Anthony Goes to Montepaolo

February 19 2024 | by

ONCE the 1221 General Chapter of the Franciscan Order (the Chapter of Mats) had come to an end the friars set off from Assisi with renewed enthusiasm for their mission in life. It is in this moment that we witness what outwardly appears as a rather depressing scene. This is how the Assidua describes it:

“Once the chapter was concluded as usual, and when the ministers provincial had sent the friars entrusted to them to their destinations, only Anthony remained abandoned in the hands of the minister general, not being requested by anyone of the other ministers, like a man who is considered inexperienced and of little use, and because he was not even known. At last, when he called apart Friar Gratian, who was then governing the friars in Romagna, the servant of God began to entreat him that, once released by the minister general, he be taken to Romagna and there be taught the rudiments of their spiritual life.

“He neither mentioned his studies nor boasted of the church ministry he had exercised; instead, out of love for Christ, hiding all his knowledge and intelligence, he declared that he wished to know, thirst for, and embrace only Christ, and him crucified.

“Friar Gratian, having esteemed his admirable devotion, assented therefore to the wishes of the man of God, and taking him with himself, brought him to Romagna. When Anthony, through God’s disposition, reached the place, he devoutly retired, after he had obtained permission, to the hermitage of Montepaolo, where he entered into the peace of silence.”


Textual smokescreen


The fact that every comma, every full stop, and every sentence of the above are suffused with holiness is no coincidence, and it is easy to see through this pious symphony of words. They convey the concept that the more our Saint is in trouble, the more his modesty and humility will bring him holiness and glory. However, if we remove the smokescreen formed by these words, Anthony comes across quite clearly as highly confused. At the beginning of his entry into the new Order, he had been determined to take his role as a Franciscan seriously, and, in particular, to incarnate the ideal set forth in chapter 15 line 13 of the Gospel of John: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Yet nothing had come of this ideal in Morocco. Now it must not be forgotten that our initial enthusiasm is a very important driving force when we make radical changes in our lives, and yet in Assisi Anthony’s enthusiasm had once again been continuously battered by disappointing events. Anthony must have felt that he was a failure: he was weak from his illness and realized that he had been sidelined by his fellow friars.


No bitterness


Under normal circumstances most people would have ‘thrown in the towel’ and said, with a certain degree of bitterness, “You guys are not worthy of me! So now go on the mission without me!” It is a miracle in itself that, with all these doses of discouragement he was receiving, he did not succumb to such a crisis. It seemed as though he was slowly starting to understand that the evangelical ideal mentioned above could become a reality in a way that was different from what he had originally envisaged: “No one has greater love than his, to lay down one’s plans for…” what exactly?

At this point I believe it is worth taking a more careful look at the block of wood from which a saint was going to be carved. Nobody wanted him; nobody saw the real potential inside this young man. However, one must also add, as a justification for his fellow friars, that it is not always easy to recognize people’s talents. Anthony, discouraged and unable to hide his disappointment, cannot have made a very positive impression. Moreover, he said nothing about his past, about his training and abilities. He even hid the fact that he had been ordained as a priest. At this point in the story, Anthony was not making life easy for his fellow friars.


Friar Gratian


However, somebody did take pity on him: Friar Gratian, the Provincial from Romagna. After some persistent persuasion, this Provincial eventually took Anthony back with him. The Assidua puts forward a reason for Anthony’s decision: “…and there be taught the rudiments of their spiritual life.” The ‘new’ Franciscan wanted to be introduced to the fundamental elements of the spiritual life in the Order he had chosen as his family. Such a reason, however, cannot be simply passed over without comment. One mustn’t forget that Anthony had already spent ten years in a religious Order: in approximately 1210 he had become an Augustinian Canon Regular; he had become a priest and an expert in theology. It is not too much to assume that some things were already quite familiar to him. Equally, we shouldn’t think of Anthony as already being a highly experienced friar. There were, in fact, still many things about the spiritual life for him to learn, and this is brought out quite clearly by his Moroccan enterprise. He also still had very few impressions and knowledge of his new religious community and Franciscan spirituality. Above all, we shouldn’t forget that Anthony had arrived in a new country; even if Italy was in the Mediterranean, it was still worlds apart from his home country of Portugal, situated at the edge of Europe.


New era


Italy was then the centre of a new era in history: the early stages of capitalism were at that time pulsating throughout the Italian regions. Towns were waking up; money was beginning to circulate at an ever faster rate; a complex network of extensive trade relations between towns and regions was being formed; the merchant class was on the rise… In the midst of all these events stood an individual who had so much to get used to, not least that of mastering the language used by ordinary Italians: the ‘Vulgar Latin’, or more simply the ‘Vulgar’, that is, the regional forms of Latin spoken by ordinary, uneducated people, which was the basis of the early Italian language. 

So Anthony did indeed need more time not only to settle down in his new environment, but also to give his body the opportunity to get over the illness that had been plaguing him. From this point of view, Friar Gratian did the only thing that was right under these circumstances: he sent Anthony with other friars to a retreat where he could breathe some clean, fresh air and, thus, truly get back on his feet: the friary of Montepaolo set among the Apennine mountains. Located at an altitude of 425 meters above sea level, and situated some 15 kilometers as the crow flies from the city of Forlì, Montepaolo was to become Anthony’s new home.

With four or five other friars, who took it in turns to act as parent to each other, Anthony settled down in this retreat. Two friars took care of the few household duties that were to be done, while the others dedicated themselves to meditation and contemplation.


Spiritual renewal


Montepaolo was to be the last extensive period of peace and rest for Anthony on his chosen path of life. Thereafter, our Saint was to be constantly on the move, changing homes and undertaking new duties right up until the end of his life. One last breath of fresh air, and then he was off. Some people have even claimed that Anthony, even here in the friary of Montepaolo, kept his talents under wraps and, to a certain extent, even wasted them. I tend to think that his time at Montepaolo represented a chance to recover his health and strength, and to fill up the oil in his lamp before he placed it on the lampstand for all the world to see.

Updated on February 19 2024