St. Anthony was born in Lisbon in 1195 and was baptized “Ferdinand.” His parents were of nobility. Some writers of the fifteenth century posited that his father was Martin Bouillon, a descendant of the famous Godfrey de Bouillon, commander of the First Crusade; and his mother, Theresa Tavejra, was a descendant of Froila I, fourth king of Asturia. However, this genealogy is unproven. Nevertheless, his parents were faithful and sought to hand their faith onto their son. He also was privileged to receive his early education at the Cathedral school of Lisbon.
At the age of fifteen, Ferdinand joined the Canons Regular of St. Augustine in Lisbon. Two years later, he transferred to the monastery in Coimbra to avoid the distractions from frequent visits of relatives and friends. During this time, he studied diligently, and being gifted with an excellent memory, he attained an excellent knowledge of theology, Sacred Scripture, and the Church Fathers.
In 1220, the five bodies of the first Franciscan Martyrs, who were martyred in Morocco at the hands of the Moslems, were returned to Portugal. They were brought to the Church of Santa Croce in Coimbra for burial where Ferdinand was stationed. Moved by their witness of faith in suffering martyrdom, Ferdinand also desired to preach the gospel to the Moslems and even give his own life for our Lord. To pursue this desire, he left the Augustinians and joined the Order of Friars Minor, the Franciscans, and took the name “Anthony.”
St. Anthony set sail to go to Morocco in Spring, 1221. Almost as soon as he arrived, he was stricken with a severe illness, which after several weeks, necessitated his to return to Portugal. On his return journey, a violent storm drove the ship off course, and eventually it docked in Messina, Sicily. He remained there until he regained his health. He learned that a general chapter of the Franciscans was to take place on May 30 in Assisi, so he traveled there to take part and meet St. Francis.
During the chapter, St. Anthony asked to be assigned to live in a place of solitude and penance. His superior, Father Graziano, sent him to the hermitage of Monte Paolo near Forli and Bologna. One day, St. Anthony was attending an ordination of Franciscan and Dominican priests at Forli. (Possibly, at this time, St. Anthony himself was ordained as a priest.) When the time came for the sermon, they discovered that no one had been appointed to preach. The Dominicans declined because no one was prepared. The Franciscans then offered St. Anthony, who they thought could read only the Missal and the Breviary. They told him to preach whatever the Holy Spirit put into his mouth. This he did. He astonished everyone not only with his zeal and eloquence, but also with his profound theological knowledge. This event launched St. Anthony’s preaching and teaching career. The provincial assigned St. Anthony to preach through the Lombardy region, and he had great success in converting many heretics and renewing the faith of many people.
St. Francis himself soon heard of St. Anthony’s ability. In 1224, he wrote, “To Brother Anthony, Brother Francis sends his greetings. It is my pleasure that you teach theology to the brethren, provided, however, that as the Rule prescribes, the spirit of prayer and devotion may not be extinguished. Farewell.” St. Anthony taught at Bologna, Montpellier, and Toulouse.
In 1230, he moved to Padua, a monastery he helped establish and where he would spend his remaining life. Besides preaching, he organized relief for the poor, the abolition of debtors prisons, and the release of prisoners captured in the wars between city-states.
Nevertheless, St. Anthony was most known for his eloquent and compelling preaching. St. Anthony exhorted the faithful to conversion, laity and clergy alike. He preached against the vices of luxury, avarice, and tyranny. At a time of fighting between the city states of Italy, his sermons inspired peaceful reconciliations. He also converted many heretics to the faith with his solid, persuasive, and compassionate arguments. He was especially noted for his defense of the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary, and the infallibility of the Pope. By the end of his life, 30,000 people would gather in Padua to listen to him; moreover, so many were moved to repentance that more priests had to be found to hear confessions. For these reasons, he was given the title “Hammer of Heretics” and “Ark of the Covenant.” (Pope Gregory IX, who heard St. Anthony preach, in his canonization decree gave him the title “Ark of the Covenant,” for just as the original Ark held the Sacred Scriptures, so did St. Anthony in his person.) Pope Pius XII remarked, “If anyone attentively considers the sermons of the Paduan, Anthony will stand forth as a most skilled master of the Scriptures, an outstanding theologian in examining doctrine, an excellent doctor and master in treating of ascetical and mystical things.”
