the town square, held Our Lord up, and then bent to put the Body of Christ on the tongue of Brother Ruggiero. The hungry donkey was released to eat from his basket of feed. But at the moment Ruggiero received Communion, the donkey awkwardly bent his forelegs and knelt beside the big Franciscan brother. Bononillo dropped heavily to his knees and Father Anthony returned to the chapel to finish the Mass. Bononillo left his donkey in the square eating the feed, and he ran to confession.

Do not believe that Our Blessed Lady played no role in the life of St. Anthony of Padua. For a time Anthony had been assigned to Toulouse, France. There his preaching to the heretics had drawn large crowds as usual. However, the radical poverty of the Franciscan order again challenged the corruption within the Catholic Church itself. The French bishops ordered Anthony to preach a sermon on Our Lady's Assumption on the Feast of the Assumption, Aug. 15 at a council of bishops assembled in Montpellier, France. It was a test of his orthodoxy. At that point in time, the Church had not definitively stated that Our Lady had been bodily assumed into heaven at the end of her life. Some believed in the Assumption, some were neutral and others opposed it. A group of French Franciscans - fearing the order would be thrown out of France because of the topic - pressured Father Anthony to deny the Assumption. Commissioned to preach by St. Francis himself, Father Anthony refused to recognize their authority. On the eve of the feast of the Assumption, Our Lady herself appeared to him in the church of Sainte Marie, and assured him of the truth of her bodily assumption into heaven. The next day, he preached such a tender sermon on the Mother of God that none of the bishops assembled dared question him afterwards. 

At the time that Anthony was sick in Africa, St. Francis had been fighting his own battles. There was a movement to mitigate his original rule of simplicity, humility and poverty. The chapter meeting held in 1221 that sent Anthony out preaching ended in Francis' favor, but Francis retired from the running of the order a couple years later, received the stigmata in 1224, and died in 1226. God had not called just one saint from the early Franciscans. Anthony took up Francis's cross after he ceased to run the order. And by living the example of radical poverty managed to keep the original vision of the founder alive. He was appointed minister provincial of Romagna, and succeeded in bringing his Franciscan brothers back to observing the rule by counseling them on their vocation and by living the rule himself. When he sat down to dinner, and cut himself small portions, and ate silently, he forced the other brothers, who might otherwise have ate well and noisily, to do the same. Anthony settled in Padua in 1226 after St. Francis' death. He died on June 13, 1231 from exhaustion and dropsy at the age of 36. 

St. Anthony of Padua was a man who was never satisfied with taking the easy way out as a noble, a preacher or a priest in the order of St. Augustine. He felt deeply the need to imitate Christ by owning nothing and even extinguishing his own noble background. He was called to imitate Christ's humility. During his life he was tempted to pride and almost lost his vocation when a family friend accused him of shirking his responsibilities toward his family by becoming a priest. But he escaped the temptation by moving to Coimbra. By going to Africa, Anthony was tempted to do good - even great things for God by dying as a martyr among the heretics. But he learned the value of doing God's will alone by returning to Portugal, then Italy where his true vocation as a preacher and miracle worker lie.

In short, St. Anthony of Padua lived the example of the life of Christ. As such he was an early reformer of the fledgling Franciscan order and a fiery defender of the Blessed Virgin Mary. His miracles imitated those of Christ Himself. He raised the dead, healed the sick, preached the gospel and helped the poor. He worked to abolish debtors' prisons and worked unceasingly to bring the truth of Christ's message to the heretics. It is perhaps not surprising that he is always pictured as a bald man in Franciscan garb holding the Christ Child. During his lifetime, witnesses saw St. Anthony holding the Infant Christ, who seemed to be teaching him. Perhaps the greatest lesson taught by the Christ Child was the one in Matthew's Gospel about the rich young man who could not give up his possessions to follow Jesus.

"Amen. I say to you .. . Everyone who has left home or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands for my name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and shall possess life everlasting. And many that are first, shall be last: and the last shall be first." (Matthew 19:28-30)

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