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Friar’s E-Spirations: Pope Benedict XVI Puts St. Anthony in Spotlight

St. Anthony of Padua won glowing attention from Pope Benedict XVI during a general audience at the Vatican on February 10, 2010. One thing you will notice as your read through the pope’s well-developed overview of Anthony’s life is that Benedict is quite interested in seeing Anthony as a theologian. Recall that most of his life, Benedict was himself a theologian who took this profession seriously. It makes sense, therefore, that the pope–in telling Anthony’s story–takes care to mention from time to time Anthony’s solid qualifications as a theologian.

The Life of St. Anthony

Before he gets to that point, however, Benedict tells us that Anthony belonged to the “first generation of the Friars Minor.” And he describes Anthony as “one of the most popular saints in the whole Catholic Church, venerated not only in Padua, where a splendid basilica has been built which contains his mortal remains, but also throughout the world.” Benedict then notes that Anthony was born in Portugal around 1195 and spent several years in that country as an Augustinian friar. He is careful to point out that Anthony, as an Augustinian, “dedicated himself…to the study of the Bible and of the Church Fathers, acquiring the theological knowledge that was to bear fruit in his teaching and preaching activities.” A big change came about in Anthony’s life, however, when he felt strongly inspired to join the Franciscan friars and become a missionary to Morocco.

Falling seriously ill in Morocco, however, St. Anthony was brought to Italy. Anthony soon attended the famous Chapter of Mats of 1221 near Assisi, where he met St. Francis. Eventually, he settled into a hidden life in a remote friary near the town of Forli in northern Italy. Invited one day to preach at a priestly ordination, Anthony–the pope informs us–“showed himself to be endowed with such knowledge and eloquence that [his] superiors assigned him to preaching. Thus he embarked on apostolic work in Italy and France that was so intense and effective,” the pope added, “that it induced many people who had left the Church to retrace their footsteps.”

Benedict went on to say that “Anthony was one of the first theology teachers of the Friars Minor. He began his teaching in Bologna with the blessing of St. Francis who, recognizing Anthony’s virtues, sent him a short letter that began with these words: ‘I would like you to teach the brethren theology.’ Anthony, the pope also noted, laid the foundations of Franciscan theology which, cultivated by other outstanding thinkers, was to reach its apex with St. Bonaventure…and Blessed Duns Scotus.” Anthony also served as provincial for the Franciscans in northern Italy.

St. Anthony in Padua

Anthony eventually came to Padua and resumed his work of popular preaching, drawing tremendous crowds and ministering to the people in many other ways in the Padua area. Finally, Anthony became ill and died on the outskirts of Padua, June 13, 1231.

As Pope Benedict also pointed out, “Pope Gregory IX himself, having heard [Anthony] preach, described him as the “Ark of the Covenant.'” And because of the many miracles that occurred through Anthony’s intercession, Pope Gregory IX canonized him in 1232 only a year after his death.

In the years preceding his death, says Benedict, Anthony also put together Sermons “for the Franciscan Order’s preachers and teachers of theological studies….The richness of spiritual teaching contained in the Sermons,” notes Benedict, “was so great that in 1946 Venerable Pope Pius XII proclaimed Anthony a Doctor of the Church.”

Anthony’s Theology Is Franciscan

Pope Benedict stresses that St. Anthony, in his sermons, is very much “in the school of St. Francis” For one thing, Anthony “always put Christ in center of his thinking, his action and his preaching,” just as St. Francis did. This special feature of Franciscan theology, says the pope, is known as “Christocentrism.”

The image of the Crucified Christ, moreover, is central in the preaching of Anthony, just as it was for Francis. Pope Benedict quoted from a sermon of St. Anthony that showed dramatically the centrality of the crucified Christ in Anthony’s preaching. In this sermon, Anthony advised his Christian listeners “to look at the cross as into a mirror….And by looking at oneself in the mirror of the Cross, a person can better understand how much he or she is worth….Precisely by looking at the Crucified One, we see, as St. Anthony says, how great is the dignity and worth of the human being.”

We, who are followers of St. Francis, are grateful that Pope Benedict has highlighted the theology of St. Anthony in his overview of St. Anthony’s life, especially in terms of the Franciscan values and theological perspectives reflected in Anthony’s words. I am happy to share these ideas with you at this particular time as St. Anthony’s feast day, June 13, is quickly approaching.

To learn more about St. Anthony, see our special offer on how to order an autographed copy of Friar Jack’s book, Anthony of Padua: Saint of the People.

Dear Friar Jim: Is it true that any Catholic can say the prayers for the dying? I remember hearing about many people on 9-11 giving people “last rites.” I’ve been confused about this. Thank you. Sheila

A: Hello, Sheila. We can all pray for those who are dying and for the deceased and it wonderful that we do. However, the Sacrament of the Sick and Dying (the “last rites”) is a sacrament that only a priest can give. It involves the anointing with oil and prayers that I mentioned in the article. Fr. Jim

Dear Friar Jim: Thank you so much for sharing the prayer for the dying. I have never read it or heard it said before. I can see why you get “goose bumps” when you are privileged to say that prayer. It is beautiful. Joe

A: Thanks, Joseph. For many readers this was something new, though the Church has used these prayers for the dying for many, many years. Fr. Jim

Dear Friar Jim: I’ve often wondered if I’m fulfilling a calling while volunteering for hospice. Thanks to you, I have renewed appreciation of the opportunities that arise. Susie

A: Dear Susie: You are welcome. Yes, your presence at a dying person’s side, perhaps holding their hand, really means that you are God’s skin for that person. Fr. Jim