Several miracles are attributed to St. Anthony during his lifetime. One miracle occurred when he was preaching on Holy Thursday evening in the Church of St. Pierre du Queriox in Limoges, France. He remembered that he had to sing a Lesson in the Divine Office back at his monastery. He appeared simultaneously preaching in the Church and singing the Lesson at the monastery. Here is the miracle of bilocation.
Another famous miracle involved the defense of the Real Presence of the Holy Eucharist. (The same story is told with different antagonists– one a Jewish merchant, the other, a heretic named “Bonillo”; for this article, the former will be used.) The Jewish merchant challenged St. Anthony to prove the “fable” of the Holy Eucharist and devised a contest. The merchant would starve a donkey for three days, denying it any kind of food. Meanwhile, St. Anthony retreated to the forest where he would fast and pray for three days. At the end of the three days, St. Anthony returned to town, and went to the Church where he obtained the Blessed Sacrament. He then went to the town square where the donkey was. The merchant placed a bale of hay twenty feet from the hungry donkey. The donkey was untied and walked toward the hay. St. Anthony then exposed the Blessed Sacrament and called to the donkey, “Mule, in the name of the Lord our God, I command you to come here and adore your Creator!” The donkey stopped as though someone had pulled him by a bridle, turned, and walked to St. Anthony. The donkey bent his forelegs, bowing to the Blessed Sacrament with his head toward the ground. The Jewish merchant was astonished, asked St. Anthony for forgiveness, and converted. These and other miracles during and after St. Anthony’s death merited him the name, “Miracle Worker.”
St. Anthony also received an apparition of the Infant Jesus. (French writers maintain that it happened at the Castle of Chateauneuf-la-Foret near Limoges, and Italian writers maintain that it happened at Camposanpiero near Padua.) St. Anthony, before going to bed for the night, was reading his Bible. Suddenly, the Infant Jesus appeared resting on the Bible and in the arms of St. Anthony. The Infant Jesus stroked St. Anthony’s face. Here the Word of God appeared to the man who had so well preached His Word. For this reason, most images of St. Anthony depict him holding a Bible with the Infant Jesus.
St. Anthony is invoked as the patron saint of lost things. A little jingle goes like this: “St. Anthony, please look around; something is lost and must be found.” This attribution comes from an incident where a novice carried off a valuable psalter St. Anthony was using. St. Anthony prayed very hard that the psalter would be found. After seeing an alarming apparition of St. Anthony, the novice returned the psalter. However, many suggest he is more importantly the patron of lost souls– those who have fallen to mortal sin, have abandoned the Church, and have grown apathetic to the practice of the faith.
This beloved saint died on June 13, 1231 at the age of 36. Right before his died, he went to confession, sang a hymn to the Blessed Mother, and was anointed; he was asked, “Do you see anything?” to which he replied, “I see my Lord.” Upon his death, the children of Padua ran through the streets, crying, “The holy Father is dead. St. Anthony is dead.” Thirty years after his burial, the vault was opened and his body had deteriorated to dust except for his tongue, which remained preserved and incorrupt: St. Bonaventure, took the tongue in his hands and kissed it, exclaiming, “O Blessed tongue that always praised the Lord, and made others bless Him, now it is evident what great merit thou hast before God.” Moreover, to this day, many faithful have received miracles at the tomb of St. Anthony in Padua.
Pope Pius XII declared St. Anthony a Doctor of the Church on January 16, 1946. His apostolic letter began as follows: “Exult, happy Portugal, rejoice, happy Padua; for you have given birth for earth and Heaven to a shining star, a man who has illuminated and still dazzles with a radiant light the whole earth, not only by holiness of life and fame of miracles, but by the splendor of his celestial teaching.”