A New Direction

December 18 2023 | by

IN THE summer of 1220, Fernando was wearing his new habit, had changed home, and thus had new fellow brothers and even a new name. The Assidua uses the brilliant term 'high sounding' to explain Fernando’s new name: Anthony. The man’s great career as a preacher and his ability to speak about God in a profound and powerful way are encapsulated in this short explanation of the meaning of his new name.

There is, however, another reason why Fernando changed his name. At the time, it was common practice in the Franciscan movement for a newcomer to abandon his family name. Sufficient examples of this practice include Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, Thomas of Celano, Julian of Speyer, to name but a few. It was also customary for the brothers to add the place where they came from to their first names. In Anthony’s case it is possible that, to demonstrate the new step he had taken, he may have called himself “Anthony of Olivais,” his first home as a Franciscan.


Entirely obedient?


It seems that the anonymous Franciscan friar who wrote the Assidua (our eyes and ears on Saint Anthony’s life), was indeed present at the conversation before the gates of the Coimbra abbey between the newly enrolled Fernando and the friars of the Olivais hermitage. Anthony had explained that he was ready to become a Franciscan on the condition of being sent, as soon as possible, as a missionary to the land of the Saracens. It would appear that the friars accepted this condition without second thought. Moreover, since the Franciscan Order at that time did not provide a probationary period for the new arrivals, Anthony was able to develop and think about the realization of his plans almost as soon as he entered the retreat of St. Anthony of Olivais.

Let’s pause for a moment. Entry into an Order, whatever its rules, under the conditions set by Anthony may astonish us more than it did the friars of that period. Indeed, we may find it difficult to reconcile Anthony’s plans with his promise of obedience and poverty, for we might have expected him to say, instead, “Look! Here I am. I am really happy to be with you, and I will do what you wish!”

Nevertheless, it did not take Anthony long to learn how to get the permission he wanted from his superiors. And so, shortly after joining the Franciscans of Olivais, Anthony went to his superior, Giovanni Parenti, then Minister Provincial of the Franciscans in Spain, and received, as promised, permission to leave for Morocco.


Sketchy information


And so began Anthony’s journey, a journey that would deviate markedly from his original plans, and last from the end of 1220 to the spring of 1221.

To our and, no doubt his own great surprise, we find Anthony in the spring of 1221 at the General Meeting of the Franciscan Order held at the Porziuncola near Assisi – the so-called Chapter of Mats. At this meeting our Saint’s name was not acclaimed, as he had originally expected, as that of a heroic martyr who had died for the faith; instead he arrived in Assisi in person and in total anonymity, like an ordinary friar.

What had happened? We have very little to go on. The reports on the ‘missionary journey’ of Anthony of Olivais are once again rather sketchy.

There are no details about the route he took, the places he saw and the people he travelled with – Franciscans never travelled alone in those days, but always, as the Gospel says, in twos at least – nor are there accounts of the success of his mission and the conversations he had in the highly civilized Arab world.

This is not to say, however, that Anthony was unable to achieve anything over the course of these months of which we have no news. Whatever happened, one name keeps appearing in the various reports of his mission: Friar Philip, a Spanish lay-friar who seems to have been Anthony’s travelling companion. Friar Philip also never became a martyr, as he died many years later near Siena, in Italy.


Painful punishment


Let us listen to what the Assidua has to say about St. Anthony’s mission to Morocco: “His zeal for the spread of the faith urged him on ever more earnestly, and his thirst for martyrdom, which burned in his heart, never gave him rest. And so, according to the promise made to him, it happened that, as soon as he obtained permission, he hastily left for the land of the Saracens.

“But the Most High, who knows what is in man, opposed his projects and, striking him with a grave illness, punished him very painfully throughout the winter. When he saw that he could do nothing to bring to fulfillment what he had proposed, it dawned on him that to recover at least his bodily health he had to return to his native land.

“During the voyage, just as he was ready to land in Spain, he saw himself carried by strong winds to the shores of Sicily. About that time it was decided to celebrate a general chapter in Assisi. When the servant of God was informed of this by the friars of the city of Messina, showing himself stronger than he really was, he reached the place of the chapter as best he could.”


Strange disease


The Assidua here clearly states that our impetuous new Franciscan, desperate for martyrdom, had realized that he was unable to carry out his plans, and furthermore that he was seriously ill.

Even if his mission had not been the terrible failure that the Assidua would have us believe, Anthony’s personal development had certainly suffered a setback. It seems that Anthony was no longer in control. He was too weak and ill, suffering from malaria, nervous disorders, states of panic – these are just some of the diagnoses that have been made over the years about the strange disease which afflicted Anthony.

One fact, though, is undeniable. By 1222 he had not yet fully recovered from this disease and, due to his state of health and the overwhelming workload he underwent, Anthony came face to face with death at a very young age. However, his appearance was deceptive, and his friends and people who came into contact with him believed he was much healthier than he actually was.

In spite of his health and the difficulties of the journey from Morocco to Sicily, Anthony survived the journey to Assisi. Travel in those days was quite different from the ease with which one travels today by train, plane or ship. Months of fatigue and disappointment had therefore marked Anthony’s initiation into the Franciscan Order.

Upon reaching Assisi, the birthplace of the Franciscan Order, Anthony felt doubly blessed in that he could also see St. Francis! Our weakened friar, having lost control of the destiny he had wanted for himself, found himself at the ‘centre’ of his new community, and right at the time of a great event: the Pentecost Chapter of 1221.

Perhaps now, after the vigorous start and the subsequent abrupt blow to his plans, there was new cause for hope for Anthony, not least the papal approval of the Order to which he now belonged.


Parallel lives


Francis and Anthony, who met in person for the first and last time during the Chapter of Mats, actually had more in common than one might have expected.

The parallel situation in which they both found themselves is indeed remarkable. Between 1212 and 1214 Francis had undertaken missionary journeys to Syria and Morocco, and had himself wanted to become a martyr; his enthusiasm and plans had also been thwarted by illness. In 1220 Francis was no longer the light-hearted singer of God’s ballads with a song for every situation. He had abandoned the leadership of the Order, exhausted and disappointed by the criticisms of some of his fellow friars.

On top of all this, Francis was a dying man. As a result of further missionary journeys in 1219 and 1220 he had contracted a long series of diseases: cancer, malaria, stomach ulcers and increasing blindness. He was shaken by continuous periods of deep depression, which lasted until his death. Thus, instead of appearing as a ‘pretty pop singer’, Francis was the image of a suffering believer in God’s good will.

Two wonderful heroes of the Church had the opportunity to meet at the Chapter of Mats. Father Vergilio Gamboso, OFM Conv., in his biography on our Saint, writes: “On the outward journey for the African coast he was simply friar Anthony; on the return journey he had already become Saint Anthony.”

Updated on December 18 2023