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Friar’s E-Spirations: Similar Traits of St. Anthony and St. Francis

In approximately two weeks, we celebrate the feast of St. Anthony of Padua on June 13. This is the date on which he died in 1231, some five years after the death of St. Francis. Because we are still celebrating the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Franciscan Order in 1209, it is a good time to reflect on the many traits that Anthony and Francis hold in common. In this edition of Friar Jack’s E-spirations, I would like to single out five of these similarities:

1. Both Francis and Anthony are sometimes seen with the baby Jesus in their arms.

St. Francis once celebrated the feast of Christmas in a cave near the town of Greccio. Legend tells us that during Midnight Mass, the baby Jesus appeared in the straw-filled manger set up nearby and that St. Francis held the infant in his arms. Similarly, we often see statues of St. Anthony with the child Jesus in his arms. According to one legend, St. Anthony was praying in a little hermitage one night and a passerby saw the little cell where Anthony prayed fill up with light. And he saw Anthony holding the little child and talking to him. For several centuries, the image of Anthony holding the Christ child has been popular in many countries around the world. The basic message of the child held in the arms of Francis and Anthony is that our loving God, through the mystery of the Incarnation, has come to serve us as a humble human child. As we contemplate God’s amazing generosity, we are inspired to do the same.

2. Both saints display great humility.

We can think of many times in Francis’ life when he exhibited humility—for example, when he embraced the leper or when he shared his cloak with a beggar. Anthony’s humble spirit, on the other hand, was revealed by the fact that he never boasted about the sublime level of education he had imbibed as an Augustinian friar in Portugal. He kept that hidden. In fact, most of the friars in Italy were not even aware of Anthony’s great knowledge of Scripture. As we read in “First Life” of St. Anthony, he seemed to his Italian confreres “more skillful in washing kitchen utensils than in expounding the mysteries of Scripture.” We remember, for example, the story of how Anthony and a few other Franciscan friars went to the little town of Forlì, Italy, to attend an ordination ceremony. The local superior could not find a friar willing to preach, so he finally turned to Anthony and insisted that he share with the invited guests whatever the Holy Spirit inspired him to say. Anthony humbly accepted the superior’s request and preached brilliantly on the scriptures—to the amazement of all his listeners. Anthony’s example helps us remember the instructive gospel passage: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Lk 14:11).

3. Both Francis and Anthony preached to God’s creatures.

We are very familiar with the story of Francis preaching to the birds as well as the story of how he preached to and tamed the wolf of Gubbio, which had been viciously attacking the people of that town. There are other stories of Francis talking to creatures. We remember, too, his wonderful canticle to “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.” I don’t know if St. Anthony ever spoke to the birds or other animals. But there is a famous story that occurred in the town of Rimini near the sea. On that occasion, Anthony stood on a pier and preached to a large school of fish because the people of the town refused to pay attention to his sermon. Thanks to the profound respect that great friars like Francis and Anthony have shown to God’s creatures, we are also inspired to do the same. Both saints help us come to realize that all creatures—along with humankind—make up one great family of creation.

4. Both Francis and Anthony felt called to preach the gospel to Muslims.

In the year 1219, while Christian Crusaders were in bloody combat with Muslim forces, St. Francis traveled to Damietta, Egypt, where he met with Muslim Sultan Malik al-Kamil. He tried to engage in peaceful dialogue with the sultan. He fearlessly sought to persuade his Muslim brother that Christ was the true way to salvation. Though Francis failed in this attempt, the sultan became his friend. It was not long after 1219 that St. Anthony left the Augustinians in Portugal to become a Franciscan friar and expressed his desire to preach the gospel to the Muslims in Morocco. In Francis and Anthony’s desire to go among the Muslims, we see the beginning of the Franciscan charism of seeking to build bridges—rather than walls—between differing nations, races and religions. May we be inspired to imitate their example!

5. Both Francis and Anthony often sought to live the hermit’s life.

Though Francis and Anthony were both highly effective preachers of God’s word, they also tried to steal away to solitary places where they could find contemplative union with God—and thereby renew their love for God. There is evidence, for example, that Anthony followed St. Francis’ example in searching for God as a contemplative in at least two different mountainside settings in Italy. One was in the hermitages near Monteluco high above the town of Spoleto. It is recorded that both saints spent time there. The other was at the more famous site of Mount La Verna, where St. Francis received the stigmata. Even today, pilgrims at La Verna can visit a cave known as the Oratory of St. Anthony as well as caves that St. Francis frequented. This mixture of the active and contemplative life as exhibited by both Francis and Anthony is still an ideal of Franciscan women and men today, not to mention the spiritual ideal clung to by many others seeking the face of God through contemplation.

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 : Thank you very, very much for your teaching on holiness. I have always struggled with my feelings that I was not doing enough for the kingdom of God. Your article made me think that maybe I am just by loving God and trying to do his will. Brenda

Dear Friar Jim
: I wish to thank you for that article. It has always troubled me, and now I feel I’m not guilty when my prayer time is interrupted by random thoughts. Again thanks and God bless you. Charlie

A: Dear Brenda and Charlie : You are very welcome. Friar Jim

Dear Friar Jim: Thank you for this e-mail. I have felt that I was unable to pray lately, because my mind has been wandering so much with all the problems my family has been having. But after reading this I feel my prayers are not in vain and I just sat and cried knowing that God has a way of letting me know he is always with me. Sue

A: Dear Sue: You are exactly right. It’s your heart that matters, not your wandering mind and imagination. Remember, people who love each other need to speak; just be together. That is what you are doing. The Lord loves your presence. From time to time, just whisper “Lord, I love you.” Friar Jim

Dear Friar Jim: Thank you most deeply for your timely message on the reality and practicality of prayer. It was most reassuring to know that no matter our situation or state of grace, God hears us and we can continue to cry out to him for guidance in gratitude. Jules

A: Dear Jules: You are absolutely right. Remember, the Lord can’t take his eyes off you. And he never sleeps. Your slightest murmur in whatever circumstance is immediately in his heart. Friar Jim

Dear Friar Jim:How wonderful this article is. It seems to be talking directly to me. I have had so many of these thoughts and worries about my prayer life. Thanks much for doing this most helpful article. We all want to be close to our Lord, and have a hard time with not feeling worthy. This made it clear that if our heart is in what we are doing, God hears us. How many times do we want to be godlike instead of being in God? Again, thanks for giving us something to hold on to in our times of self-doubt. Rita

A: Dear Rita: Your words are just great. Print that last part out and tape it to your bathroom mirror as a reminder when you start each day. Friar Jim