St. Anthony of Padua, follower of St. Francis, was a renowned preacher, Scripture scholar, and legendary miracle-worker. He is the saint we pray to whenever valuables are misplaced. Exploring the full life of St. Anthony, however, introduces us to a man seldom known.
He was born Fernando Martins de Bulhões in 1195, into a wealthy Portuguese family. At the age of fifteen, against the wishes of his family, Fernando entered the Augustinian Abbey of St. Vincent on the outskirts of Lisbon. He devoted himself to study and prayer, but was constantly interrupted by relatives and friends, who brought him lavish gifts and tempted him to return to the secular world. Sensing danger, he asked for a transfer to Santa Cruz Monastery in Coimbra, where he was able to secure the peace he longed for. It was there that he underwent a decisive turning point. After his ordination, he was visited by five Franciscan missionaries who were traveling to Morocco, in hopes of bringing the Gospel to the Muslims. Fernando was impressed by their simple Franciscan lifestyle, their evangelical zeal, and, above all, their courage in risking their lives.
A year later, his high regard for them was confirmed when all five Franciscans suffered martyrdom, bearing witness to Christ in Morocco. Fernando felt a powerful call to follow. He obtained permission from his superiors to join the Franciscan Order, took on a new name, Anthony, and set out for Morocco, to complete their mission.
No sooner had he arrived in Morocco, though, than Anthony fell gravely ill. Before he could even celebrate a Mass, or reach a potential convert, he was forced to return to Portugal, his dreams of being a martyr for the Lord shattered. On his journey back, his ship was caught in a tremendous storm, and it wound up—providentially, as it turned out—on the coast of Sicily. From there, he made his way to Assisi, seeking entrance into a new monastery, but was asked to look elsewhere because of his sickly appearance. Out of sheer compassion, he was finally taken in by a rural hermitage at Forli, near Bologna, where he worked in the kitchen, and lived the life of a semi-hermit.
From that humble position, the Lord gave Anthony a new mission: He was asked to preach for a group of visiting Dominicans on the occasion of an ordination. Though Anthony, who had grown very shy, initially resisted, he was overruled by his superior. Reaching back into the resources of his memory, and trusting that the Holy Spirit would guide him, the kitchen-worker-turned-homilist utilized everything he had learned about God and the Holy Scriptures, and delivered a mesmerizing sermon, stunning even the Dominicans.
News of Anthony’s eloquence spread rapidly, and he was encouraged to expand his preaching by St. Francis himself. Anthony also became a true reformer, purifying and strengthening his Order. Writes one Franciscan admirer:
The number of those who came to hear him was sometimes so great that no church was large enough to accommodate and so he had to preach in the open air. Frequently, St. Anthony wrought veritable miracles of conversion. Deadly enemies were reconciled. Thieves and usurers made restitution. Calumniators and detractors recanted and apologized. He was so energetic in defending the truths of the Catholic faith that many heretics returned to the Church.
In 1227, Anthony was elected Minister Provincial of his Friars, but kept up his demanding schedule of preaching, teaching, and hearing confessions in many parts of Europe. Eventually, these taxing labors, and the austere penances he imposed upon himself, caught up with the great saint, and he felt his strength dissipating. Preparing for death, on his way to Padua, he was asked what he saw. “I see my Lord,” he replied. He was just thirty-six years old when he died.
Although it is a privilege to have a saint who attends to our lost items, there is an added richness in finding a saint who can also walk with us in our daily struggles—understanding the full dimensions of the Christian life, interceding for us on our pilgrimage.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.