Right Solidarity

June 15 2019 | by

WHILE all saints are compassionate, some are more especially known for this virtue. One thinks of St Teresa of Calcutta who worked with the poor of India or St Peter Claver who ministered to slaves or St Peter Damien who gave his life in service to the lepers of Molokai.

Compassion is a virtue through which we identify with someone else’s pain and seek to bring him or her comfort, solace, and support. The word ‘compassion’ comes from the Late Latin word ‘compassionem’, which is a loan translation of the Greek word ‘sumpatheia’, which consists of ‘sun’ (with) and ‘pathos’ (suffering). Thus compassion refers to being with (com) someone who is suffering (pathos). Imagine knowing a father, for example, whose 4-year-old daughter suffered from epilepsy and who “was absolutely incapable of using her feet and moved like a reptile, crawling with the help of her hands.” Parents of such a child would seek help from the best doctors they could afford. This child’s father sought out the best doctor of his time – Saint Anthony – “and began to beg him to make the sign of the cross over his daughter. The saintly father, admiring the man’s faith, blessed her and sent her away.” The child, over time, was healed (Life of Saint Anthony: Assidua; edited by Vergilio Gamboso; Edizioni Messaggero Padova, 2006, p. 74).

This father and daughter lived in Padua and knew, as did the other Paduans, that Saint Anthony and compassion were practically synonymous. Due to his compassion for debtors, Anthony influenced the city of Padua to pass a humane law to keep the poor from being imprisoned while their debts were being paid. His compassion in the confessional became so well known that the number of his penitents increased, so much so that he often spent days hearing confessions. His preaching on the love and mercy of God brought many prostitutes and usurers to repentance and to the confessional where Anthony, without condemnation or judgment, absolved them of their sins.


Brother Roger


Following Anthony’s death at the age of 36 in the year 1231, many miracles occurred through his intercession and at his Tomb. An unknown contemporary Franciscan friar completed the first biography of the Saint, the Assidua, for Anthony’s canonization in 1232, that is, within one year of his death.

The friar-biographer details Anthony’s last hours which give testimony to his compassion for his fellow friars. At that time, “he had left behind the crowds of people who flocked together from everywhere to hear and see him” so as to “give himself exclusively to God.” When he felt that he was soon to die, he asked Brother Roger, “Brother, if you agree, I would like to go to Padua, to the place of St. Mary [over which the current Basilica was later to be built], in order not to burden these friars.” Note Anthony’s thoughtfulness and compassion. He would go only if Brother Roger, his caretaker, agreed, because Roger would have to go with him. Making that journey would inconvenience Roger, while remaining in the friary would “burden these friars” with Anthony’s impending death. The Paduan friars were, perhaps, living a more active life than the relative hermits at Camposampiero, where Anthony was staying when he was stuck with his final illness. Perhaps the Paduan friars would be better able to cope with a dying man. However, on the way to Padua, Friar Vinotus met the entourage and told Anthony that, should he enter Padua, mass confusion would ensue and people would throng around him. It would really be better, Vinotus reasoned, if Anthony went to the friary at Arcella. “Hearing these things, the servant of God assented to the requests of the petitioner and, acquiescing to his wishes, changed his direction for the friars’ house.” So writes the biographer (Assidua, pp. 40-41). Because of this last act of charity, Anthony spared the citizens of his beloved Padua from the agony of seeing him die. Instead, in that house in Arcella, surrounded by fellow friars, he returned his soul to God.


