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St. Anthony of Padua: Finding Human Dignity-Pt. 1

Memorial of St. Anthony of Padua, Doctor, June 13

Tony, Tony, look around, something’s lost and must be found! Growing up in a Catholic home, this was something I heard my mother pray, as we scrambled about the house to track down items we had lost track of. And, in a home with many moving parts, that had a tendency to be, shall we say, creatively organized, it was a prayer I heard often. This is what St. Anthony of Padua is best known for, helping us find lost objects. Keys, wallets, paperwork, uniforms, baseball gloves, piano books, backpacks, permission slips, etc. Finding what was lost was Tony’s specialty; there was nothing he could not find. Increasingly our culture seems to have lost something else, ourselves, and specifically, the dignity of the human person. And just as he has helped countless track down their lost objects, so too, if we attend to his life and teaching, today Anthony can help us find the dignity of the human person in all its beauty.

For the amount of devotion and love the Church seems to give to this saint (to say nothing of Jesus Christ), one would think this lesson would be well engrained in the hearts of the faithful. If one walks into almost any Catholic Church today (and this is not an exaggeration), a statue of the beloved Franciscan can be quickly found. However, the number of his statues far exceeds the number of serious works, especially of an academic nature, dedicated to his life and teaching. In fact, the scant resources one finds when seeking to learn from him, especially in the English language, is quite embarrassing. Yet, we do know some things.

The Wonder-Worker from Padua did not always go by the name Anthony. He was born Fernando de Bouillon, on the 15th of August in 1195 in his family’s palace (Charles Warren Stoddard, Saint Anthony: The Wonder-Worker of Padua, 1). Fernando’s parents,  Martino and Teresa, came from long lines of nobility. On his father’s side, he is said to have been the grandson of Vincenzo de Bouillon, “who followed King Alfonzo I in his campaign against the Moors, and who, in acknowledgment of his deeds of valor, was made governor of Lisbon” (Ibid.). The office became hereditary, and as the eldest son of Vincenzo’s successor, Fernando was heir to it. However, foreshadowing his life as a son of St. Francis of Assisi, Fernando never seemed the least interested in the good fortune of his birth, which was, to be sure, something of his parents’ doing.

Fernando was born not only into a wealthy and powerful family; he was the son of parents who were also rich in their love for God, expressed especially through their love for the Mother of the Incarnate Son of God, Mary. Fernando’s mother is said to have consecrated her son to Mary on the day of his baptism, and often sang to her little boy the hymn “O Gloriosa Domina!” (Ibid., 2). Fernando’s life was pervaded by expressions of love for the Mother of God, and so he came to imitate this love quite naturally in several ways as he grew. It is said that as a child, the sight of an image or painting of Mary was enough to “change his tears to smiles,” and that the first name he learned to speak was “Maria” (Ibid.). In this we find the building blocks of what became the foundation for Fernando’s life, and therefore an important lesson for us today of how to renew a world that seems on the brink of destruction from within. What Fernando displays is what Aristotle recognized long ago: “imitation is natural to man from childhood…he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation” (Poetics, 1448B). Accordingly, in his early life, we see Fernando simply imitative on a very rudimentary level what he sees, and in imitating what he sees, he develops the motivation for doing what he sees done simultaneously. In other words, by seeing expressions of love, Fernando becomes a lover, and in this case a very intense lover of the Mother of God, Mary.

To say all of this is simply to recognize the validity and importance of the Church’s teaching that the family has received the mission from God “to be the first and vital cell of society” (Second Vatican Council, Apostolicam Actuositatem, 11), and that when the contrary movement occurs, when the family is relegated to “a subordinate or secondary role” grave harm is inflicted “on the authentic growth of society as a whole” (John Paul II, Gratissimam Sane, 17). The reason for this is that, made in the image and likeness of the triune God Who Is Love Itself (1 Jn 4:8), the human person needs to be nurtured in the family as the “cradle of life and love” and therefore, “the primary place of humanization for the person and society” (John Paul II, Christifideles Laici, 40). The fundamental lesson learned by Fernando in the cradle of life and love in which he was nourished, was that if he was to flourish as the person God created him to be, he must be other-centered rather than self-centered. Through the hymns his mother sang to him, and by being taught to focus on something or someone beautiful in order to break out of sadness often brought on by temporal and selfish desires, Fernando learned that the human person, “who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot find himself fully,” and therefore cannot live according to its inherent dignity, “except through a sincere gift of himself” (Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, 24).

It was this lesson that Fernando learned from his family, and through them, the Blessed Mother of God. As he grew, Fernando quickly became a true son of the Blessed Virgin, intentionally seeking to imitate her untiring efforts to give herself away, to the action of the Holy Spirit (Lk. 1:26-38), her service of Elizabeth in her pregnancy (Lk. 1:39-40), and her presence at the foot of the Cross (Jn. 19:25-27). At the age of 15, Fernando entered the order of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine at the Monastery of St. Vincent, just outside the walls of Lisbon (Stoddard, Saint Anthony, 4-5), placing “himself under the special protection of the Blessed Virgin” (Ibid., 2). Here, as with all called to religious life, Fernando sought to give himself away in a more intentional and acute manner, devoting himself to prayer, participation in daily Mass, and active service to his community. There was no task Fernando considered beneath him, and when combined with his natural charm, his humility quickly endeared him to all his brothers in the monastery (Ibid., 4-5). However, there was one problem. His childhood friends, who lived in Lisbon could not stay away from him, often visiting him in the monastery (Ibid., 5). Protective of the life he felt God had called him to, Fernando asked to be transferred to another monastery. After much petition, his superior reluctantly sent him a hundred miles away from Lisbon to the Abbey of Santa Cruz in Coimbra, the mother house of the Augustinians (Ibid., 7).

