The Early Years

March 20 2023 | by

WHEN looking at a person’s life, is it possible to explain why some people become ‘good’ and others ‘bad’, especially in God’s eyes? In our examination we cannot ignore the first decisive steps in a person’s life: birth, childhood, puberty and youth. There are good reasons for adopting this approach because, since the advent of modern developmental psychology, we know that we cannot afford to ignore such crucial phases in people’s lives if we wish to understand them. It is important to have an awareness of people’s first basic characteristics and their initial disharmonies.

Hardly anybody is spared from those events which can often leave us scarred, but which shape us from the first movements of our eyes and our first intakes of breath. As we take our first stumbling steps along our path, some of them prove to be decisive even at a very early age.

The question naturally arises: how are those human decisions made that lead to a successful life?  How does one become a saint? The most immediate answer may seem rather simplistic: through God’s favor. And then, of course, one can wonder: in what way and upon which path is such a life built? How does it all work?


Unreachable heights


Even the saints are human. This may sound obvious, yet we often forget it. Often enough we, ordinary people, build the altars of the saints at such a height that we end up devoutly contemplating them from a great distance, completely unreachable to us.

However, it is not only this point of view which distorts a sober and faithful vision of the saints. Some fervent biographers have fabricated legends around certain saints that not only portray them as role models, but also as people capable of such depressing exaggerations that we feel we will never be able to reach such ‘heights’. Therefore, to live the faith as they lived it remains a prohibitive dream for us: they are simply too great, too good, too perfect!

Can you picture Anthony (whose original name was Fernando) clasping his mother’s breast, finding satisfaction as any ‘normal’ person would? Can you imagine him, who would later become an eloquent preacher, stumbling over his first few words? Can you imagine what it must have been like when this boy, who would later become so exceptionally well-versed in the Scriptures and in Theology, was constantly bothering his father and mother with the question: “Why”?


The Assidua


Do these images make us smile? Do they belittle a saint? I hardly think so. These questions must still be asked, although we may not quite be able to find all the answers by studying what his first biography, the Assidua, has to tell us about the first years of his life: “Having serenely spent his childhood years at home, he happily completed his fifteenth birthday. At puberty, although disordinate passions of the flesh increased and he felt himself tormented beyond normal, he never relaxed his watchfulness over adolescence and sensual pleasures. Instead, mastering the weak human condition, he tightened the reins over the impulses of carnal concupiscence.”

In everyday affairs, the world seemed foolish to him and he withdrew his foot from its threshold before he had fully stepped onto it, fearing that in some way the dust of earthly joys might adhere to him and create an obstacle for one who, in spirit, was already running quickly along the Lord’s way” (Assidua, Chapter 3, edited by Vergilio Gamboso, Edizioni Messaggero Padova).

This is decidedly limited information – no more than a few lines – to outline almost half of the life of the future Saint Anthony of Padua. However, this is a good thing, for this biography, written by an unknown Franciscan friar a year after the Saint’s death, does not try to fill in the obvious blanks regarding Anthony’s childhood and youth with numerous ‘pious’ stories. The biographer maintains objectivity and restraint while illuminating the first period of Anthony’s life, and we must bear in mind that he is writing at a time permeated by the special atmosphere created by the imminent canonization of our Saint.


Teen crisis


In all this summing up by the Franciscan biographer of the Assidua (knowing that his withdrawal from the world that “seemed foolish to him” reveals a motivation for his spiritual journey typical of many other saints), at least two minor clues appear which may have influenced Fernando’s childhood.

“Having serenely spent his childhood years at home, he happily completed his fifteenth birthday.” How does our source know this for sure? The author does not even mention the names of Fernando’s parents once; nor does he tell us how many brothers and sisters this young man from Lisbon had. Perhaps he comes to this conclusion from the fact that Fernando’s parents owned a house in the centre of Lisbon near the Cathedral dedicated to the Mother of God that reflected their social position. Perhaps because he was able to go to the Cathedral school, from our source we garner that the childhood and youth of our ‘hero’ were spent on the whole in a safe and protected environment – in complete contrast to the lives of others in this period of history, which were marked and torn apart by unrest, tension and war. However, this may be mere conjecture because even a wealthy and stable family environment do not necessarily guarantee a conflict-free and peaceful childhood.

Even if we may presume that the conditions of the early life of Saint Anthony of Padua in his birthplace, Lisbon, were above average, there is still the other side of the coin to be remembered, and our Franciscan biographer does not ignore this, although once again the description is quite brief: “At puberty, although disordinate passions of the flesh increased and he felt himself tormented beyond normal…” This means that young Fernando did not only have to deal with a happy childhood, in which he was well protected and cared for, but also with the changes that were taking place in and around him as he became a young man. Indeed, we must consider that in those times both men and women were considered ‘adults’ much earlier than today, and therefore had to face the consequences of puberty much sooner.


Two interpretations


Despite the meagreness  of these hints, they add something very human  to our visual field. And when our biographer says that Anthony, perhaps more than others, “felt himself tormented beyond normal,” two different interpretations can be discerned. The first could be seen as the classical description of a saint: the greater the temptations, the greater the person who emerges as the ‘victor’ in the spiritual battle. This is certainly possible.

However, I lean towards a second interpretation: the more sensitive and open people are to the turbulent feelings they experience in the different phases of their lives, the more they need to exercise self-control.

Of course, this is a stressful condition to be in, and it is usually almost impossible to emerge from this turbulence unscathed. However, one can derive from it a greater sensitivity to one’s own and others’ problems. It confers a greater ability to empathize with others; it provides greater tolerance, clarity and discipline, which form the basis of a good Franciscan and a good preacher who wants to bring God’s love precisely to those who are particularly in need.


Great preacher


 We can recognize in Anthony such an extraordinary preacher if we look a little closer at what he left us in his Sermons: a clear mindset and also a great understanding of the obstacles and tribulations that make up life on this earth.

The expression “tormented beyond normal…” in spite of its brevity provides us with additional and precise information about young Anthony. It brings us a good step closer into his inner life. Anthony is a saint who knows what it means to have a troubled soul; yet he is also a saint who knows and will later explain again and again how it is possible to overcome this situation – even though one can never get out of it completely unmarked.


Obscure beginnings


On the whole we know little about the childhood and early youth of Saint Anthony of Padua. His first steps of life in Portugal, which was considered to be on the edge of the world in his time, remain obscure. And so, if nothing more is known, we must nevertheless assume that some important events occurred that marked his future path.

Some were, without a doubt, more decisive than others. For example, Anthony attended the Cathedral School in Lisbon. We can therefore assume that, already in the early stages of his life, the foundations were laid for the knowledge of the Bible that the Saint would later clearly demonstrate. In fact, he became known as the Evangelical Doctor, the expert on the Scriptures capable of demonstrating the almost unlimited riches of the biblical writings.

Updated on March 20 2023