20 Years Around the World

May 23 2016 | by

I CAUGHT up with Fr. Mario Conte as he returned from a missionary journey with the relics of St. Anthony to the Philippines. This year marks the 20th anniversary of his international trips bringing the relics of St. Anthony to different countries for the faithful to venerate. His first trip was twenty years ago to mark the 800th anniversary of St. Anthony’s birth. He will continue this month with visits to Ireland and the United Kingdom (details of this trip can be found in our website: www.saintanthonyofpadua.net, and on p. 5 of this issue). Fr. Mario was able to answer some questions about this part of his ministry.


Incredible impression


You have just returned from the Philippines with the relics of St. Anthony, can you give me your first impression of this trip?

I was first of all struck by the deep religious faith of the Filipino people. Despite their poverty they have great love and respect for the Church. They always bow to priests when they meet them along the street. I was also deeply moved by their great love and devotion to St. Anthony. Everywhere we went we were given a very warm reception, with people lining the streets waving flags, just hoping to catch a glimpse of St. Anthony.

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, who is Archbishop of Manila and who bears our Saint’s name, also gave me a very warm reception, and told me of his deep joy that the Saint’s relics had come to bless his homeland.

I was also deeply impressed by their overriding sense of mutual help. At the Conventual’s St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe Parish in Novaliches, for instance, a vast area of 140,000 parishioners, 70 percent of the people live below the poverty line. Those 30 percent who are better off take the Gospel seriously and provide economic and spiritual assistance to their poorer brothers and sisters. And all the other parishes were likewise just as charitable toward their poorer members.


You also visited the area that was devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. How was that experience?

That was also a very strong experience. We spent three days travelling around the islands that were most affected by the tragedy, and prayed above a number of mass graves. A lot of people are still homeless or forced to live in makeshift dwellings.

I was once again deeply moved by the generosity and hospitality of the Filipino people. For instance, during our trip we stayed in houses that are still without running water, but they gave us their best rooms with comfortable beds. One day I woke up in the middle of the night, and found my hosts sleeping on the floor!

Whenever we left one parish we were escorted to the next parish, where another group of reverent, protective parishioners took us in their care.


Links of love


Can you explain for our readers exactly what relics are and why we venerate them in the Catholic Church?

Connection is very important. When you are telephoning somebody or are on the computer and you loose the connection you feel very frustrated. Spiritual connection is even more important. In a certain sense we all have relics at home. Not the relic of a saint, but something that is a physical connection to someone who we loved and is no longer with us. For example, I keep my mother’s wedding ring, although she passed away almost twenty years ago, but when I hold it in my hand I feel her next to me; it’s a strong connection, a link of love.

When people go and pray before or touch a relic of St. Anthony it is nothing superstitious or magical. People shouldn’t expect ‘fireworks’, when they venerate relics. They are touching St. Anthony; they are close to him and can thank him for a favor they have received, or ask him for some help they need.

It may sound strange to us, but the saints do not perform any miracles themselves. Only God performs miracles! But the saints are very close to God in the Communion of the Saints, and they can ask God to help a person. This is my explanation, but Pope Benedict XVI put it this way, “By inviting us to venerate the mortal remains of the martyrs and saints, the Church does not forget that, in the end, these are indeed just human bones, but they are bones that belonged to individuals touched by the living power of God.”


How many trips have you made with St. Anthony over the last twenty years?

I have made many trips, at least two or three times a year, to the United States, to Australia, to Canada, to India, to many, many places. I was very touched by the devotion of young people in Texas. To be honest, I felt a little bit intimidated going to Houston because I had the idea that people there had cowboy hats and guns, and I didn’t realize that they had a great faith and devotion. I will never forget my first visit to a Native American Reservation in the United States and the beautiful Mass that we celebrated there, with people playing drums during the Mass. I remember that there was a huge procession in Kerala in India; there was even a man on top of an elephant holding a picture of St. Anthony. Behind him there were two lines of over a mile each, with not only Christians, but also Hindus and Muslims to venerate the relics of the Saint.


I am unworthy


How have these experiences with the people you meet on your journeys with St. Anthony helped you in your own personal faith journey?

Everywhere we go we want people to have this special moment with him. When I watch people praying in front of the Saint’s relics I can see that something is happening to them; some are crying, others look so relieved. Then people come to me and tell me what happened to them; the graces they were given or what they were asking for.

I know I am unworthy; I am a poor sinner, but people consider me St. Anthony’s travelling companion. I am so humbled. I feel so grateful to St. Anthony that he gave me such a great gift to be so close to him, as it is a privilege to be with St. Anthony.


Will your trips this year be any different as we are celebrating the Jubilee of Mercy?

St. Anthony is the Apostle of God’s mercy. In his lifetime he was an exceptional preacher. Wherever he went thousands came to listen to his sermons; he couldn’t preach in churches as they were too small; he had to preach in the town squares. People wanted to hear him announcing the love of God. These sermons had a huge impact. After his sermons people wanted to repent, to change their lives. If they had stolen something they wanted to make restitution; if they were usurers they wanted to give money back to the people they had injured.

Anthony was also an apostle of individual confession. He listened to confessions for hours on end after his preaching. Sometimes he would spend entire days listening to confession. In one of his sermons he calls confession the “gate of heaven.” He wrote that “through Confession a worldly person is converted and becomes Christ’s little child, so we should all be happy and shout ‘a child is born to us.’”


The stolen Gospel


St. Anthony is famous for helping people who have lost something. Can he also help those who have lost their faith?

St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost things. But people often don’t know the story of how this devotion started. St. Anthony was the first teacher of theology in the Franciscan Order, and he had the job of teaching the new friars. To help him do this he had a copy of the Gospels that he had annotated with his own notes for teaching (this was before there were printed books, and all books had to be hand written). A young friar, a student of his, found the book and stole it. He took the book to the market place to sell it. The young friar thought he would get a lot of money as it belonged to St. Anthony, who many people already considered to be a saint. Poor St. Anthony couldn’t find his Gospel book so he prayed to God to help him find it. At the same time the young friar had a terrible vision, so he ran back to St. Anthony and returned the book to him.

So in a certain way the practice of praying for help in finding lost things comes from this episode. Sometimes we pray for little things like help in finding a pair of glasses or a parking place, but St. Anthony worked the miracle to find the Word of God. He is always happy to help families regain faith. Faith is even more important than health; if you have faith you can accept everything, even a deadly sickness. When you feel the love of God within you, you can get through anything.


Keep in touch


Do you have any message for our readers who will not be able to meet you when you are making your trips?

Keep in touch with St Anthony! Don’t give up! Keep up the prayers! Whenever I meet the devotees of St. Anthony around the world they all tell me that he is their dearest friend. A few years ago a group of sociologists asked devotees entering the Basilica in Padua “Why do you pray to a saint who died almost eight hundred years ago? Why don’t you pray to a more modern saint?” Almost all of them had the same answer, that St. Anthony was their friend, almost a member of their family. Anthony can really be a bridge to God, to Jesus, to the Blessed Virgin Mary; he can be a vehicle that can transport you to the Trinity.

How can you keep in touch with St. Anthony? You can do so by reading the Messenger; by writing to us; by visiting our website (www.saintanthonyofpadua.net) which will offer you a virtual tour of the Basilica and up-date you on our charitable initiatives. We are not simply a magazine; we consider all of St. Anthony’s devotees to be a big family: the Anthonian family. We try to be St. Anthony’s brothers, a channel for everybody to meet this incredible saint, and through St. Anthony, Jesus.


Updated on September 30 2016
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