Miracle at Rimini

June 05 2023 | by

WE EXPECT certain behavior from animals. Should you hear a wolf howl or glimpse a mountain lion in a tree, your heart races because you’ve suddenly become prey. If you find a flock of feeding birds, you anticipate their flight should you approach. You and your fishing buddies remain quiet so as not to spook the fish. However, God who created birds and beasts, can alter their natural behavior.

Under Saint Francis’s gentle touch, a wolf which had terrorized the town of Gubbio relinquished its nefarious activity. When Saint Jerome removed a thorn from a lion’s paw, the beast became his house pet.  

In The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, a Franciscan friar records incidents of Saint Francis interacting with birds and Saint Anthony with fish. The earliest biographies of both saints, who died two hundred years before The Little Flowers was penned, record neither tale.


Sermon to the birds


The first story reveals Saint Francis’s inspiration to preach to the animals when he and his friars were trekking through the Spoleto Valley. While passing a huge flock of birds, Francis noticed that the creatures were looking at him curiously, as if expecting something. What could he give them? Only words. So, inspired by the Holy Spirit, he addressed them.

“My sweet little sisters, birds of the sky, you are bound to heaven, to God, your Creator. In every beat of your wings and every note of your songs, praise him. He has given you the greatest of gifts, the freedom of the air. You neither sow, nor reap, yet God provides for you the most delicious food, rivers, and lakes to quench your thirst, mountains, and valleys for your home, tall trees to build your nests, and the most beautiful clothing: a change of feathers with every season. You and your kind were preserved in Noah’s Ark. Clearly, our Creator loves you dearly, since he gives you gifts so abundantly. So please beware, my little sisters, of the sin of ingratitude, and always sing praise to God.”

The birds flew to the ground around Francis. They bowed their heads and chirped as if praising God. Delighted, Francis blessed them and sent them away to bring their joy to others.


Cathar heresy


In Rimini, Italy, an even more remarkable miracle took place 800 years ago this month. Rimini is a popular seaside resort sprawling on either side of the delta where the Marecchia River empties into the Adriatic Sea. In Saint Anthony’s time, this port bustled with trade and fishing industries.  

Rimini was home to Christians as well as to numerous Cathars, whose beliefs were a corruption of Christianity. The Cathars followed the Manichean heresy of two gods: the good god who created and ruled the spiritual realm, while the evil god created and ruled the physical realm. Jesus was the spiritual, benevolent god of light. Because all flesh came from the evil god, Jesus only appeared to be human. His body was an illusion. Thus the Eucharist was not his Body and Blood. He had neither.   


The worldly Church


The most spiritual and purest Cathars, both male and female, were called perfecti. Ascetics who fasted continually, the perfecti lived spiritual, humble, celibate lives. By preaching and compassionate ministry, they spread their faith. What a contrast with self-indulgent and sometimes promiscuous Catholic priests whose infrequent, poor preaching left the needy craving instruction and mercy!

Since they considered flesh to be evil, Cathars were vegetarians, abstaining not only from meat, but also from eggs, cheese, milk, and animal fat. They did, however, consume fish, probably because Jesus fed the crowds with loaves and fishes. 


The Paraclete


Because Anthony was a model of purity, prayer, humility, compassion, and faith, and because his preaching was sound and his fasting evident, his superiors sent him to preach in Rimini. He had little success. Not only was he ignored, he was also ridiculed. Think of proabortion protestors shouting down a prolife speaker until police intervention restores order.   

Saint Anthony had no police intervention. Or did he? In chapters 14 and 15 of his Gospel, Saint John calls the Holy Spirit “the Paraclete.”  Paraclete comes from a Greek word parakletos which can mean ‘Helper, Advocate, Counselor, Teacher.’ After days weeks of disappointing responses to his preaching, Anthony was imploring God not to remove the hecklers, but to convert them.

From the Holy Spirit, Anthony received the oddest of answers. The Little Flowers of Saint Francis records, “At last St. Anthony, inspired by God, went down to the sea-shore, where the river runs into the sea, and having placed himself on a bank between the river and the sea, he began to speak to the fishes as if the Lord had sent him to preach to them.”

Note what is happening. Anthony’s preaching is not eliciting the desired response. He asks God’s direction. The Lord sends him to the sea to speak to the fish in a prominent spot where sea and river meet, where both fresh water and salt water fish congregate. Moreover, he’s not just to preach. He’s to preach to the fish “as if the Lord had sent him to preach to them.”

What sort of sermon would a priest give to a congregation of fish? First, he best tell them why they, and not people, are being preached to. Anthony tells them. “Listen to the word of God, O ye fishes of the sea and of the river, seeing that the faithless heretics refuse to do so.”


In perfect order


What behavior would we expect of the fish? Most would swim off. Others would ignore him, just like people do. But they don’t. Impelled by God’s grace, swarms of fish begin to swim toward the bank where Anthony is bending down, calling to them. The Little Flowers continues. “No sooner had he spoken these words than suddenly so great a multitude of fishes, both small and great, approached the bank on which he stood, that never before had so many been seen in the sea or the river. All kept their heads out of the water, and seemed to be looking attentively at St. Anthony’s face; all were arranged in perfect order and most peacefully, the smaller ones in front near the bank, after them came those a little bigger, and last of all, where the water was deeper, the largest.”

What should have happened? The bigger, predatory fish should have darted into the smaller prey, filling their stomachs. Yet this didn’t happen. Moreover, fish surfacing as described attract hungry gulls, but no gulls swooped down to snatch even a sardine.


Preposterous truth


Anthony began his sermon: “My brothers the fishes, you are bound, as much as is in your power, to return thanks to your Creator… God, your bountiful and kind Creator, when he made you, ordered you to increase and multiply, and gave you his blessing… you were the nourishment of the eternal King, Jesus Christ, before and after his resurrection.”

In the sermon to the fish, the Cathars heard their beliefs challenged. Cathars believed that the evil god created matter, yet Anthony is exhorting the fish to give thanks to their “Creator” who is “bountiful and kind.” This is the good god, not the evil one.

The Cathars believed that reproduction was evil because it brought inherently sinful flesh into the world. However, the “bountiful and kind” God ordered the fish to multiply. It was not a concession, but a command.

How the Cathars shrunk from being reminded of the preposterous truth in Scripture that “the eternal King, Jesus Christ” consumed fish both “before and after his resurrection.” He said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’  They gave Him a piece of a broiled fish; and He took it and ate it before them” (Luke 24: 41-43).  A body of flesh eats.


Miracle of conversion


Mystified by the attentive shoal of fish, onlookers raced into the city to bring friends to witness the marvel. With Anthony’s voice ringing out, both fishy and human audiences swelled. As the fish opened their mouths and bowed their heads, Anthony cried out, “Blessed be the eternal God; for the fishes of the sea honor him more than men without faith, and animals without reason listen to his word with greater attention than sinful heretics.”

The faithful “were filled with joy, and greatly comforted, being strengthened in the faith,” while the Cathars fell at Anthony’s feet, converted. After sending away the fish, “St. Anthony remained at Rimini for several days, preaching and reaping much spiritual fruit in the souls of his hearers.”


Updated on June 05 2023