Defend Us from War

June 20 2022 | by

ALMOST everyone with access to the media has been following the war between Russia and Ukraine. The world has been taken aback by the aggression and its results, splattered across Facebook, Twitter, radio, television, and nearly every internet server. We look at the horror and carnage, but do we ever notice those who are providing this news coverage? If we look at the broadcasters instead of the broadcast, we will see able-bodied, fit individuals who have ventured into areas of conflict either to film or to assist the victims. We have seen many victims who needed medical attention and others who needed burial, but have we ever seen a responder who was in danger of death, not from gunfire or bombs, but from disease?


Courageous saint


About six weeks to a month before he died, Saint Anthony volunteered himself as a peacemaker by personally confronting an enemy of Padua. At that time the Saint’s entire body was swollen in a condition which medieval biographers called dropsy. The modern medical term is edema, a condition resulting from congestive heart failure or from lung, kidney, or thyroid diseases. What caused Anthony’s edema? Only God knows.

During Lent of 1231 Anthony had pushed himself to preach daily and hear confessions until no more penitents were waiting. Many priestly friars and local clergy came to help. The whole area was flocking into God’s Kingdom! Once May and its ripening harvest arrived, Anthony ended his preaching and sent the farmers into the fields. He then began to divide his time between the friary in Padua and a friary hermitage at Camposampiero, about 25 km away. He’d been invited to Camposampiero by a count named Tiso, who owned the estate and who had given the friars the use of a part of it. There, away from the Paduan mobs, Anthony could write his sermon notes in peace.


War crimes


Count Tiso likely shared with Anthony news of what we now call “war crimes” perpetrated by Ezzelino III da Romano. What the media has brought into our homes about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems similar to Ezzelino’s conquest of Lombardy. With technology, Russian conquest of Ukraine is moving faster than Ezzelino and his mounted knights could ride. However, the brutality and terror seem similar.

By 1231 Ezzelino, who was one year older than Anthony, had been conquering town after town in Lombardy in the name of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. The conquests included bloody victims and imprisoned barons and nobles. As his reputation for ferocity grew, tales of his army’s bloodshed spread across the region. Nobles and religious began to align with him rather than face imprisonment or death. Fearful towns surrendered to “The Devil of Lombardy.”

Loyal to the Pope and opposed to the Emperor, Padua was difficult to conquer. The city, including Count Tiso, had been involved in 1227 and 1228 in wars with Ezzelino and his brother Alberico. But by 1231 Tiso had changed. He had become a member of the penitents, who were laity committed to prayer, penance, simplicity of life, and peace. Penitents embraced Francis of Assisi’s directive that laity who followed his lead should discard their weapons. So Tiso did. Over subsequent decades, the sheer number of penitents weakened the feudal system in which war was commonplace. With so many laity refusing to engage in war, power hungry nobles no longer could find enough warriors to conscript. They had to resort instead to negotiation. But this had not yet happened in 1231.

Ezzelino gloried in war. As deputy of Emperor Frederick II, he was engaged in a several year campaign to take control of Lombardy, city by city. Already lord of Treviso and Verona in 1231, Ezzelino had his eye on Padua and Vicenza. He had supporters, but Tiso, and the landed aristocracy of the Paduan countryside, were not among them.


Truth to power


It’s likely that conversations with Tiso revealed to Anthony the plight of Ricciardo, Count of San Bonifacio, Ezellino’s brother in law who had opposed him. Four years previously, Ezzelino had captured Ricciardo and other Paduan nobles and imprisoned them. Medieval prisons were hell holes. Because Ezzelino had so little regard for human life, his prisons must have been some of the worst. Whether Tiso asked Anthony to plead with Ezzelino for these prisoners, or whether Anthony did so on his own volition, we do not know. But apparently he met with Ezzelino at his palace to request the release of these men, and he went alone. That way, only Anthony’s life was endangered.

Legends have grown up about this meeting, but the only certainty is that Anthony was unsuccessful, and that he came away alive. Ezzelino went on to continue his brutal conquest, Anthony died six weeks later, and seven months later, another friar and the governor of Padua succeeded where Anthony failed. Ezzelino released the prisoners.

In 1232 Ezzelino and Frederick warred against Milan and other cities. By 1239 Ezzelino had taken Padua, and he ruled it until 1259. Some sources claim that, when Padua revolted in 1256, Ezzelino entered the city and slaughtered 11,000 inhabitants in a few days. Ezzelino met his end in 1259 when he succumbed to infected battle wounds. Although friars attempted to gain his repentance and conversion on his deathbed, he refused. We can only pray for his soul.


Love of neighbor


Francis of Assisi had the answer to war. Strive to be at peace with all. That is what the friars and the lay penitents lived. This is what Count Tiso learned. Peace is rooted in love of neighbor, a frequent theme of Saint Anthony’s preaching and the impetus for what must have been his physically exhausting visit to a tyrant who could have killed him. Anthony was willing to risk his life to save another’s and to bring the message of repentance to a war lord who had no desire to listen to it.

When we are faced with war, we as little, inconsequential people in the worldly course of events, have access to the Prince of Peace. We can pray for peace. We can live peace. And we can love our neighbors even to the point of doing what is difficult for us in order to help others. God can use these things to end a war, and He can use us to keep the peace in our little niche in His universe.

Updated on June 28 2022