A Leap in the Dark

October 16 2023 | by

THE following quote is taken from one of the most important biographies on Saint Anthony, the one by Jacques Toussaert: “The vital decision that Father Fernando took in 1220 has always been emphasized by his biographers, who seem to have forgotten everything else about it.”

Fernando was now 25 years old, and had recently become a priest after spending many years with the Augustinians. Since he belonged to an ancient noble family it would have been easy to come to the conclusion that a promising career as a gifted and active theologian in the Order and the Church lay ahead of him. In a way, we could say that his future was already mapped out. The path he would follow in life was clear and predictable: young Fernando (actually, 25 was not so young for the time) would be launched into a brilliant career of privilege.


Hard decision


We have tried to illuminate Anthony’s path and the climate of his time with eye-witness accounts. 1220 was a year of fundamental changes for Fernando. After ten years, in fact, he managed to get rid of his ‘old self’. It cannot have been such an easy and straightforward decision for the future Franciscan saint as the Assidua would have us believe. Even this first biography of the Saint, however, does bring out a couple of points of conflict; though it does so in a way that glorifies Anthony even more.

1220 was an extraordinary year! For a moment let’s depart from the historical trace which tells us that in that year Fernando left the Augustinian Order, took the name of Anthony, and became a Franciscan friar. We cannot describe this chain of events so simply and briefly, nor should we allow ourselves to be so entranced by its outer aspect that we neglect its inner, psychological dimension.

Perhaps we should take a closer look into this situation: an individual decides to change the habit of his religious Order (after wearing it for ten years, even during difficult times) and put on the habit of another religious Order – the habit of an Order that was almost completely unknown at that time. Was it really just an external change of clothing? Like that of a footballer who changes teams and consequently wears a new kit, but continues to play by the same rules as before?


High price


Anthony’s ‘transfer’ in 1220 simply cannot be compared to that of a footballer’s. First of all because, instead of receiving the ‘transfer bonus’ from the new ‘football club’, he himself had to pay a very high price: the price of giving up the physical and emotional security and comfort of life in the monastery of an established religious Order for the insecurity of the new Franciscan Order, a religious organization whose future was, at that time, still extremely uncertain.

Perhaps it is difficult for us to gauge exactly the enormity of this step for Fernando, a step he recognized as inevitable. The reason may lie in the fact that nowadays one rarely comes across a situation in which an individual radically changes his or her life, giving up their profession to try something new, or a situation in which somebody leaves the person they had chosen as their life-partner. We should pause for a second to think of the reverberations that are felt when someone sets aside, for instance, his priestly office after so many years. The same is equally true for lay people who turn their backs on a well-trodden path they have followed for several years! It is by no means an easy step!

The step Fernando took may have been unusual and unavoidable for him, however, it didn’t just happen. I am convinced that this step towards a new life, towards the uncertain and the unknown – and that is precisely the point – was marked by considerable stress, conflict and effort. By taking this step, Fernando left behind friends, daily routines, habits and securities.


The Poor of Christ


Before moving on to this new phase inaugurated in 1220, we must take a final look at both sides of this change that Anthony had brought about.

The Order Anthony was about to leave, the Augustinians, already had a long history behind it. However, as often happens in these situations, the Augustinians had strayed from their original ideals. For hundreds of years the monks had lived within economically strict rules and with stable, traditional structures. Despite their modest lifestyle, their communities were well-equipped for the tasks of caring for souls, and for the cultivation of theological studies and politics. A radical life of simplicity, poverty and insecurity had become a memory of the past for them. However, there were reform movements in this Order as well. Jacques Toussaert writes, “Since the mid-11th century, the Order of Augustinian Regular Canons had been looking for a way to restore the ideal of the Pauperes Christi (the Poor of Christ) to its rightful place.” However, as is well known, it is never easy to break established structures in an effort to reach greater heights.

It must also not be forgotten that Europe had been witnessing for decades an explosive growth of very active movements preaching poverty, especially in the main regions of southern France and northern Italy. One after another these movements had sprung up, preaching penance and seeking a more radical life-style based on the Gospel. These movements had great difficulty accepting secure and stable structures. Some of these groups immediately left the scene; others managed to create their own space within the Church, but only by compromising a part of their ideals. What was this new and fascinating element of the Franciscans that had caught Anthony’s attention?


Campfire romantics


By 1220 the Franciscan movement had grown considerably from its modest beginnings. The first rather variegated companions (there was a mixture of priests, uneducated people, highly qualified scholars and merchants) had grown into a community of thousands of friars within a decade. Almost following the title of Hannes Wader’s famous German song “Here today, there tomorrow!” multitudes of small groups of these friars travelled across Europe, preaching. One should not, however, be deceived by this campfire romanticism; their life was simple, frugal and often disappointing. The friars were frequently opposed and cast out because they were not considered to be ‘good’ Catholics. The Order’s habit, although in the shape of a cross, looked, at first sight, like the working clothes of impoverished shepherds. There were hardly any structures in the Order, and only one rule, hardly one in the true meaning of the word: the rule that provided for the planning of an annual general meeting. The idea of establishing an organized novitiate had not even been considered as yet.

It is highly likely that these Friars Minor under the leadership of Francis of Assisi had other qualities which not only met, but also ‘satisfied’ the desires of their times. One of these groups of itinerant preachers met this young Augustinian at the edge of the world, and their encounter led Fernando to renounce his security: outwardly, an act of sheer madness!

Updated on October 18 2023