Pivotal Period

August 21 2023 | by

COIMBRA today is a city of 134,000 inhabitants, situated about 127 miles north of Lisbon and some 24 miles from the Atlantic coast. It boasts the most important university in Portugal, and is a political and economic centre of some importance.

In Anthony’s time, it was the seat of government of a country that had just freed itself from Muslim rule, and it remained the residence of the royal family until 1260.

In 1132, just outside the city walls, the monastery of Santa Cruz (Holy Cross) was built for a community of Augustinian Canons Regular. According to a reliable source, this monastery was “the most important religious and intellectual centre in Portugal in the Middle Ages.”  

It is in this environment that we will follow the movements and development of the young Fernando.


Momentous decisions


There are some important facts linked to Coimbra and the Monastery of Santa Cruz that can give us a better understanding of St. Anthony’s personality: his study there; his possible ordination to the priesthood; his meeting with the Franciscans; and his singular decision to leave the Augustinians to join the Franciscans. In the eight years Anthony spent there, Coimbra was the scene of important decisions and turning points in this young man’s life. It is a period that stands out for three reasons: his growing maturity; the development of his culture; and his training as a teacher.

These years were also marked by conflicts that were the inevitable consequences of the situation in which the world and the Church found themselves; conflicts that would have all the imaginable and, at times, unimaginable, repercussions, even for the Monastery of Santa Cruz.


Stumbling blocks


Against this backdrop, Fernando was maturing as a person, and through study and a passion for theology, he was preparing himself for the priestly ministry. However, it was certainly not an easy path for our future Saint Anthony.

On the period 1212-1220 when Fernando received his spiritual and theological formation, J. Toussaert, an expert on St. Anthony, came to the following, certainly ironic, conclusion: “In other words and without going into detail… Fernando was a good monk in Coimbra, despite the fact it was not always easy to be one.”

It certainly does not require a great stretch of the imagination to understand what this researcher wanted to describe in so few words: it could not have been easy for a young monk to lead a peaceful and contemplative life and prepare for pastoral care in a city and a monastery facing constant social and political changes. There were constant obstacles to overcome, intrigues to be aware and wary of, political struggles that became more and more heated, and which had to be avoided. There was the constant danger of falling from the height of one’s ideals, and of getting involved in the worldly disputes that breached the monastery’s gates. Then, as now, monasteries were not a few simple rooms in which one could distance oneself from the developments in society, politics and the Church; quite the contrary!


Council & Crusade


In those years, in 1215 to be precise, when major historical events were occurring in the Church, the Fourth Lateran Council took place. The Council, convened by Pope Innocent III, one of the most powerful popes in the history of the Church, had lasting consequences. One of these was Innocent’s summoning of the Fourth Crusade, which he even wanted to personally lead, but which his death prevented from taking place. It is extremely difficult for us to appreciate the feverish enthusiasm for this Crusade that gripped the people of the time.

Taking everything into consideration, those were certainly not peaceful times. Indeed, it is almost a miracle that Anthony managed to overcome or avoid the stumbling blocks, fears and disappointments. Perhaps it is even more incredible that it was at this time that Anthony was laying the foundations for his future work as a pastoral worker and a priest with the Franciscans.

Perhaps it is not always easy to draw conclusions from the state of affairs in Coimbra and the Monastery of Santa Cruz. One conclusion, however, is certain: with regard to the development of the fundamentals of St. Anthony’s faith, his biblical studies and the theology taught in Coimbra, the Monastery of Santa Cruz transmitted to him a remarkable source of cultural knowledge. And with this background, Anthony’s growth as a person was assured. There were highly qualified teachers to avail himself of; there was a library with manuscripts and copies of the Bible which had no rival in Portugal at that time.


Teaching theology


If a person nowadays decides to study theology, then from the very beginning that person is faced with a vast choice of religious options. There are the ‘propaedeutic’ courses, in which beginners are introduced to the fundamental aspects of philosophy. Then they are led to delve into the different periods of biblical theology, the main historical movements in the development of the Holy Scriptures, and finally they must delve into the history of the Church itself.

More advanced students study the basics of theology and learn through dogma the building of the teachings of the Catholic Church; the next stage is the study of the texts of the Greek and Hebrew writings of the Old and New Testaments. Then come the practical subjects: the art of preaching and pastoral and moral theology; to these is added a strong dose of psychology, sociology and other sciences.

However, in Saint Anthony’s times, the study of theology had a completely different aspect.  There were hardly any public or private ecclesiastical seminaries where one could study to become a priest, even though many would soon spring up; in Paris during Francis’ and Anthony’s lifetime, there was a famous university, and it was not long before Dominicans and Franciscans took up teaching posts there.

In monasteries and schools for monks, theology seemed to be simpler. The individual subjects were not so independent; in the organization of the courses more emphasis was placed on the pivotal and crucial points of biblical theology. Everything revolved around the Bible and its interpretations. Furthermore, the methods used for biblical interpretation in those years differed markedly from those of today.

However, these are only vague indications. It is beyond the scope of this article to go into detail about how Anthony may have studied, what books he may have read, although we can get an idea from the writings he left us. The authors Anthony quoted in his sermons give us some clues about which of their works he read, even though he may have only studied extracts of these works.


Priestly vocation


However, if Anthony wanted to become a good priest and preacher who understood the signs of his troubled times and its people in order to give them answers on how to lead a more successful life through their faith, he would have needed not only theology, but also to sympathize with the people. He would also have needed, like today’s priests, to find support in a spiritual life that would not fall apart at the first encounter with problems.

Anthony had to go through this kind of training during his years in Coimbra; he had to recognize what was going on around him and learn from the disappointments he himself experienced, and with this we approach one of the most decisive moments in the life of this Augustinian Canon Regular and student of theology: his ordination to the priesthood, an event that was much more than just a date on the calendar.

Updated on August 22 2023