Saint Anthony of Padua: Drawn to a Life with God

Saint Anthony of Padua: Drawn to a Life with God

On June 13, countless people celebrate the memory of one of the most popular Franciscan saints, Anthony of Padua (1191/5–1231). 

Drawn to a life with God

Despite his common association with an Italian city, Anthony was actually a native of Portugal. He was baptized Fernando Martins de Bulhões and came from a prominent family of knights in Lisbon, then on the frontiers between Christian and Muslim cultures. His wealthy family arranged for him to be educated at the cathedral school. Drawn to a life with God, he entered the canons regular of the Holy Cross at the abbey of St. Vincent in Lisbon as a young man. Seeking greater solitude, he asked to be transferred to the motherhouse of the congregation, the abbey of Santa Cruz in Coimbra, where he received an excellent education in the Scriptures.

St Anthony of Padua Abbey of the Canons Coimbra Portugal 700x1000pxlsThis is the Abbey of the Canons Regular of the Holy Cross (Santa Cruz) in Coimbra, Portugal, where Anthony was a member of the community before joining the Franciscan friars.

Inspired by the witness of Franciscans

While he was in Coimbra, then the chief royal residence, the first Friars Minor arrived in Portugal in 1217, settling in a small hermitage outside the town, where they quickly became popular among the people.

In 1220, the bodies of five Franciscan preachers who had been martyred in Morocco were ransomed and brought to the abbey in Coimbra for burial. Ferdinand was so inspired by their witness that he asked to transfer to the new Order, taking the name Anthony after the patron of the friars’ hermitage there.

St Anthony of Padua Church of San Antonio dos Olivais Coimbra Portugal 700pxlsThe Church of Santo António dos Olivais, Coimbra, Portugal, was built on the site of the early hermitage of the Franciscan friars, where Anthony joined the Order.

A rich knowledge of Scripture

Originally hoping to preach the Gospel in Muslim territory, Anthony’s ship ended up in Sicily instead. He attended the general chapter of 1221, where he met Francis. Afterward, he made his way to Northern Italy. He was originally stationed in a hermitage, but his rich knowledge of Scripture quickly became apparent; within a few years, Anthony became a noted preacher throughout the region and also Southern France. He was given permission in 1224 by St. Francis to teach Scripture to the brothers, and in 1227 he was appointed provincial minister of the friars in Northern Italy, developing a strong association with the city of Padua.

St Anthony of Padua 700pxlsMedieval artists tended to portray Saint Anthony holding the Bible, due to his great knowledge and love of Scripture. Image: St Anthony by Maso di Banco c. 1340-1350 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

Beloved by the poor

Anthony’s preaching emphasized the connection between conversion to the Gospel and working for justice in society. For example, he persuaded the government of Padua to come to the aid of people in financial difficulty: instead of being imprisoned for debt, a person could instead declare bankruptcy and pick up their life again. In such ways, Anthony became beloved by the poor for drawing the attention of society to their plight.

St Anthony of Padua Chapter of Mats Arles France 700x700pxlsThis image of Saint Francis appearing to a chapter of friars in Arles, France, in 1224, while Anthony was preaching to the brothers, was created by Giotto, for the upper basilica of San Francesco, in Assisi, Italy. According to legend, Anthony and one other friar were the only ones who saw Francis.

Rapid canonization

Anthony—called the “Ark of the Covenant” by Pope Gregory IX because of his profound knowledge of Scripture—died on June 13, 1231 and was canonized the very next year—one of the most rapid in history.

St Anthony of Padua Basilica Padua Italy 700x500pxlsThe basilica of St. Anthony in Padua is a famous place of pilgrimage in the Catholic world. Begun in 1232, the year after Anthony's death, the basilica was completed in 1310, although enough work had been finished for it to be dedicated in 1263 while Saint Bonaventure was General Minister.

A prayer in honor of Saint Anthony

People continued to seek Anthony’s assistance after his death. Fellow Franciscan Julian of Speyer, witnessing how so many were turning to Anthony as a powerful intercessor, composed a prayer in his honor in 1233:

If then you ask for miracles,

Death, error, all calamities,

The leprosy and demons fly,

And health succeeds infirmities.

The sea obeys and fetters break,

And lifeless limbs do you restore;

While treasures lost are found again,

When young and old your aid implore. . .

Pray for us, blessed Anthony.

Make us worthy of the promises of Christ. 

St Anthony of Padua El Greco painting 700x1000pxlsBesides depicting Saint Anthony with the traditional medieval symbols of the Bible and the lily, El Greco placed an image of the Christ Child on the book to indicate that Anthony encountered the living person of Christ in his Word. As time went, on the book tended to disappear. Image: St. Anthony by the young El Greco (1580).

Anthony’s encouragement to us

Anthony reminds us: “The person who is filled with the Holy Spirit speaks in different languages. These languages are different ways of witnessing to Christ, such as humility, poverty, patience, and obedience; we speak in these languages when we reveal in ourselves these virtues to others. Actions speak louder than words; let your words teach and your actions speak. . . . It is useless for people to flaunt their knowledge of God’s law if they undermine its teaching by their actions.”

Declared a Doctor of the Church

St. Anthony was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1946. Read a popular biography and reflection. Watch a short video biography.

St Anthony of Padua forensic image from skull 700pxlsIs this the real Saint Anthony? In 2014 a team of scientists and artists, working with the University of Padua Anthropology Museum, developed this image of Saint Anthony using the most recent technology, based on digital images of his skull. It confirms medieval records that state Anthony was a robust man, not the slender, delicate figure so often depicted in art. For more details, see the story.

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Main image: St. Anthony by Maso di Banco, c. 1340–1350 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Medieval artists tended to portray Anthony holding the Bible, due to his great knowledge and love of Scripture.

Dominic Monti

Written by : Dominic Monti

Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. A native of nearby Bradford, PA, he was educated at St. Bonaventure (BA); after joining the Order, he attended the Catholic University of America (STB), Union Theological Seminary, NY (STM), and the Divinity School of the University of Chicago (PhD). He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor. He is spiritual assistant to a federation of Poor Clares and the Franciscan Secular Institute, the Missionaries of the Kingship of Christ.