Anthony: Man of Prayer

June 10 2024 | by

LAST month we introduced readers to the Year of Prayer that Pope Francis proclaimed for this year in order to help the Church prepare for the opening of the Holy Doors that will inaugurate the Jubilee Year of 2025. The Holy Father has left a lot of freedoms to individuals and parishes on how to observe this Year of Prayer. Therefore, in this article, I propose to introduce readers to some of the thoughts of our Patron, St. Anthony of Padua himself, on the topic of prayer.


Doctor of the Church


It is very common for Catholics to pray to St. Anthony. Most Catholic churches throughout the world contain a statue or image of this great saint and many people turn to him in prayer. In particular the intercession of St. Anthony is invoked when something is lost and we are trying to find it. However, while our devotion to St. Anthony is admirable, I propose to take a step forward in this article. I want to remind readers that St. Anthony was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XII in 1946. In the mind of the Church, St. Anthony has a special role in teaching us and not just answering our prayers when we have lost something. I stress again that it is not about abandoning our traditional prayer practices, but about finding new complementary ones during this Year of Prayer.

During his lifetime he was a hugely popular and influential preacher. There are a number of stories of miracles that underline his charism for preaching. In one story, the inhabitants of the city of Rimini had abandoned the Catholic Church and had embraced some heretical teachings. St. Anthony came to explain the Faith to them, but, at the bidding of their political leaders, they refused to even turn up where he was delivering his sermons. So St. Anthony, surprised that not a single person was attending his preaching, went for a walk outside the city along the banks of the Marecchia River as it flowed into the Adriatic Sea. There he had an inspiration to preach to the fish of the river. Addressing the fish, he said, “You, fish of the river and sea, listen to the Word of God because the heretics do not wish to hear it.” In response thousands of fish stuck their heads out of the water, arranging themselves in ordered rows. The inhabitants of Rimini, seeing the miracle of the fish listening to the Saint, came out of the city. They began to listen to St. Anthony and were convinced by his eloquent words. They renounced their errors and returned to the practice of the Faith.


Miracle of the mule


Another miracle that is told of his preaching was when the Saint was preaching in the French city of Tolouse, though other versions claim the miracle took place in Rimini, perhaps because there was a strong presence of Cathars in both these cities. The Cathars were a heretical movement that believed in two Gods and had a number of problematic beliefs. Among other things, they did not believe in the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharistic Species. St. Anthony debated theology with their experts and demolished all of their arguments against the Catholic Faith. Despite bettering his Cathar opponents in the debate, many people still refused to believe St. Anthony.

One of them demanded that the Saint perform a miracle to prove the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic Species. “If you can make my mule bow down before what you call the Body of Christ, I will believe” said the man. Although St. Anthony didn’t like putting God to the test, he decided that he had to meet this challenge.

He asked the man not to feed his mule for three days. On the third day a great crowd of onlookers gathered in the main square of the town. St. Anthony celebrated Mass in a small chapel that was close by, and when the Mass was over he came out carrying the Blessed Sacrament. The hungry mule was there and had the choice of looking at St. Anthony or going to a trough that had some food there that the mule liked. The Saint called out, “Mule! Come here and show reverence to your Creator!” The animal ignored the food and rushed towards St. Anthony and bowed its head and went down on its knees before the Blessed Sacrament. Seeing this many people abandoned their heresy and returned to the practice of the Faith.


Sermon notes


St. Anthony’s preaching, however, was important not for the miracles that sometimes accompanied it, but for the teaching it contained. Thousands of people listened to him over the course of his life and he helped many to deepen their devotion and practice of the Faith. Although we do not have the text of the sermons he actually preached, we are lucky to have another important source written by the Saint. He wrote a collection of Sermons for his fellow friars. These were not a simple transcription of his homilies, but rather an aid to help other priests to preach the Gospel message in a vibrant way linked to the liturgical year and the Bible readings of the Mass. He wrote in Latin and provided help to preachers to encourage their listeners in living the Christian life. In particular the sermons help people to repent of their misdeeds and return to an active participation in Mass and the Sacrament of Confession


Baby storks


One of these Sermons is particularly relevant to our theme of prayer. In the Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Easter, the Saint bases his comments on the Scripture passage of the (preconciliar) Mass. Here the Gospel says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father, he will give it to you in my name” (Jn 16:23).

Building on this theme of prayer, the Saint recommends that everyone appreciate the fact that we have God as our Father. This realization that we are children of God Himself is a fantastic insight to start our prayer. St. Anthony suggests that we start our prayer here. “The ‘something’ for which we should ask,” he says, “is the love of God. As children, we ask that we may love our Father, just as the young stork loves its parent.” Maybe today not many of us think ourselves to be like baby storks, but this is an invitation for all of us in this Year of Prayer, rather than overthinking and overcomplicating things, with sophisticated techniques and always looking for novelty, maybe it would do us no harm to consider that we are like these chicks crying out to their Father in the nest.


Loving conversation


A little further on he stresses the importance of supplication in our prayer. “Supplication means a careful attention to God in one’s spiritual exercises.” The knowledge of God is the ultimate goal of prayer. Indeed, St. Anthony warns that “anyone who prefers [worldly] knowledge to saving grace gets only grief. Prayer is the disposition of the person turning to God, it is a loving conversation with Him made with a certain familiarity. It is the condition of an enlightened person to enjoy.” In this Year of Prayer all of us are invited to this “loving conversation” with God our Father and to cherish our “familiarity” with Him.

Rather than asking for petty things, the Saint encourages us to focus on thanksgiving, which he says, “is the acknowledgement in mind and thought of God’s grace and good will; and an unfailing and ceaseless reference of everything to God.” This thankfulness doesn’t simply produce an “empty joy” but the “fullness of joy of the saints.” This is the fruit of prayer.


Four gifts


St. Anthony proposes that our prayers allow us to be fruitful like the “almond tree” which gives and abundance of fruits. In particular it gives the “four gifts” of “brightness, agility, subtlety and immortality.” Here prayer is not something boring or simply the repetition of words without feeling. We are invited to receive these gifts. Learning from the teaching of Saint Anthony, may all of us start praying more frequently to our loving Father so that we may receive these gifts. In this year it is the desire of our Father that our souls become more bright and agile, and that we truly experience the subtilty of the eternal life that He will shower on all who turn to Him, like the baby chicks in their thanksgiving and joy filled prayers.


Updated on June 19 2024