Oh Blessed Tongue

January 25 2013 | by

WITH FIVE million pilgrims passing through its mighty portals every year, the Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua is one of the world’s most popular Catholic shrines. This influx of devotees from around the world reaches its culmination in the months of February and June in which the two most important celebrations honouring our Saint take place. June 13 celebrates Saint Anthony’s ‘birth in heaven’, while February 15 celebrates the discovery of his incorrupt tongue 32 years after his death.

While the June 13 Feast is familiar enough to our readers, much less is known about the February feast, not only because the celebrations are not as significant, but also because the literature on the feast is much less extensive. This journalist therefore decided to interview the Rector of Saint Anthony’s Basilica in Padua in order to share new information with our readers.

The current Rector of the Basilica is Fr. Enzo Poiana, a 54-year-old Conventual Franciscan Friar who has served the Order in this capacity for the past eight years.

Fr. Enzo has a special relationship with the Saint’s Basilica. It was, in fact, in this Shrine that he first felt the call to become a Franciscan friar. This was in 1981, when he was 23 years old, so it is only natural for him to have a special interest in the Basilica and everything relating to it.

During the interview, Fr. Enzo was a treasure trove of information on the February 15 Feast, which this friar believes needs to be urgently understood in its spiritual sense in our days of rampant materialism.


The Rector speaks


Fr. Enzo, what is the spiritual significance of St. Anthony’s incorrupt tongue?

The relic, which is unique, is connected to an extraordinarily miraculous event that highlights an important aspect of Anthony’s life and mission.

The tongue is one of the most fragile parts of our body. After death, it is the part of our body that decays first. It is therefore significant that precisely this part of the Saint’s body should be one of the best preserved.

All the supernatural events that occur around us are ‘spiritual messages from God’. Through these events God speaks to us; He sends us some teaching, sign, indication. By preserving St. Anthony’s tongue from corruption, God has shown us that He approved the Saint’s mission and in particular his preaching, which he performed mainly though his tongue and vocal apparatus.


Why is 2013 an important year for the Feast of St. Anthony’s Tongue?

Because the discovery of the Saint’s incorrupt tongue occurred in 1263. This year is consequently the 750th anniversary of this discovery. It is therefore important to mark this anniversary with a series of events and celebrations not only here at the Basilica, but in all churches around the world dedicated to our Saint.


Missionary zeal


How did St. Anthony die?

In practice, the Wonder-Worker died from fatigue on account of his strenuous and unceasing efforts to evangelise society. This constant preaching of the Word of God led him to make many gruelling and debilitating journeys around Europe.

Anthony had immense learning for a man of his time, and St. Francis had encouraged him to dedicate his life to preaching and to the teaching of theology. He became famous for his sermons which drew huge crowds.

Anthony’s journeys were always undertaken on foot, sometimes under a sweltering sun or during frosty winter days. In addition, Anthony often imposed harsh penances on his body, like fasts and vigils, and these weakened his health.

In the last months of his life he was so worn out that he could barely stand up. Despite this, he was so full of missionary zeal that he had himself helped to the pulpit so that he could continue to deliver his fiery and inspiring sermons.

On June 13, 1231, he was convalescing at the convent of Camposampiero, about 25 kilometres north of Padua, when he became aware that death was approaching, and so he asked to be taken back to Padua to die in the company of his Franciscan Brothers in the small church of Santa Maria Mater Domini.

He was laid on an ox-drawn cart for the bumpy ride back to Padua. This slowly became a procession as people from the surrounding villages began to follow the cart. When they reached the village of Arcella, on the outskirts of Padua, Anthony was at the end of his tether, so it was decided to let the sick man spend the night at a hospice there run by the Poor Clares. It was in this hospice that the Saint died the evening of June 13.

The Saint remained wide awake to the last, and expressed the desire to lain on the bare earth just like Francis before him. He also asked that his favourite Marian hymn, O Gloriosa Domina, be sung. He then passed away while reciting a psalm, and his last words were, “I see my Lord.” According to some biographers, he was 36 at the time of his death, others believe he was 40.


Where was he buried?

Word of his death spread like wildfire, and the locals soon gathered around the small hospice to prevent the body from being taken away.

It was necessary for the local authorities to explain to the people that the Saint had expressly requested to be buried in Padua in the church of Santa Maria Mater Domini where there was community of friars.


Santo subito


When was the Saint actually buried?

The actual burial took place on June 17 at Santa Maria Mater Domini. This church soon became a magnet of attraction for pilgrims, and many prodigious events and healings began to take place there.

Anthony’s popularity among the people was enormous, and word of this soon reached the ears of Pope Gregory IX. This Pope knew Anthony and had a great admiration for him, to the point of calling him “Ark of the Testament” when the Saint preached to the Curia in Rome.

Gregory IX therefore instituted a regular beatification process which was concluded at lightning speed. Indeed, Saint Anthony’s canonization was the fastest on record, taking less than 12 months.

Anthony was canonised in the cathedral of Spoleto by Pope Gregory IX on the day of Pentecost, 30 May, 1232, during a solemn ceremony. It is reported that during the canonisation ceremony, the bells of all the churches in Lisbon, Anthony’s home town in Portugal, started ringing without anyone having touched them.


Under what circumstances was the Saint’s incorrupt tongue discovered?

When Anthony was proclaimed a saint, the influx of pilgrims increased even more, and the little church of Santa Maria Mater Domini was no longer large enough to contain them all. The friars then decided to build a bigger church right next door to it, and work began immediately.

