Background of His Life

February 27 2023 | by

IN WHAT kind of era did Anthony of Padua live and suffer? The social, political, religious, and spiritual climate undoubtedly left their mark upon him. The changing conditions – then as today – did not simply come and go; they left an impression on people’s faces and on their whole outlook on life.

Each historical era creates its own conception of the world and of God. For this reason, it is worth taking a closer look at the life conditions and the philosophical environment  of Saint Anthony’s time .

Like many other saints, Anthony represents God’s offering of an answer to the signs and questions of his time; and this is an offer that is directed in particular at those who were trying to find a solution to their problems.

The eight hundred years which separate us from Anthony’s time have been marked by a series of radical changes in almost every aspect of life. We therefore need to build a bridge to allow us to go back in time to understand the background of that period, and the framework within which the threads of Anthony’s life unfolded.

Let us dare to take this step back in time, even if there may be an inherent risk in doing so, for we will never be able to comprehend completely all that there is to understand.


Constant warfare


What could we have read in the newspaper headlines at that time? What were the main issues, the problems, and the most pressing concerns that accompanied and burdened the life of an individual from their first to their last breath?

One of the first headlines we would have come across – and one that is sadly too well-known to us today as well, would have been War! And it wasn’t a single war; there were many conflicts raging in different places of the world, and at different levels of society.

Anthony’s lifetime was characterized by a whole series of conflicts: from the limited and localized to the large-scale ones taking place in the then-known world.


New economy


An old, rigid social order with well-defined dividing lines between the different classes was breaking down. The new, emerging mercantile economy was making some people, who once had no influence, very rich and powerful. As a consequence, others were losing their positions of power. It is interesting to note that Saint Francis’ father was one of the ‘nouveau riche’ traders, and his son, Francis, reacted in the way one would have expected to the teachings of the Gospel and what they had to say about the sign of his times!

Thus, as the old powers were losing influence, we witness the following sequence of events: an endless series of civil wars, which took place in those towns and cities that had benefited from this new wealth. These wars were, furthermore, taking place right on people’s doorsteps. However, this was not the whole picture; there was also considerable competition and conflict over trade and the division of the markets between these new rivals, above all in Italy and in the south of France. On the other hand, Portugal, Anthony’s homeland, being on the periphery of these developments, was spared from the major upheavals.


Guelphs vs Ghibellines


Nevertheless, we have still not completed the picture. At a higher level, there was a war that was engulfing the whole of Europe. By Anthony and Francis’ time, this conflict between the pope (whose supporters were called ‘Guelphs’) and the German emperor (whose partisans were called ‘Ghibellines’) had been going on for over a hundred years.

Anthony’s life was indeed framed by two of the best examples of anti-papal German emperors: Frederick I Barbarossa, and Frederick II. Opposed to them was one of the most powerful popes – from a political point of view –that Church history has ever known: Innocent III!

Even this was a conflict which was not simply above the people. Everybody was involved. The different regions, towns and cities were affected by their political leanings, by military occupation and force, and by laws and the demands for taxes. And it was always the same group who paid the price: the powerless.


The Crusades


As if this were not enough, there was yet another level of conflict which influenced the thoughts, the feelings, the beliefs and, above all, the fears of Anthony’s peers. We are in the midst of heated times: the Crusades.

In Anthony’s lifetime alone, three crusading armies made their way to the Holy Land to seize it from the Arabs. Terrifying, bloody battles were fought and their consequences were felt throughout Europe.

Not until three hundred years after his birth was the Iberian Peninsula (what we know today as Spain and Portugal) finally liberated from the rule of Islam. During Anthony’s lifetime and afterwards, the Iberian region was the scene of much religious, cultural and economic bloodshed. In fact the First Franciscan martyrs, who were responsible for pointing Anthony in the direction of Saint Francis, were part of this background of conflict with Islam.

Saint Francis himself was also involved in this conflict. He had wanted to become a martyr and die for his faith, only to learn on the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221), through his meeting with the Sultan, that there was an alternative way: peace and dialogue. As a result, he wrote in his rule for the Order that “those who wanted to go to the Saracens” were not to seek conflict and strife; their duty was to serve the “God of Peace” and to live peacefully and in harmony with non-believers.

The picture we have described so far is one of tension and fear on many different levels. This unfriendly climate was flowing with blood; and the headlines would have been written in large, red letters. There was great uncertainty about what position one should take in life; and this was engraved on people’s faces.


A politicized Church


The Church was deeply involved in this intricate and unresolved political situation. There were powerful popes embroiled in wars with German emperors and calling up volunteers for the Crusades, and bishops and monks who were often at the same time powerful feudal lords. It is therefore clear to see why the Church was also an important political factor in those days. The consequences of this political role were that too often the Church failed in its most important tasks: the care of souls, religious life and moral responsibility, which became the sacrificial victims of political ambitions. This situation was made even worse by the fact that the majority of the ‘part-time’ priests were uneducated, and augmented their earnings by working as peasant farmers or craftsmen. Their ability to conduct a Mass was very questionable. To sum up, the Church had lost its way and was on the verge of collapse.

It was a rather discouraging reality: on the one hand powerful prelates and uneducated priests who did little or nothing to help God’s people and, on the other hand, many miserable, frightened and lost people, who were the real victims of wars, disease and poverty.

The general disorder and confusion, and the social upheavals, were aggravated by the sad collapse of religious authorities.


New movements


New movements and groups arose with the genuine and enthusiastic purpose of finding a new way based on the Gospel. Their members read the Bible, travelled around Europe as preachers, taught poverty and ended up aggressively criticizing the Church.

Yet these groups, which were often attacked by the priests as unworthy and immoral, and accused of many other wrongs, symbolized a new and radical interest in evangelism. And even among these people, one could come across examples of ‘God’s offer of an answer’ to the problems of the movement of the times.

It was not by chance that Saint Anthony’s lifetime witnessed the beginnings of radical evangelical movements within the Church which preached the virtue of poverty: Francis and his movement, Dominic and his Order, the Carmelites and the Augustinians. They all shared the aim of wanting to give the Bible a new sound and stature in these unsettled times – for the good of the Church under attack from heresies and for the sake of peace overwhelmed by war. And Anthony? He was right in the midst of his times, not as a mere observer and ‘sufferer’, but as ‘an outstanding figure and man of influence’.


Light of the Gospel


Anthony understood the signs of his times and dealt with them accordingly. He allowed himself to be won over by the Franciscan life – and this very act was a response to the problems of those times, for it was the answer of poverty and peace against the evils of war and money.

Anthony immersed himself in the altercations between the different groups which had slipped away from the Church. He was in the midst of events as a preacher of an unadulterated version of the Bible. He sought answers to the questions, the fears and the confusion of his times.

Yes, these were his times! However, so particular were their taste and coloring that it is possible we might find them murky and unfathomable – especially when considering them with today’s mentality.

However, from this ‘mirror’ to a bygone era, it will be a little easier for us to follow Anthony’s path and his response. So many things are different and yet, at the same time, similar, for it is with the Gospel in hand that a new peace, new hopes, and different solutions were found, and in this, Anthony’s approach is not so different from ours.


Updated on February 27 2023