Miracles of compassion


The miracles listed in the Assidua are evidence of Anthony’s compassion. Several examples of this virtue were shown in the cure of Guilla, who had suffered for eight years and “when out of necessity she wanted to move somewhere, she would drag her body with difficulty, supporting herself on crutches.” Her husband, wanting to take her to the tomb of St. Anthony, put her on a horse and got her inside, where she began to pray. Feeling pain so excruciating that it caused her to perspire, she could not bear the heat, and compassionate men visiting the Tomb helped her outside. After she felt a little better, she returned to the Tomb where she was healed (Assidua, p. 70). A similar instance of compassion by others visiting the Tomb occurred in the case of a poor woman named Cesaria whose left foot was curved sideways. She had come from Venice to glean the grain harvest, and heard about Anthony’s miracles. She made her way to the Tomb where she experienced great pain and excessive perspiration so that those nearby carried her close to the wall of the church to rest. Here, after regaining her strength, she stood up, finding her hand and foot healed (Assidua, p. 73). A third woman, a widow named Prosdocima, had her left hand and both feet contracted so that she could not walk. Compassionate friends and family carried her to the sepulcher in a wooden tub and lifted her above the arc where she was cured (Assidua, p. 73-74). These three of many miracles show how God’s compassion healed those who were suffering, through Anthony’s compassionate intercession and assisted by compassionate individuals.


The crane


Anthony would have been especially pleased by these three miracles because they illustrate his thoughts about compassion. He compared compassionate souls to cranes, those graceful long legged, long necked marsh birds that are prevalent in Italy. In his Sermon Notes, Anthony wrote, “Do let us be merciful, in imitation of the cranes, of which it is said that when they seek to fly to any destination. . . All of them together take care of the weary, so that if any flag, they all come together to support those who are tired, until with rest they regain their strength” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals II, p.82; translated by Paul Spilsbury; Edizioni Messaggero Padova).

Anthony was such a strong believer in charity that he said that faith depends upon its exercise. “St Augustine says, ‘to believe in God is to love God, and go into him, and be incorporated with his members.’ Whoever does not do this is lying when he says, ‘I believe in God’. The unfaithful man is one who does not believe in this way, and so deals unfaithfully. His faith is dead, because it lacks charity” (Sermons III, p. 309).


Misguided compassion


Is it possible to show true compassion without faith in a compassionate God? One thinks of misguided compassion that accepts euthanasia as a compassionate answer to suffering, whereas God’s compassion asks us to care lovingly for those who are suffering, and to entrust the duration of their lives to God, who loves them more than we ever could.

Anthony believes that the fullness (perfection) of knowledge is charity. We gain this fullness of knowledge when we judge as God does. We can only judge as He judges if we know what He knows. “Oh God, give me your judgment, that I may make your judgment my own, and in making my own judgment I may escape yours! … the fullness of knowledge... is charity. Whoever has this is full, and knows how he should walk… when we do good with charity” (Sermons III, p. 98). It follows that partial or incomplete knowledge will cause charity to fall short. One can see this in arguments favoring abortion, because the unborn child is ‘only a clump of cells.’ Those who believe this are arguing from incomplete knowledge. Even the newly fertilized egg is hardly ‘a clump of cells.’ It is, within two days of fertilization, a four celled organism in which the cells are already differentiating into different systems.


Journey of love


While we generally think of charity as good works, Anthony extends charity to good words as well. This makes perfect sense. Often it is more charitable to speak a word of correction or guidance than to do a charitable action. This is because a word may help someone develop a good habit that will enable him or her to live a fuller life and no longer depend on charity from others. When a person becomes self-supporting, he or she can then help others. Anthony put it this way, “the faithful… should give forth the sparks of true preaching and of good works, to set his neighbor on fire” (Sermons I, p. 13). Setting someone on fire is another way of saying “spurring them on to change for the better.”

Charity is not a stopping place, but a moving point on a journey of love. We must not look back at what we have done, but rather we should look forward to what remains to be done. What can we still lovingly do? “In charity he should widen himself, forgetting what lies behind and reaching for what lies ahead [cf. Phil 3.13]” (Sermons I, p. 295).

Numerous charitable institutions, like St Anthony’s Charities, have taken Saint Anthony as their patron and model. Not only are countless churches and schools operating under Anthony’s patronage, but also hospitals, orphanages, and rehabilitation and nursing centers. One such initiative is Grégoire Ahongbonon’s outreach in favour of mentally-ill people in Togo, Africa, outlined in our next article. “Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36). “For He makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). Since God’s compassion extends to all His children, Saint Anthony followed God’s example.

Updated on June 15 2019