A Major Choice

June 19 2023 | by

TURNING points in life are difficult to describe. At times, they have a factual, or even legal, ring to them, at other times you come across a distinctive, often colorful and freely chosen path, a life-forming experience. The turning point in question here eventually evolved into a decision to live under the guidance of the three vows of poverty, obedience, and celibate chastity. However, it is not possible to squeeze the description of this major choice into three simple terms; Anthony’s path was too varied and complicated to be described in just a few words.


Canons Regular


In the year 1210 Fernando left his parents’ home and the familiarity of his early schooling to enter the novitiate of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine. For the next ten years he developed as a person first in the Monastery of Saint Vincent in Lisbon (up until 1212) and then in the Monastery of Santa Cruz in Coimbra.

On the question of why Fernando took this decisive step, his first biography, the Assidua, is once again quite reticent: “Not too far from the walls of the above-mentioned city [Lisbon], there stands a monastery of the Order of St. Augustine in which live men who are known for their religious observance, dedicated to the Lord in the habit of the Canons Regular. To this place, then, once he set aside the delights of the world, came the man of God and, with humble devotion, took the habit of the Canons Regular.

“He lived there for almost two years, putting up with the frequent visits of friends which so disturb pious souls. To remove every such occasion of disturbance, he decided to leave his native region – something that can annoy even manly souls to no small degree – so that he might serve the Lord more peacefully, sheltered by the ramparts of an unknown shore.

And, after many requests, as soon as he obtained the superior’s permission, he changed not the order but his residence, moving with lively fervor to the monastery of the Holy Cross in Coimbra.”


Many questions


Once more the Assidua leaves us with many unanswered questions: what drove Anthony to enter a religious order? What role did his parents have in this decision? What influence did the “delights of the world” have? What did the author mean by the disturbing visits of friends? Why did he change monastery? And later on, why was he to change religious order – that is, why did he leave the Canons Regular of St. Augustine for the Franciscans? What was the life of a Canon Regular like? And finally, what importance did these ten years of formation in Augustinian spirituality and theology have for the Franciscan, Anthony of Padua?  

The fact that between the ages of 15 and 25 a person begins to follow a particular direction in one’s life is quite clear. Vocational training, sexual maturity, choosing a profession, finding employment and eventually starting a family are all factors and actions which leave their marks on a person’s life and trace their profile. For Anthony it was certainly no different, although there are still many gaps in the background sources to his life.


Too close to Lisbon?


From the Assidua we do not even know what his parents thought about his decision. Were they enthusiastic or against the idea? Did Anthony decide to enter the monastery because certain relationships with friends or relatives did not satisfy him? Or perhaps because he could no longer bear the idea of staying at home? Why after two years did he decide to leave the Abbey of St Vincent in Lisbon and move to the Augustinian Abbey of the Holy Cross in Coimbra, which at the time was the capital of Portugal?

It may well be that the Abbey of St. Vincent, where Anthony began his novitiate, was too close to his family home so that the frequent contact with his parents and his childhood friends disturbed his inner peace. Perhaps they visited him too often, bringing him gifts that embarrassed him, and news of what was happening in their social world.

Equally, his superior at Saint Vincent Abbey may simply have recognized the talent of this young member of the community, and he may have come to the conclusion that Ferdinand required an environment that offered him more experienced theological teachers. This would seem very plausible, and would explain the actions of his superior, who had recognized the value of the ‘treasure’ that God had given to their community... The change of monastery might therefore have something to do with the fact that Fernando’s extraordinary talent could not be kept hidden for too long.


Monk or clergyman?


And what kind of life did Anthony lead behind the walls of the Augustinian Abbey? Was this young novice of the Canons Regular, dressed in a white habit and cloak, meeting the standards required of him? The novitiate year is a probation period: it is a time in which the aspirant learns a way of life, a way of praying and a spirituality that form the basis for the later life of a religious – something that will have to sustain him through the ups and downs of his later religious life.

When Anthony entered the Order of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine, there were only a limited number of religious Orders in the Church – nothing compared to what we have today. Of course there was the new Order of the Franciscans, founded by Francis of Assisi in 1209. They were known for their extreme humility, for being barred from owning property, and for being required to live a life of poverty while preaching in emulation of Jesus Christ. The Dominicans had yet to appear. There were also a number of movements supporting poverty, as well as various sects and other groups.

However, in the official Church there were basically only two choices: either to be a monk, someone who sought God through a life inspired by the ideal embodied in the rule of Saint Benedict, or to become a member of the clergy. The latter lived, prayed and worked together around a large church, and most of them followed the rules laid down by the great African Church Father St. Augustine of Hippo, who, as a bishop, had sought to create a regulated community life with his priests and deacons, which is why they are called Canons Regular of St. Augustine.


Augustinian spirituality


These Canons Regular followed the Rule of St. Augustine, embraced the evangelical counsels (chastity, poverty, and obedience) and led a semi-monastic life while remaining committed to the pastoral care appropriate to their primary vocation as priests.

In his huge work on Anthony of Padua, Father Jacques Toussaert (1922-2014) describes the lifestyle of the Canons Regular in Lisbon and Coimbra as follows: “Life in a monastery was most probably regulated by Pope Gregory VII’s statutes: conscientious obedience of the Roman liturgy, psalms at night, strict fasts and orders of abstinence, silence from compline (night prayer) until morning prayer, a community life in the dining and sleeping quarters, the wearing of the Order’s uniform and a strict division of the hours of the day, obedience and total subordination to superiors, individual poverty.”

In the midst of all this was Anthony of Padua, who remained in the Order of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine until 1220. But it is not only the ‘external’ activities of study, prayer, meditation, and the celebration of the liturgy that leave an Augustinian mark on his life. It is, in fact, impossible to underestimate the influence of St. Augustine’s theological work on this young Portuguese man. The fact that Anthony received his training in Augustinian theology was a blessing for the Franciscans. Furthermore, Augustine’s theology fits perfectly with the spiritual world of ideas expressed by Saint Francis. Franciscan scholar Sophronius Clasen pointed out the common denominator: Anthony – Augustine’s authentic pupil and Francis’ authentic son.

But let us not forget that Anthony is still in his formative stage – his learning years are not his teaching years, although gradually it was becoming clear that this individual, who unbeknownst to others had been secretly called to a new life experience, was going to become a teacher. However, not with the Augustinian Canons Regular…

Updated on May 31 2023