St. Anthony of Padua
Patron Saint of Travelers, Sailors and Fishermen
Anthony was born in 1195 in Lisbon, then a part of Spain, and was given the name of Fernando at Baptism. His parents, Martin and Mary Bulhom, belonged to one of the prominent families of the city. At the age of 15 he entered the religious order of St. Augustine.
After two years he was sent to Coimbra, where he began nine years of intense study, learning the Augustinian theology that he would later combine with the Franciscan vision. Fernando was probably ordained a priest during this time.
A crucial turning point in the life of the young priest was when the bodies of the first five Franciscan martyrs were returned from Morocco. They had preached in the mosque in Sevilla, almost being martyred at the outset, but the sultan allowed them to pass on to Morocco, where, after continuing to preach despite repeated warnings, they were tortured and beheaded.
In the presence of the queen and a huge crowd, their remains were carried in solemn procession to Fernando’s monastery. He was inspired to a momentous decision. He went to the little friary in Coimbra and asked to join the Franciscan Order.
He made one stipulation, however, that he be sent to the land of the Saracens to become a martyr. After some challenges from the prior of the Augustinians, he was allowed to leave that priory and receive the Franciscan habit, taking the name Anthony.
True to their promise, the Franciscans allowed Anthony to go to Morocco, to be a witness for Christ, and a martyr as well. But, as often happens, things don’t always go to plan. He became seriously ill, and after several months was forced to return home. However, he never arrived. His ship ran into heavy storms and high winds and was blown east across the Mediterranean.
Months later he arrived on the east coast of Sicily where the friars at Messina began nursing him back to health. Still ailing, he attended the great Pentecost Chapter of Mats (so called because the 3,000 friars could not be housed and slept on mats).
Being an out of towner, he received no assignment at the meeting, so asked to go with a provincial superior from northern Italy to receive instruction in the Franciscan life and began a life of seclusion and contemplation in a hermitage near Montepaolo.
Perhaps the world would never have heard of Anthony if he hadn’t gone to an ordination of Dominicans and Franciscans which took place in 1222. As they all gathered for a meal afterward, it was suggested that one of the friars give a short sermon.
Volunteers did not throw themselves forward with gay abandon, so Anthony was asked to give a ‘simple’ sermon, since he was presumed to have not had any real education. The game was up, his knowledge and presence so impressing everyone that his life changed from quiet penitence at the hermitage to public preacher and he was assigned to preach in northern Italy.
In those days, many preachers lived a life-style which contrasted sharply with that of the poor people to whom they preached and Anthony saw that words were obviously not enough. He had to show gospel poverty and people were moved more by who he was, than by what he actually said.
There is a legend that one day, faced with deaf ears, Anthony actually went to the river and preached to the fishes. And that, according to the legend, got everyone’s attention.
Anthony traveled widely in both northern Italy and southern France, making as many 400 trips and often choosing to enter the cities where the ‘heretics’ were strongest. St. Francis was also impressed with Anthony’s work and asked him to teach theology, firstly in a friary in Bologna.
In 1226 he was appointed provincial superior of northern Italy and around Easter in 1228, while in Rome, he met Pope Gregory IX, a faithful friend and adviser of St. Francis. Naturally, the famous preacher was invited to speak, and he did so and as humbly as always.
Anthony moved to Padua, a short distance west of Venice, which was at that time one of the most important cities in the country with a university for the study of civil and canon law. Some time later, and suffering poor health, he went to the General Chapter in Rome and asked to be relieved of his duties.
Returning to Padua, he preached his last and most famous Lenten sermons to crowds of up to 30,000 people. He even needed a bodyguard to protect him from people armed with scissors who wanted to snip off a piece of his habit as a souvenir. Totally exhausted, Anthony went to a little town near Padua, but realising he was close to death, wanted to return to Padua, the city he loved.
The journey weakened him so much, however, that he had to stop at Arcella where he received the last sacraments, sang and prayed with the friars there. He died a short time later at the age of only 36 years. The following year, his friend, Pope Gregory IX, moved by the many miracles that occurred at Anthony’s tomb, declared him a saint.
Nearly everywhere St. Anthony is asked to intercede with God for the return of things lost or stolen. The reason for invoking St. Anthony’s help in finding lost or stolen things is traced back to an incident in his own life.
According to tradition, Anthony had a book of psalms that was very important to him and contained various notes and comments he had made to use in teaching students in his Franciscan Order.
A novice, tired of living religious life decided to leave the community and took Anthony’s psalter. Anthony prayed it would be found or returned to him and, after his prayer, the thieving novice was moved to return the psalter to Anthony and to return to the Order. The stolen book is said to be preserved in the Franciscan friary in Bologna.
In Portugal, Italy, France and Spain, St. Anthony is the patron saint of sailors, travelers and fishermen. Several stories and legends may account for associating the saint with travelers and sailors.
There is the real fact of Anthony’s own travels in preaching the gospel, particularly his journey and mission to preach the gospel in Morocco. There is the story of two Franciscan sisters who wished to make a pilgrimage to a shrine of Our Lady but did not know the way. A young man is supposed to have volunteered to guide them and upon returning from the pilgrimage one of the sisters announced that it was her patron saint, Anthony, who had guided them.
Another story says that in 1647 Father Erastius Villani of Padua was returning by ship to Italy from Amsterdam when they were caught in a violent storm. Father Erastius encouraged everyone to pray to St. Anthony and then he threw some pieces of cloth that had touched a relic of St. Anthony into the heaving seas. Immediately, the storm ended, the winds stopped and the sea became calm.