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Saint Anthony of Padua: The Italian Years

Image: Wikimedia Commons

For Saint Anthony, his dream was to become a missionary to the Muslims in Morocco, Spain, and, indeed, a martyr for Christ. But, to Anthony’s deep disappointment, his mission failed. Anthony fell seriously ill in Morocco and set sail back for Portugal in hope of regaining his health, or so he thought. But on the journey back, a mighty wind swept the ship badly off course and it landed in Sicily.

Anthony Goes to Assisi, Monte Paolo and Forlì

With fraternal care, the friars in Sicily nursed Anthony back to reasonably good health and encouraged him to go along with them to the Pentecost Chapter of Franciscans (1221) near Assisi, in central Italy.

The chapter was a large meeting of Franciscan friars gathered from all locations—near and far—where the friars then served. Saint Francis of Assisi, the Order’s founder, was there. Anthony certainly saw or heard Francis, and may have met him on this occasion.

Because Anthony was a newcomer to the Order, the chapter ended without his receiving any formal assignment.

So Anthony took the initiative to introduce himself to the provincial minister of the Romagna region in northern Italy and asked to travel back with him and stay in one of the friaries of his province.

Because Anthony was still recuperating from his illness and perhaps, too, from the emotional disappointment of his failed mission in Morocco, he was longing for a place of prayer and tranquillity to sort out his life in a new land.

In Romagna, Anthony discovered just that kind of opportunity. The provincial asked him to serve as priest for four brothers living in a hermitage at Monte Paolo, not far from the town of Forlì. He would have plenty of time for solitary prayer.

Anthony learned, moreover, that one of the friars at the hermitage had built a cell in a cave nearby that would be ideal for this kind of prayer. With the friar’s approval, Anthony went out from the hermitage almost every day to pray in the cave and reinforce his union with God. For penance, he took with him only some bread and a small container of water. Anthony lived at the hermitage of Monte Paolo for nearly 11 months.

Then came an event that would change Anthony’s life forever. He and the other friars were invited to an ordination ceremony in the town of Forlì, located some 10 miles from Monte Paolo. A good number of Franciscan and Dominican friars were there. The local superior invited several Dominicans to address those assembled, but all begged off. Finally, the superior turned to Anthony and insisted that he share with the invited guests whatever the Holy Spirit might inspire him to say.

Anthony complied with the superior’s wishes and preached humbly yet earnestly from the heart. Everyone was amazed at the wisdom, power and depth of his words and his vast knowledge of Scripture, acquired during his years as an Augustinian friar.

The event catapulted Anthony into a new career as a brilliant preacher and evangelist—a career that he would pursue tirelessly for the rest of his life.

It also brought about his transfer to Bologna, a prominent university city about 40 miles away.

Anthony Comes to Bologna

The Franciscan province of Romagna, to which Anthony was now attached, had its headquarters in Bologna. This was where Anthony found a convenient base for his new preaching ministry. Because Anthony’s previously hidden gifts were now out in the open, he was soon tapped by the province to teach theology in Bologna to the friars who were preparing for the priesthood.

It was while Anthony was living in Bologna that he received a letter from St. Francis, written around 1223. This historic letter granted Anthony permission to teach theology to the friars. The text was short and to the point: “Brother Francis sends his wishes of health to Brother Anthony…. It pleases me that you teach sacred theology to the brothers, as long as—in the words of the Rule—you ‘do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion’ with study of this kind.”

Eventually, teaching theology to the friars in Bologna ended for Anthony when he was sent to southern France as a popular preacher. A number of heretical groups were afoot in Europe at this time, confusing many with their strange doctrines. Because of Anthony’s profound knowledge of Scripture, his training in theology and his persuasive skills as a preacher, he was well equipped to counter these heretical teachings.

Between 1227 and 1230, Anthony served as the provincial minister of Romagna.

Anthony Settles in Padua

During the last two or three years of his short life, Anthony’s efforts and zeal as a public preacher were confined, for the most part, to the city of Padua. The crowds that came to see him were often immense, at times reaching an estimated 30,000. When churches could not hold such throngs, Anthony had to move outside to the piazzas or open fields. This was especially true when he preached his famous Lenten sermons in Padua.

After celebrating Mass and preaching in the mornings, he would hear confessions for long stretches of time. Anthony was tremendously popular with the Paduans, but the work was often exhausting.

Treehouse in Camposampiero. Finally, Anthony knew he needed a break and more time dedicated to God alone. Perhaps he also sensed that his short life was nearing its end. He was about 36 years old at the time.

He withdrew from the city of Padua to the town of Camposampiero, some 30 miles north of Padua. There a nobleman, Count Tiso, had earlier built a hermitage for friars seeking more time for contemplative prayer. With Tiso’s help, Anthony had a solitary hut—something like a small treehouse—built in the branches of a large walnut tree in a thick forest, not far away from the Franciscan hermitage.

The saint spent much of the last weeks and months of his life in that small treehouse, praying and working on sermon notes to assist other preachers of the Word.

Dying at Arcella. One day, however, when Anthony came down from the tree to join the other friars for lunch, he began to feel deathly ill. He asked his confreres to take him back to Padua. After laying the saint in an oxcart, the group of friars headed toward Padua. When they got just outside Padua, however, they saw that Anthony’s condition was worsening. They decided to stop at the Franciscan friary at Arcella, next to a Poor Clare monastery. It was here that St. Anthony would take his last breath.

As his final moments drew near, Anthony received the Sacrament of Reconciliation and sang a hymn to the Virgin Mary. Then, as noted in the First Life (the earliest biography of Anthony), the dying friar “suddenly raised his eyes toward heaven and with a stunned look, stared in front of himself for a long time. When the friar who was supporting him asked what he saw, he answered, ‘I see my Lord.’”

The saint’s journey had finally and gloriously ended. It was June 13, 1231.

Thousands Visit Tomb in Padua

The following year, Pope Gregory IX, moved by the many miracles taking place at Anthony’s tomb, solemnly declared him a saint.

In 1263, the construction of the Basilica of St. Anthony was completed enough that his bones could be transferred there. His tongue and vocal cords were found to be intact. Thousands of people visit his tomb every month.

People around the world remember him in novenas and as the saint who finds lost objects. But he is also honored as a great spiritual guide and teacher of God’s word. In 1946, Pope Pius XII declared Saint Anthony of Padua a Doctor of the Universal Church.