Francis & Anthony

January 19 2020 | by

IN THE year 1195, the Muslims won a decisive victory at Castile, Spain, forcing King Alfonso VIII to retreat to Toledo while the Muslim forces reconquered Trujillo, Montánchez and Talavera. That same year, the canons of Saint Augustine founded the priory of Saint Mary’s in Bushmeade, England. In that year, on August 15, a son was born in Lisbon, Portugal, to a lower ranking knight Martino and his nobly born wife Maria. Not long after, the child was baptized Fernando.

Fernando would die in 1231 at the age of 36, having forever changed the world by his life and his preaching. Millions worldwide pray to him daily, but not as Fernando. Today he is known as Saint Anthony of Padua.


Spiritual genesis


How did the infant son of a Portuguese knight become associated with an Italian city? How did he join the Franciscans, a religious order that didn’t even exist when he was born? The year 2020 marks the 800th anniversary of Anthony’s Franciscan vocation. For the next twelve months, we will explore how that vocation happened and what it spawned.

In 1195, the year Fernando was born, Francis, the 13-year-old son of a wealthy, self-made merchant in Assisi, Italy, was entering his last formal year of schooling before joining his father in his cloth shop on one of the city’s main streets. Francis was a wiry, fun-loving kid who was not particularly great with Latin grammar, but who had a fabulous memory for the Psalms, his parish school’s basic textbook. The next year, when Francis’ father took him out of school, Francis had memorized the Psalter. His father, Pietro di Bernardone, would have preferred that Francis excel more in mathematics so that he could keep straight the business accounts. Nevertheless, Pietro was proud of his short son with the big ears, and bragged that he could sell anything to anyone. Francis, on the other hand, was more interested in spending money than in making it.

Francis would mature into a gregarious youth whose doting parents allowed him an ample expense account to host parties and to spend on amusements. In 1202, when a war broke out between Assisi and its enemy neighbor Perugia, Pietro donned Francis in expensive armor and sent him off with the city’s combatants. Both father and son thought he’d return in glory.


Opposite personalities


Back in Lisbon, around the year 1202, the young child Fernando was praying before the Blessed Mother’s shrine at St. Mary’s Cathedral when a devil appeared at the altar. Startled, but retaining presence of mind and remembering lessons taught him by his religious parents, he invoked the name of Jesus while stooping and using his finger to trace a cross on the marble step. The devil fled, and Fernando raced home to show his mother where the apparition happened.

Francis met his own demons, but not visibly, when he was taken prisoner and held for a year in a rank Perugian underground vault, finally being released for a hefty ransom which Pietro paid. His war, imprisonment, and lengthy recovery dampened his enthusiasm for life as Francis seems to have suffered what we now call post-traumatic-stress disorder. He began to re-evaluate his life and, after much soul-searching, concluded that his life was empty, and that happiness didn’t come with popularity or wealth. Jesus, on the other hand, demonstrated the secret to joy, namely, to aspire to possess nothing but God alone.

Voluntarily embracing the life of a penitent in 1206, Francis repudiated his former lifestyle and became a joyful beggar. Hearing Christ speaking to him from a crucifix in the small, derelict church of San Damiano, Francis set about begging stones to rebuild the crumbling structure. Once San Damiano was sturdy, he rebuilt two other small country churches, San Pietro della Spina and the Porziuncula, also called Saint Mary of the Angels. All this time he endured ridicule and harassment from his fellow citizens, who believed that he had lost his mind. To the mockery, he joyously replied, “Peace and all good!” a puzzling greeting to the mud-slinging mobs. After two years of rejecting Francis, his fellow citizens realized that his joy was sincere and his mind sound. They began to join him in a voluntary life of penance.


Precocious youth


In Lisbon, about the year 1210, the year after Pope Innocent III gave verbal approval for the way of life of Francis and his followers, Fernando was an uneasy 15 year old, according to the Assidua, the Saint’s first biography. “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.”

What Fernando realized at 15, Francis did not realize until “almost up to the 25th year of his life,” wrote his first biographer Thomas of Celano. Celano explained that “he squandered and wasted his time miserably. Indeed, he outdid all his contemporaries in vanities, and he came to be a promoter of evil and was more abundantly zealous for all kinds of foolishness. He was the admiration of all and strove to outdo the rest in the pomp of vainglory.”

Thus, Francis began his religious life as a penitent for sins he knew he’d committed. In contrast, the Assidua states of Fernando that, “in everyday affairs, the world seemed foolish to him, and he withdrew his foot from its threshold before he had fully stepped into 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.”

To preserve his virtue, the youth Fernando entered St. Vincent’s Abbey, just outside Lisbon’s walls, whose monks followed the Rule of Saint Augustine. At the same age that Francis was cavorting with his rowdy friends, Fernando was seeking quiet, prayer, and solitude. While Francis thrived on companionship, Fernando, according to the Assidua, was so distracted by the “frequent visits of friends” that “he decided to leave his native region… so that he might serve the Lord more peacefully.” After several appeals, Fernando’s superiors finally granted him permission to transfer to the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Coimbra, 205 km distant.

Welcoming solitude and peace, Fernando was nevertheless confronted with the wealth and prestige of the monastery. Even more disturbing was the presence of Prior John, whose sexual exploits with men and women, boys and girls, were public knowledge. Sent away to do penance for two years, Prior John returned to Holy Cross to resume the same predatory behavior.


Unexpected answer


Resisting any possible advances from this prior, Fernando threw himself into his studies, excelling his teachers’ expectations. When not working or praying, he read Scripture, devised allegories, studied science, and delved into the lives and writings of the saints. “And, indeed, he entrusted to his tenacious memory whatever he read,” records the Assidua, “so that in a short time he was able to acquire a knowledge of the Scriptures that no one else hoped to possess.”

After about ten years at Holy Cross, the wealth and ease of the monks was becoming unbearable. Trying to live chastely, simply, and poorly, Fernando prayed for guidance. God answered in a totally unexpected way.

Next month we will see how Fernando became a follower of Francis.

Updated on February 16 2022