It was here that Fernando found another means to give himself away, this time through the intellectual gifts he had been blessed with. At the Abbey of Santa Cruz, Fernando devoted a great deal of time “to the study of theology, the Fathers, history, [and] religious controversy.” But it was above all, study of the Sacred Scriptures which “won his ardent attention” (Ibid., 8). It is said that Fernando “knew the Holy Bible by heart,” and his facility with the sacred page quickly became a topic of conversation among those around him. To them, it seemed as though Fernando had taken the sense and substance of the Scripture into “his soul, so that it became a part of him” (Ibid., 9). Although this may seem an exaggeration, the observation made by those with him then is confirmed by anyone who has the opportunity to study the four volumes of sermons he left as a lasting gift of himself to the Church. In one of the few book-length treatments of the Saint’s use of Sacred Scripture in his sermons, Louis Rohr writes that “allusions to the Bible are common” in the sermons, so much so that at times “they are so veiled…that they almost defy recognition.” Adding that “all this indicates how thoroughly the saint of Padua was saturated with scriptural thought” (Louis Frederick Rohr, The Use of Sacred Scripture in the Sermons of St. Anthony of Padua, 37). This is not uncommon among the saints, one finds the same in the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Thomas Aquinas and in The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena. The saints breathe in and breathe out the Word of God, as it were. And in this they both become the embodied presence of that Word and imitators of Mary, whose own fiat is thoroughly shaped by the Scriptural text (Lk. 1:46-55; cf. 1 Sam. 2:1-10). Thus, the second great lesson Anthony teaches us about finding our human dignity is that we find the message and shape of human dignity most clearly and fully revealed in the Sacred Scriptures. Accordingly, to live out our human dignity requires spending much time with the sacred page (more on this momentarily).

Unbeknownst to him, by providing Fernando with this time of study, God was preparing him for a lifetime of giving away what he was being given in those moments. However, Fernando’s heart was set on giving his life in another, more physical way. The human proclivity to imitate what we see was again on full display in Fernando’s life when five young Franciscan monks stayed in the Augustinian Abbey where Fernando was working as the guest-master (Stoddard, Saint Anthony, vi-vii). The young group of Franciscans were on their way, knowingly, to martyrdom in Morocco, where they were being sent to preach the Gospel (Ibid., viii & 10). Visiting with them, Fernando became enflamed with the desire to give his life away completely for the love of God. When the bodies of the young martyrs returned and were enshrined at the monastery at Santa Cruz, Fernando prayed at their tomb, crying out: “O that the Most High would grant me to be associated with them in their glorious sufferings! That to me also it were given to be persecuted for the Faith…Will such happiness ever be thine [Fernando]” (Ibid., ix-x). To us, such words sound like those of an insane person, someone wishing for death. But these are not the words of the nihilists we are surrounded by today, they are the words of one longing for the eternal loving embrace of God to be entered through a complete gift of loving self-sacrifice to one’s neighbor in imitation of Christ.

Accordingly, Fernando took matters into his own hands. He petitioned his superior for transfer once again, only this time to another order, the much younger order of the Franciscans. Reluctantly, Fernando’s superior acquiesced, and Fernando entered the small Franciscan Abbey to Olivares, named in honor of St. Anthony of Egypt (Ibid., 10). On the day when Fernando took off the “white robe of the Augustinians and donned the brown garb of the impoverished Franciscans,” he took the name Anthony, after the Abbey’s patron, and made only one request of his new superiors: “that, after clothing me with the garb of penance, you send me to the Saracens, so that I also may deserve to participate in the crown of your holy martyrs” (Ibid., 12). Anthony’s new superiors complied, sending him to Morocco to take part in the Franciscan evangelization efforts. However, while Anthony ardently desired to become a martyr for love of Christ and his superiors facilitated his quest, God had other plans. Upon arrival in Morocco, Anthony fell gravely ill, and for a time it seemed that he would indeed lose his life, but not as a martyr. With death encroaching, his superiors ordered him to board a ship and return to Portugal (Ibid., 14). And this, Anthony obediently did. However, once again, Providence interceded. On the way to Portugal, a storm overtook the ship, throwing it off course and casting it upon the Sicilian shore (Ibid.). It was there that Anthony found himself presented with the opportunity to be near to the one whose spirit of evangelization had motivated Anthony to join his order, St. Francis of Assisi.

Anthony’s intentional and progressive giving of himself away, from family to monastery, and then moving further away from home leaving family behind, and yet again in an effort to become a martyr, now backfired. He was so far from home and from those who knew anything about him, that no one knew of Anthony’s holiness, the time he had spent in study of Scripture and theology, or the gift of memory God had given him to become completely saturated with the Truth of the Faith (Ibid. 17-18). Allowing an exaggerated humility to overshadow honesty, Anthony became despised and rejected by those around him (Ibid., 19-20). After seeking tirelessly to find a place to remain near St. Francis in Italy, finally, the Provincial of Bologna, who was in desperate need of a priest for a small community of lay friars, gave Anthony a shot (Ibid., 21), and he was sent to say daily Mass for this remote and small Franciscan community in Tuscany (Ibid., 22). From heir to an elite widely-renown family, Anthony had entered the very depths of obscurity, spending much of his time in a grotto cell hewn out of the rock on small monastery grounds (Ibid., 23).

We leave Anthony here for now, and will begin from here in a couple of days with part 2.

Your servant in Christ,


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