The fast track to sainthood

Fernando Martins de Bulhões or Anthony of Padua as he is better known was canonised less than a year after his death, making him one of the fastest sanctioned saints in the Catholic Church.

A Portuguese Catholic priest and friar of the Franciscan Order, he was born on August 15, 1195 into a wealthy family in Lisbon, Portugal.

 

Fernando’s noble family arranged for him to be taught at the local cathedral school. At the age of 15, he entered the Augustinian community of Canons Regular of the Order of the Holy Cross at the Abbey of Saint Vincent in Lisbon.

 

Distracted by frequent visits from family and friends, the young Fernando asked to be transferred to the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Coimbra, the then capital of Portugal where he studied theology and Latin. After his ordination to the priesthood, Fernando was named guest master at the age of 19, and put in charge of hospitality at the abbey.

 

While he was in Coimbra, some Franciscan friars arrived and settled at a small hermitage outside Coimbra that was dedicated to Anthony the Great.

 

Fernando was attracted to the simple, evangelical lifestyle of the friars, whose order had been founded only 11 years prior. News soon arrived that five Franciscans had been beheaded in Morocco, the first of their order to be killed. King Afonso II of Portugal paid for the return of their bodies and they were buried as martyrs in the Monastery of the Holy Cross.  

 

Inspired by their example, Fernando obtained permission from church authorities to join the new Franciscan order and adopted the name Anthony.

 

To fulfil his new vocation, Anthony set out for Morocco. However, he fell seriously ill in Morocco and sailed back to Portugal but on the return voyage, the ship veered off course and landed in Sicily. Anthony made his way to Tuscany, where he was assigned to a convent, but his sickly appearance did not instil much confidence amongst his superiors. He was assigned to the rural hermitage of San Paolo near Forlì, Romagna where he resided in a nearby cave, spending time in private prayer and study.

 

In 1222, several visiting Dominican friars attended his ordination at Forlì, but there was a misunderstanding over who should preach. The Franciscans had expected that one of the Dominicans would speak. However, the Dominicans were unprepared, thinking a Franciscan would be the homilist.

 

The head of the hermitage, who did not believe his own humble friars were up to the task, asked Anthony to speak. Those in attendance were moved not only by his rich voice, but also by the theme and substance of his discourse, his knowledge of scripture, and the eloquence with which he delivered his message.

 

Anthony was then sent by Brother Gratian, the local minister provincial, to the Franciscan province of Romagna, based in Bologna. He soon came to the attention of the order’s founder, Francis of Assisi. Francis had a distrust of theological studies, fearing the friars might forgo their commitment to a life of poverty and service. However, he found a kindred spirit in Anthony who shared his vision. In 1224, he assigned Anthony the task of teaching the friars.

 

 

The traditional practice of praying for St Anthony’s help in finding lost or stolen things is traced back to an incident that occurred in Bologna. Anthony had a book of psalms that contained his teaching notes.

 

A novice had been asked to leave and had taken the psalter with him. When Anthony realised his psalter was missing, he prayed it would be found, after which the thief returned the book. The book is said to be preserved in the Franciscan friary in Bologna.

 

In 1226, after attending the general chapter of his order held at Arles, France, and preaching in the region of Provence, Anthony returned to Italy and was appointed Provincial superior of northern Italy. He chose the city of Padua as his location.

 

The story of Anthony “preaching to the fish” originated in Rimini, where he had gone to preach.

 

When heretics there treated him with contempt, Anthony was said to have gone to the shoreline, where he began to preach until a ‘great crowd of fish’ was seen gathered in the water. The towns people flocked to see the fish, after which Anthony said the fish were more receptive to his message than the heretics of the church.

 

Anthony became sick with ergotism (food poisoning) in 1231 and travelled to a retreat at Camposampiero. He lived in a room under the branches of a walnut tree. Anthony died on the way back to Padua on June 13, 1231 at the Poor Clare monastery at Arcella. He was 35.

 

Anthony was buried in the small church of Santa Maria Mater Domini and near a convent that had been founded by him in 1229. Due to his increased notability, the construction of a large basilica began around 1232, although it was not completed until 1301. The smaller church was incorporated into the structure as the Cappella della Madonna Mora (Chapel of the Dark Madonna).

 

The basilica is known today as “Il Santo” or The Saint.

 

Anthony is recognised for his powerful preaching, expert knowledge of scripture, and love and devotion to the poor and the sick. He was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XII on January 16 1946 and his feast day is celebrated on June 13.

 

Image: Anthony of Padua by Francisco de Zurbarán, 1627–1630.

 

Image: St Anthony Preaching to the Fishes (c.1630) Francisco de Herrera the Elder.

 

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