In 1263 the new building was almost complete and so it was decided to move the saint’s coffin to the new church. On this occasion the friars also decided to undertake a recognition on his body. This was an important operation, and was undertaken in the presence of religious authorities and 12 laymen who represented the most authoritative citizens of Padua. The Minster General of Franciscans came from Rome – this was Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, a great theologian who was himself later to become a saint.

When the casket was opened something unusual was noticed just below the skull: it was a portion of flesh of a fresh reddish colour. This was the Saint’s tongue which was found to be perfectly preserved. At this point, Saint Bonaventure expressed his joy and surprise with words that have been incorporated into the Antiphony of the Office of the February 15 Feast: O blessed tongue, you have always praised the Lord and led others to praise him! Now we can clearly see how great indeed have been your merits before God.

Anthony’s mortal remains were then placed in a new wooden casket, which was then sealed and reintroduced into the original coffin which, in turn, was placed inside a marble sarcophagus at the centre of the new church. This new church gradually became the great Basilica of Saint Anthony which we admire today.


Cardinal Guy de Boulogne-sur-Mer


Were there other recognitions after this first one?

There were some ‘translations’, that is ‘movements’, of the coffin. Extensions were later added to the Basilica. One of these was the construction of a side chapel which was to house the Saint’s Tomb. This is the current Chapel of Saint Anthony on the left side of the Basilica. The coffin was translated to this new location on 14 June 1310, but our records do not mention any recognition on that occasion.

It is believed, however, that a recognition did take place in 1350. On that occasion, Cardinal Guy de Boulogne-sur-Mer, the Pontifical Legate, came to Padua. He had come to preside over a ‘translation’ of the coffin, which was moved to a place closer to the original burial site – a relocation of a few meters only. On that occasion the Cardinal brought with him, as a gift to the Basilica, a precious reliquary in gratitude for a grace he had received through the Saint’s intercession.

The Saint’s jaw is now placed in that reliquary and this leads us to believe that on that occasion the Tomb may have been reopened. However, in 1981, the year of the last scientific examination of the Saint’s mortal remains, it was found that the seals placed on the casket were still those of the year 1263, so there is uncertainty as to whether the casket was opened between 1263 and 1981.


Why was the 1981 scientific examination performed?

This is true for a number of very good reasons. First of all, to our knowledge it had been centuries since the last recognition, and we friars wanted to be sure about the state of preservation of the Saint’s mortal remains. Also, through the centuries a number of tales had arisen to the effect that the Tomb was now empty. In order to dispel these myths, and also to ensure that, with the recent advances in technology, the Saint’s mortal remains would be preserved in a better condition for future generations, we asked the Pontifical Delegate to authorise a scientific examination, which took place in January 1981.


The 1981 recognition


How was this examination conducted?

It was preceded by a very moving ceremony. The actual opening of the Tomb occurred on January 6 at 7:00 pm. In the presence of various authorities and about a hundred religious, one of the marble slabs at the side of the Tomb was removed. These marble slabs form the sarcophagus which is the altar of the Chapel of Saint Anthony. The wooden casket was then extracted from this opening. After removing the various precious cloths which enveloped the coffin, the casket was opened, and it was found to contain a second, smaller casket. This casket in turn was found to contain three wrapped packages with red silk gilded around the edges. Each of these packages came with a paper document which described the contents. One of the packages contained the Saint’s bones along with other mortal remains, another package contained his skull, while the third contained the habit with which he had been buried.


Why was this considered to be the most important recognition carried out so far?

It was the most important because of the scientific manner with which it was conducted, and the consequent wealth of information derived from it. This scientific examination had been prepared in detail well in advance, and was performed by highly qualified scientists from the University of Padua.


Surprising finds


What new information did it give us?

The examination produced results of great historical, medical and anthropological value and quite a few surprises as well! One of these was the discovery that the cartilaginous tissue supporting the vocal cords, along with other organic material connected with Anthony’s vocal apparatus, was still remarkably preserved. In 1263 Saint Bonaventure had found the tongue incorrupt, but we, in 1981, also found that other parts of the Saint’s body connected with his vocal apparatus had been preserved from corruption. With this new information, the miracle of the conservation of the Saint’s tongue received added proof.


Were there other surprises?

Indeed there were. The pathologists who examined the bones were wonderstruck by how well they were preserved. In the following days the Saint’s relics were taken to a room where scientists performed various tests. The analysis of the skeleton allowed us to reconstruct Anthony’s physical appearance. It was found that our Saint was rather tall for a man of that historical period. The average height in those days was 1.60 meters, while Anthony was 1.71 meters.

In the most ancient paintings, the Saint is portrayed as a rather robust figure with a mellow, round face. The medical analysis carried out in 1981 did in fact confirm that Anthony was affected by dropsy and edema, a disease which causes a swelling of the body brought on by an abnormal accumulation of fluids. A mould was also made of the skull, which was then analysed mathematically. From this information it was possible to reconstruct what Anthony looked like before the onset of his disease.

The Saint’s head was found to be long, moderately large and high, with a large cranial capacity. He had high and strong chin bones, a thin nose with deep-set eyes and black hair. Moreover, pathologists also discovered that his body was harmoniously proportioned throughout, and that his hands were long and gentle.

Also, the examination of the bones of his legs revealed that he had been a great walker and a person of deep faith because his thickened knee caps proved that he had the habit of kneeling in prayer for long hours every day.

Even this last discovery can be seen as a message from God. Prayer, in fact, is our only way of communicating with God, without whose help we can do nothing. Let us therefore follow our Saint in cultivating a spirit of deep prayer.

Updated on October 06 2016