My Bishop

June 14 2021 | by

FRANCIS and Anthony are closely connected, but what precisely did that connection consist in? The Little Flowers of St Francis, a favourite introduction to the life of the Poverello (I still have my 1950 Everyman’s Library edition) calls Anthony “one of the chosen followers and companions of St. Francis, whom St. Francis used to call his Bishop.” This suggests a very close relationship, even hinting that Anthony was some sort of guide to Francis. But this was written more than a century after their lifetimes, and claims far more than do biographies that were composed within living memory of the Saints.

It is to these earlier accounts that we must go in order to reconstruct the true historical relationship between them. For St. Francis we have the two ‘Lives’ written by Thomas of Celano, the first composed when Anthony was still alive. For Anthony, we have the Assidua, written just after the canonisation of Anthony in 1233, by a Paduan friar who knew him in his final years.


Contrasting personalities


Francis was born in Assisi in 1181, while Anthony was born in Lisbon a few years later. Geography alone might have made it unlikely that the two should ever meet. Francis was the son of a moderately prosperous merchant, Anthony (or Fernando as he was originally called) was the son of a minor nobleman. His grandfather may have been one of the Crusader knights who took part in the reconquest of Lisbon from Moorish rule, and was given lands near the city as a reward, with a town house near the Cathedral.

Francis was a lively youth, somewhat spoiled, and dreaming of chivalry and secular glory. Anthony appears to have been studious, receiving his first education at the Cathedral school. Francis’s conversion to a more religious life came dramatically, following a period of imprisonment and illness, and a vision of Christ offering him spiritual weapons and a mission to rebuild the Church. After a dramatic renunciation of his father, in 1210 he and a few companions travelled to Rome to ask the blessing of Pope Innocent III for their way of life, based on the imitation of the poverty of Jesus. In the same year, Anthony (still called Fernando) entered the Augustinian Order in their Abbey of St Vincent at Lisbon. Finding it difficult to concentrate on his studies so near his home, he asked to be transferred to the Abbey of Holy Cross at Coimbra, the ‘Westminster Abbey’ of the Portuguese Kingdom. At once we see a contrast between the two young men, the Italian being exuberant and impulsive, the Portuguese studious and planning his life carefully.

Francis’s enthusiasm was infectious, and within a few years he had literally hundreds, even thousands, of followers, who renounced property and sought to proclaim the Gospel by their example of simplicity and humility. Small communities were formed, living in caves or borrowed huts, at first in Italy, but from the Chapter of 1217 spreading out to other countries. One such community arrived in Portugal, settling at the little church of St. Anthony of Egypt just outside Coimbra. It was here that the first contact was made between the Canon guest-master (Fernando) and the poor and simple brothers who came to the Abbey to seek alms. This alone would have prompted the Augustinian scholar to begin a reassessment of his life, but a more dramatic stimulus was soon to follow.


Two-pronged mission


At the Chapter of 1219, Francis initiated a two-pronged mission to the Muslim world. He himself set out for Egypt and his famous confrontation with the Sultan, who was so impressed with his holiness (though unconvinced by his message), that he allowed him to travel to the Holy Land itself, and since then the Friars have never been absent from it. The other prong was a mission to Morocco, undertaken by six brothers, one of whom fell ill on the way. The five remaining brothers reached Morocco via Spain, but did not meet the friendly and open-minded response that Francis had. Their preaching caused great offence, and they were arrested and put to death. Their bodies were ransomed by a Portuguese Prince and taken to Coimbra for burial. This event galvanised Canon Fernando, who felt a burning desire to complete the work the friars had begun. Later writers called this a “desire for martyrdom,” but I think it was such more in the sense of a desire to bear witness, than simply to die. Fernando had been brought up in close proximity to the Moorish world, which still controlled Portugal south of Lisbon. He may even have had a smattering of Arabic. It made sense for him to think he was better equipped to commend Christ to the Muslims than the glorious, but ill-trained, martyrs had been.


The encounter


As we know, his scheme did not go according to plan. He obtained permission to take the Franciscan habit, and the new name Anthony, even though his Augustinian confreres were sorry to lose him. He obtained permission from his new superiors to undertake the Moroccan mission; but on arrival in Africa he fell ill, was put on a boat to return home, and was blown by a providential storm eastwards to Italy. It was now 1221, and he was just in time to reach Assisi for the General Chapter at Pentecost. For the first time in his life he was not in charge of his own life, and was completely out of his element.

Francis had now returned from the East, but he was ill and going blind. It was his Vicar, Brother Elias, who presided over the Chapter, while Francis sat at his feet and tugged his habit if he wanted to intervene. Elias would listen to him, and then announce, “The Brother says…” The new young friar from far away probably sat some way back, with not much idea of what he was supposed to do. He decided simply to pray and await guidance. At the end of the Chapter, one of the Ministers Provincial approached him and asked if he was a priest. On hearing that he was, he asked Elias if he might have Anthony to be chaplain of a little hermitage at Montepaolo, in his Province. So Anthony set out northwards, while Francis himself went south, to preach in southern Italy. Did Anthony ever speak personally to Francis? History does not say.


New star


Anthony by now seems to have been content with a life in obscurity, saying Mass for the brothers and washing the dishes. As before, God had other plans. Anthony’s learning and preaching abilities were providentially discovered, and before long he himself was embarked on a preaching tour in northern Italy. And here I have my own theory as to what next transpired. Another important figure in the development of the Franciscan Order was Cardinal Ugolino di Conti, nephew of Pope Innocent. Like his uncle, he was concerned for the renewal of the Church, and he quickly saw the potentiality of Francis’ movement. He also saw that if that potentiality was to be realised, he must overcome Francis’ suspicion of learning. Apart from the threat to poverty involved in the need for books and libraries, there was the danger of elitism and a division between the clerical and lay members of the Order. Ugolino was at this time Papal Legate in Lombardy and Tuscany, and I think he must have become aware of the new ‘star’ in the preaching firmament. Anthony was the model of how poverty and learning could be combined. Francis had already asked the Pope (Honorius III now) to name Ugolino as Cardinal Protector of the Order, referring to him jokingly as “my Pope.” Ugolino was probably the one man who could persuade Francis to commission Anthony to “read theology to the brothers,” which Francis did by letter, calling him “my bishop” in a way similar to Ugolino being “my Pope.” Again, we have no idea whether Anthony and Francis met in person.


Minister Provincial


How was Anthony to fulfil his commission? It was impossible for him to give theological lectures to all the brothers scattered across Europe. He decided to write a book, which would eventually be known as his; but before he could begin this work he was assigned the responsibility of Custos, or regional superior, in the newly created Province of Aquitaine. He set out for Limoges, in central France, and did not return until after the death of Francis in 1226, taking part in the Chapter of 1227 to elect his successor. At the same Chapter Anthony himself was appointed Minister Provincial, and made his base at Padua.

Updated on June 14 2021