Herald of the King

June 13 2022 | by

HOW did St Anthony see himself? What motivated him in his itinerant ministry, taking him from his native Portugal to Morocco, however briefly, and then to Italy and France? His early ambition, as far as we can tell, was for scholarship – the stable life of a Canon Regular at São Vicente in Lisbon, then at Santa Cruz in Coimbra. Prayer, study and no doubt some writing. The catalyst for the great change in his life was the arrival at Coimbra of a small group of Friars Minor, who settled at the little church of S. Antonio outside the city and begged for alms at the abbey. Not long afterwards, the funeral there of a second group of friars, martyred in Morocco, lit the fuse that detonated his desire to follow in their footsteps.


Poverty & preaching


The defining characteristic of the early Franciscans, as of Francis himself, was poverty and preaching – first to live the Gospel, then to preach it, and to preach it by the way they lived it. According to his first biographer, Thomas of Celano, in the early days of his conversion Francis wandered about, singing the praises of the Lord in the French language. Set upon by robbers who demanded to know who he was, Francis replied, “I am the herald of the great King.” Whereupon the robbers threw him into a snowy ditch, crying, “Lie there, foolish herald of God.” Once they had gone, Francis merely pulled himself out of the ditch, shook off the snow, and went on his way singing the praises of God as before. Poverty and the Cross. Jesus had given up the glory that belonged to him by right, and chosen a poor and humble life. Proclaiming the Kingdom of God, he died on the cross in order to reconcile estranged humanity to God. This was the great King of whom Francis claimed to be the herald.


Brother Anthony


Anthony understood this. What use was it to study the Scriptures if one did not proclaim them? And how could one proclaim them if one did not live them? If one did not imitate Jesus in his self-emptying and his self-giving? Canon Fernando no longer, he became Brother Anthony, clad in rags, but glad in spirit, thirsting to bring others to Christ, to be himself a herald of the great King.

His first thought was to be a missionary to the Moors, the Muslims of north-west Africa. Lisbon had been regained from Moorish control only a generation before his own birth, and was on the frontier between Christianity and Islam. It was reasonable to think that he might be better placed to bring the Gospel to the unbelievers than the zealous but indiscreet Italians had been. If he did think in this way, God soon showed him that he was wrong. Illness and Mediterranean weather combined to take him where he had not expected or intended to go. When the only ministry offered him was the chaplaincy of a small friary, he took it as a sign that he must rethink his aims and wait upon God to direct him. Like St. John Henry Newman in Sicily centuries later, he would no longer choose his own path, but be led by God’s kindly light. 


Gift for preaching


When circumstances rather than his own choice pushed him into the limelight at Forlì, his gift for preaching was revealed (perhaps as much to his own surprise as anyone’s). After a whirlwind preaching campaign in norther Italy, he came to the notice of Cardinal Ugolino, Protector of the Order, and to Francis himself, who was prevailed on to authorise Anthony to give theological instruction to the friars. He did this by composing a Work on the Gospels, utilising the texts of the Mass and Office to provide material that the brothers might use in preaching. For each Sunday he offered a ‘preface’ addresses to the preacher, suggesting how he might view himself – as a sower of seed, a warrior against Satan, a healer, artist or craftsman, as a teacher, and as a herald. All these images tell us how Anthony viewed himself as he travelled about, calling men and women to repentance, to a change of heart that would enable them to follow Jesus Christ.


Ambassador of Christ


In medieval times, a herald was a person who made public proclamations on behalf of a king or ruler. Even today, heralds sound their trumpets on royal occasions, at royal ceremonies such as coronations or weddings. They say, in effect, “Pay attention! Welcome the King! Listen to what he says!” Such is the role of the preacher of the Gospel. A similar idea is conveyed in the Letters of St. Paul, when he speaks of himself as “an ambassador for Christ.” The word he uses for “being an ambassador” is presbeuo, from the Greek word regularly used for an ambassador, presbyteros. It is from this word that we get our English word “priest.” Anthony, as a priest, was in a special way an ambassador of Christ – something rather more than a herald. The herald calls for attention, the ambassador delivers the King’s message. The ambassador is the ‘go-between’ between his King and a foreign nation. He conveys messages in both directions. The ministerial priest speaks on behalf of God to the people, and on behalf of the people to God. The great High Priest is Christ himself, who is also the King, true God as well as true man.


Royal audience


In earthly diplomacy, an ambassador has a privileged position, his embassy is regarded as part of the kingdom or nation he represents. He has immunity from the laws of the country to which he is sent. In a similar way, the priest is the representative of Christ, though far from being immune from earthly laws, it is his greatest honour if, like his Master, he is subject to insult and persecution. He acts “in persona Christi,” above all when he presides at Mass, and one way of looking at Holy Mass is as a “royal audience” in which we are privileged to be in personal contact with our Sovereign in the Blessed Sacrament. To think in this way is at once to indicate how we should behave! If we were in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen, we would not be gossiping to our neighbour or gazing about. We would be attentive, respectful. I fear that folk are not nearly as reverent in Church, in the presence of the Holy Sacrament, as they used to be.


Special relationship


Francis and Anthony were always mindful of their special relationship to Christ. Like Paul and the other Apostles, their calling was to proclaim the Kingship of Jesus. That is what it means to preach the Kingdom of God, because while Christ is by right the Sovereign of all creation, his Kingdom only exists effectually when it is acknowledged by his subjects. It is of course important that we work for social justice, for the environment, and so on – but that is not the Kingdom if it is not related to the King. Wherever Christ is acknowledged as King, with heartfelt loyalty, all the rest will follow. Without that loyalty, it all falls apart.

For the next two years we will be preparing for the Synod of Bishops in Rome. We have been invited – lay folk and clergy – to listen to one another and to make our contribution to the agenda. Note: ‘agenda’ means ‘things to be done’, not merely ‘things to be talked about’! There are many things that can and should be done to enable the Church (which is you and me, not just the bishops) to fulfil its mission. But in identifying those things, it is important that we should not be so inward-looking that we forget that we are, collectively and individually, heralds and ambassadors of our King. He is the one we proclaim, not ourselves. He is the one we must make visible, by being as Christ-like as possible. The first Law of the Kingdom is to love God with all our heart and mind, and the second is to love our neighbour as ourselves. St. Paul, St. Francis and St. Anthony sought to fulfil those laws by making Jesus the mainspring of their lives, and as his representatives working to make him the same for all those they met. Likewise, in all we think and say and do, may Jesus Christ be praised!

Updated on June 28 2022