Dear brothers and sisters,
After having offered my reflections on St. Francis of Assisi a couple of weeks ago, this morning I would like to speak about Anthony of Padua — also known as Anthony of Lisbon after his native city — who belonged to the first generation of the Friars Minor. Anthony contributed significantly to the development of Franciscan spirituality, with his outstanding gifts of intelligence, balance, apostolic zeal and, above all, mystic fervor.
He was born to a noble family in Lisbon around 1195 and was baptized Fernando. He joined the Canons Regular, who followed the monastic Rule of St. Augustine, first at the monastery of St. Vincent in Lisbon and later at the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Coimbra, renowned as Portugal’s cultural center. He dedicated himself earnestly and attentively to studying the Bible and the Fathers of the Church, acquiring the theological knowledge that bore fruit in his ministry of teaching and preaching.
It was in Coimbra that a decisive turning point in Anthony’s life took place in 1220 when the relics of the first five Franciscan missionaries, who were martyred in Morocco, were exposed. Their story inspired the young Fernando to imitate them and to advance along the road to Christian perfection.
At that point, he asked to be released from the Augustinian canons in order to become a Franciscan friar. His request was granted. He took the name of Anthony and then he, too, left for Morocco.
But God had other plans. Following an illness, he was forced to return to Italy where, in 1221, he took part in the famous “Chapter of Mats” in Assisi and met St. Francis. Subsequently, he spent time in total seclusion in a convent near Forli in northern Italy, where the Lord called him to another mission.
Having received — totally by accident — an invitation to preach at the ordination of a priest, he exhibited such knowledge and eloquence that his superiors assigned him to a ministry of preaching. Thus, he began a period of activity in France and in Italy that was so intense and effective that it stirred many people who had left the Church to return. He was also one of the first teachers of theology among the Friars Minor — perhaps even the very first.
Anthony began teaching in Bologna with the blessing of Francis who, having recognized Anthony’s virtues, sent him a brief letter with these opening words: “I would like you to teach theology to the friars.” Anthony laid the basis for Franciscan theology, which, cultivated by other distinguished thinkers, would reach its apex with St. Bonaventure and Blessed Duns Scotus.
When his term as superior came to an end, he retired to a place near Padua that he had visited on other occasions. After barely a year, he died at the gates of the city on June 13, 1231.
Padua, which had welcomed him with admiration and affection in his lifetime, has bestowed honor and devotion on him ever since. Pope Gregory IX, who had described him as the “Ark of the Covenant” after hearing him preach, canonized him in 1232, only one year after his death, following many miracles that had occurred due to his intercession.
During the last phase of his life, Anthony put in writing two series of sermons — Sunday Sermons and Sermons on the Saints — which were intended for preachers and theology teachers within the Franciscan Order.
In these sermons, he provides a commentary on the scriptural texts of the liturgy, using the patristic and medieval interpretation of the four senses — the literal or historical, the allegorical or Christological, the tropological or moral, and the anagogical, which points us toward eternal life. Nowadays we are rediscovering that these senses are dimensions of the one sense of sacred Scripture and that it is right to interpret sacred Scripture by seeking the four dimensions of its word. These sermons of St. Anthony are theological and homiletic texts which are an echo of Anthony’s actual preaching, in which he presents a veritable road map for a truly Christian life.
The sermons contain such a wealth of spiritual teachings that Venerable Pius XII proclaimed Anthony a doctor of the Church in 1946, giving him the title of “Evangelical Doctor” because of the freshness and beauty of the Gospel that emerge from his writings. We can still read them today with great spiritual profit.
In his sermons, St. Anthony speaks of prayer as a relationship of love that leads man to a dialogue of love with the Lord, thereby creating an ineffable joy that softly envelops the soul in prayer.
Anthony reminds us that prayer requires an atmosphere of silence, which does not necessarily mean withdrawal from external noises, but rather implies an interior experience that aims to remove the distractions that are the result of any worries within our spirit, thus creating silence in the soul itself.
