Anthony, O.F.M., age thirty-five, died in Padua on this date in 1231; 352 days later, Pope Gregory IX declared him a saint. In the history of the Western Church, Anthony’s elevation from the grave to the altar remains the fastest since Pope Alexander III, in 1170, removed from local bishops the power to canonize saints and invested it exclusively in the papacy. About twenty years after the Franciscan friar set his posthumous record, a Dominican friar, Peter of Verona, came this close to breaking it: 354 days. Maybe causes for sainthood just tended to move more swiftly back then. Even so, Anthony’s moved faster than the rest.
Without the benefit of audio and video, we may hesitate to credit the legends of his strong voice and quiet charisma, and here the measurable rush to make him a saint helps. It is at least one fact to support our impression that the deep sanctity his contemporaries responded to was bound up with considerable charm: His natural brilliance fought with his Christian humility and eventually managed to shine through. How could a man so self-effacing have turned out to be underneath it all really so gifted? Subito sancto!
To judge from the quantity of St. Anthony shrines, statues, paintings, and scheduled Tuesday devotions at parish churches, enthusiasm for him still burns hotly among the faithful. An early artistic convention was to show him with a flaming heart, which must have mirrored that of his most ardent admirers. He’s their crush. Padre Pio and John Paul II rival him in this regard lately but are still new to the game; Anthony the Miracle Worker has been at it now for almost eight hundred years. In the universe of popular Catholic devotion, if St. Thérèse of Lisieux is the homecoming queen, our man from Padua is the starting quarterback.
I used to despise him. My introduction to Anthony came through my beloved grandparents, who hailed from the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea and must have seen him as a more local hero than I realized at the time. (To a boy growing up in the Cuyahoga Valley in northeastern Ohio, Padua was a Catholic high school in Parma, and Parma was a suburb of Cleveland.) On their dining-room wall there hung a large brownish print, in a brown frame, of St. Anthony in what has become his traditional pose: A young man with a ridiculously delicate complexion, tonsured underneath his halo and wearing a robe, stands holding a baby and aflower. Please.
Until recently, my journey in the faith over the years progressed just fine without St. Anthony, unless, as I now imagine, he was helping me silently all along, like Boo Radley. And for all I know, he shares my distaste for the effete character that has crept into images of him in Catholic art over time. In the earliest known portrait of him, by Giotto, circa 1300, he’s solidly built, like a first baseman, and has some hair on his chin. That’s better. As is attested by the lily that later artists began to make him hold, he did make himself a eunuch but only figuratively, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, while presumably his literal manhood remained undiminished. Much of his appeal lies in our intuition that he might have had more to give up in that department than would most men if they took his same vow of chastity. Or so I have come to think.
When a young adult who decides to enter religious life happens to be both of modest means and not all that prepossessing, the move is purely a matter of rational self-interest, we sometimes assume, unfairly, passing over that business about the silent stirring of the Holy Spirit. We make the cold calculation that the priesthood is a step up the social ladder from where the poor-boy seminarian started out in life and that perhaps perpetual celibacy is a better option after all than marriage to a woman of the only sort he could have reasonably expected to attract in the dating market. It is against this background noise of our inner cynic that we leap to express our esteem for religious who were born rich, like Thomas Aquinas, or beautiful, like Rose of Lima.
Anthony was of noble birth, and though we don’t know what he looked like, from the early biographies we can surmise that he was easy on the ears. It sounds like he was a clever boy who had options. At age fifteen he entered an Augustinian monastery outside Lisbon and emerged from it with a nice education. He left the monastery to join the Franciscans, a newly founded mendicant order, impressed by their simplicity and zeal. He seems to have kept a low profile until, at an ordination ceremony in Forlì, he was asked to preach because nobody else would. So he expounded on Scripture extemporaneously, and all who heard marveled at his learning, intelligence, and golden tongue. Soon after, Francis, though suspicious of theology, because immersion in it could lead so easily to pride, assigned Anthony to teach the other friars, having concluded, apparently, that here was an exception, an intellectual who could be trusted to keep his ego leashed.
As Anthony’s fame spread and the demand for him as a preacher shot through the roof, did he come for the first time to recognize his own strength? No one would question that he valued his religious vocation as a precious pearl, but might the thirty-year-old man have finally come to appreciate just how high its price was, which the pious fifteen-year-old adolescent back in Lisbon had agreed for him to pay in perpetuity? It must have been easier to commit to lifelong holy asceticism when he was still only a boy and the vision of the beautiful life in the world that was his for the taking hadn’t yet come into sharp focus.
T he child Jesus once visited Anthony in his cell, according to legend, and hence the baby on all those Antonine holy cards. Sometimes Anthony holds him in one of his arms and, in the opposite hand, an open Bible. Other times Jesus stands on the Bible, as if springing up out of the pages, and critics rightly point out the interesting juxtaposition of the Word, or Scripture, with the Word Incarnate.
I don’t know. The theological symbolism is plain enough when you know to look for it, but to my eye the primary subject that the artist has usually ended up depicting is a particular male counterpart of the Madonna and Child. Theologically, the iconic image of St. Joseph with the child Jesus is primary and the conventional image of St. Anthony echoes it, though with a difference. Whereas Joseph is inclined to hold the Savior up as if presenting him to the viewer for due adoration, Anthony fondly gazes at the child, looking like a young father fascinated by his toddler son. It appears that Jesus, who knows a few things about fathers and love, has read Anthony’s heart and arranged to let him satisfy his paternal instinct for a moment.
This view of Anthony began to form in my mind a couple of years ago as I was working on a new edition of a concise biography by Jack Wintz, O.F.M., who may not have told me anything I couldn’t have learned from doing some research on my own, but I hadn’t. I was on a brief tour of duty in Cincinnati at Franciscan Media, which until recently had called itself St. Anthony Messenger Press. The friars who founded the company, in 1893, invoked his name, and he responded. He was in the building when I got there in 2011, so I got to know him better, which is to say that he won me over. Honored that he reached out to me in Cincinnati, I went to Italy to meet up with him today at his place, in Padua, on his feast day, which I now observe as a kind of Father’s Day in the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church. St. Anthony, pray for us.
Nicholas Frankovich is an editor at National Review.