Father Fernando

September 18 2023 | by

FERNANDO’S ordination to the priesthood was an event that would leave its mark on his life. The year is between 1218 and 1220, and the young Augustinian Canon Regular is by now twenty-five years old. The path he had followed, and which had required so much preparation, was nearing its climax. In theological language the sacrament of Holy Orders confers what is called an ‘indelible mark’: once a priest, always a priest… regardless of how life with its ups and downs develops afterwards.

During the ten years of his theological and spiritual formation, Fernando became more and more aware of his own spiritual growth, and the consequences that such a step would have on his life. A step not unlike the one many young men still take today when they are ordained as priests.


Lack of information


But how did Fernando’s priestly ordination actually take place? Once again, we simply have no information: different dates and different places have been assumed. As a result, academic discussions about the details are rife.

However, this was not such an uncommon occurrence for those times. The historical sources of the lives of many saints and members of religious orders are shrouded in mystery, even when it comes to an event as important as their ordination. For example, we know of Francis’s alleged ordination as a deacon, but not directly through documents, eyewitness accounts or his own personal records of the event. Our sources are passages from the biography that Thomas of Celano wrote about the Poor Man of Assisi, but there is no mention of the place or date, only a short sentence.

We are therefore faced with the problem of decisive moments in a person’s life being accompanied by a distinct lack of information. In any case, one of the earliest Franciscan documents states that the order actually had very few priests; this may be due to the fact that the earliest followers of St. Francis were poorly educated or because they did not consider themselves worthy to hold such office.


Date and place


In Anthony’s case, two places and dates for his ordination have dominated the discussion. Some scholars claim that Anthony’s aim from the very beginning was to become a priest. For this reason he joined the Augustinian Canons Regular and then was later ordained a priest in the Monastery of Santa Cruz in Coimbra. His ordination to the priesthood would be the logical conclusion to the years of formation he had undertaken. These, who are indeed the majority, consequently claim that Anthony was ordained sometime between 1218 and 1220, i.e. towards the end of his time with the Augustinians. We can therefore picture Anthony invested with the care of souls in a parish in Coimbra, and that like the other brothers of the monastery, he had his first experiences as a preacher.


An alternative view


Other scholars, however, believe that Anthony’s ordination took a different course: Anthony would have been ordained a priest only after joining the Franciscans. The ordination would therefore have taken place in 1221 in Forlì, a town in northern Italy about 45 km northwest of Rimini. This group of scholars takes as its source a passage from the Assidua: “At the end of some time, it happened that friars were to be sent to the city of Forlì to receive holy orders. For this reason, when Franciscan and Dominican friars had gathered there from different parts, Anthony was among them.

“As the time of the ordination approached and the friars were gathered together as usual, the local minister began to ask the Dominican friars who were present to address an exhortation to those thirsting for the word of salvation. But, when each one began to say quite resolutely that he neither wanted nor ought to preach something improvised, then the superior turned to Friar Anthony and ordered him to proclaim to those who were assembled whatever the Holy Spirit might suggest to him.

“… In truth, although Anthony was so industrious that he relied on his memory rather than on books, and although he abundantly overflowed with the grace of mystical language, the friars nonetheless knew him as more skilful in washing kitchen utensils than in expounding the mysteries of Scripture” (Assidua, chapter 8).

Now such an event was not unusual in Anthony’s life: he was often initially in the background, only to later become the centre of attention. If this is indeed true, then Anthony must already have been a priest; indeed, how could he have been chosen as a preacher during Holy Mass if he was not a priest?


The Chapter of Mats


And there is another fact described by some documents which seems to prove the Coimbra ordination theory. In the spring of 1221 (thus some time before the ordination of the unknown Franciscans and Dominicans in Forlì) Anthony, by then a Franciscan, had participated for the first time in the Friars’ General Assembly, the so-called ‘Chapter of Mats’. In that Chapter, which was attended by thousands of friars, the future of the Franciscan order was discussed and plans were laid out.

At the conclusion of the Chapter, the friars joined their new communities and headed for their new or old destinations. Only Anthony, who was hardly known by anyone, remained alone – he had been assigned neither tasks nor destinations. At this point the Minister Provincial of the Italian province of Romagna saw Anthony standing there, looking lost: he approached the forlorn friar, and asked him if he was a priest. Anthony replied briefly and modestly in Latin, “Sic, sum” (Yes, I am). At this the Provincial Minister ordered him to go to a hamlet where he could celebrate Mass for the friars who lived there.

Anthony, a simple and reserved Franciscan friar, obeyed immediately and left with his many talents, of which he neither boasted nor did he impose on others. Even as a priest, Anthony maintained this trait of modesty characteristic of the early Franciscans, to the point that some considered him uneducated, others thought him unworthy of his position.


Apostolic succession


Let us take one last look at Anthony’s ordination in Coimbra, even though we know so little about what happened. What might Anthony have felt at the time as a bishop laid his hands upon him, gave him the chalice and the paten, and anointed his hands for the priestly service? Was he overwhelmed by the fact that he, a young man from Lisbon, had now joined the centuries-old list of people who, since the beginning of the Church, have offered their service as ordained priests? How did he react to the seriousness of the moment? Did it offer him a security rooted in a long tradition, handed down from the first priests ordained with the laying on of hands? Did it seem a burden or a responsibility?

There is little evidence of the intense feelings that accompany such a momentous occasion and which Anthony, without a doubt, experienced. We are only left with suppositions and vague ideas. However, Anthony’s life would not simply pass without trace; what was to come would be revealed in the future.

Updated on September 18 2023