According to the teaching of this illustrious Franciscan doctor, prayer can be expressed in four attitudes, each indispensable; Anthony describes them in Latin as obsecratio, oratio, postulatio and gratiarum actio. We can translate them as follows: first, opening our hearts with trust to God, which is the first step in prayer, not simply receiving a word, but opening one’s heart to God’s presence; then conversing affectionately with him, seeing him present with me; then, something very natural, presenting our needs to him; and finally giving him praise and thanking him.
From St. Anthony’s teaching on prayer, we can perceive one of the specific traits of the Franciscan school of theology, which he initiated: the central role given to divine love, which plays a role in the sphere of the affections, the will and the heart, and which is the source of a spiritual knowledge that surpasses all other knowledge. Truly, in loving, we come to knowledge.
As Anthony wrote, “Charity is the soul of faith and gives life to it. Without love, faith dies” (Sermones Dominicales et Festivi II, Messaggero, Padua 1979, p. 37).
Only the soul that prays can make progress in the spiritual life. This was the specific focus of St. Anthony’s preaching. He was very familiar with the defects of human nature and our tendency to fall into sin. Therefore, he continually exhorted people to fight against any tendency to greed, pride and impurity, and to practice instead the virtues of poverty and generosity, humility and obedience, chastity and purity.
At the beginning of the 13th century, when cities were being reborn and trade was flourishing, a growing number of people were hardened to the needs of the poor. For this reason, Anthony often invited the faithful to turn their thoughts to true wealth — wealth of the heart — that makes us good and merciful and leads us to store up treasure in heaven.
Is this not an important lesson for us today, my dear friends, as the financial crisis and grave economic inequalities impoverish many people and create situations of misery? I point this out in my encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth): “The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly — not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centered” (No. 45).
Anthony, learning from Francis, always put Christ at the center of his life and his thought, his actions and his preaching. This Christ-centeredness is another typical characteristic of the Franciscan school of theology, which willingly contemplates — and invites us to contemplate — the mysteries of humanity of Our Lord, Jesus the man, particularly the mystery of his nativity. God has become a little Child: It is a mystery which inspires love and gratitude to God for his goodness.
On one hand, Christ’s birth is central to Christ’s love for mankind. Yet the sight of the crucified Lord also inspired in Anthony feelings of thanksgiving towards God and of respect for the dignity of the human person, so that everyone, believers and nonbelievers, can find in the crucified Christ and in his image the meaning that enriches life.
“Christ, who is your life, is hanging on the cross before you, so that you may look at the cross as in a mirror,” Anthony wrote. “There you will see how mortal your wounds were, which no medicine other than the blood of the Son of God could have healed. If you look well, you will also realize how great your human dignity and value are. ... In no other place can man better realize how much he is worth than by looking at himself in the mirror of the cross” (Sermones Dominicales et Festivi III, pp. 213-214).
Meditating on these words, we can better understand the importance of the image of the crucifix in our culture and for our humanism, which is born of the Christian faith. It is by looking at the crucified Christ that we see, as St. Anthony says, the great value of human dignity and the value of man. Nowhere else can we grasp man’s worth: God has made us so important and considers us of such importance as to be worthy — in his eyes — of his own suffering.
Therefore, all human dignity appears in this mirror of the crucified Christ, and gazing upon him always helps us to recognize the dignity of the human being.
Dear friends, may Anthony of Padua, so deeply venerated by the faithful, intercede for the entire Church, especially for those who dedicate their lives to preaching.
During this Year for Priests, let us pray that priests and deacons may eagerly carry out their ministry of proclaiming the word of God to the faithful, making it relevant to their lives, especially through their homilies during the liturgy.
May their homilies be an effective presentation of Christ’s eternal beauty, as Anthony himself recommended: “If you preach Jesus, he softens hardened hearts. If you invoke him, he sweetens you against bitter temptations. If you think of him, he enlightens your hearts. If you read him, he satisfies your mind” (Sermones Dominicales et Festivi III, p. 59). Register translation