Saint Anthony & the Modern World

May 13 2014 | by

THE TYPICAL household in the 21st century is about as varied as it was during Anthony’s lifetime. Anthony’s familiar world consisted of Portugal, France, Italy, and, for a brief time, Morocco. The average family varied depending upon social class. The rich were very rich, having horses, lands, servants, and power. The poor were quite poor, ranging from lepers and beggars who had virtually nothing to tenant farmers who worked the lands of the wealthy. The growing middle class consisted of merchants and tradesmen who, through their money and the power of their guilds, were elbowing their way into the noble, governing class.

Compare that to the world community today. We find the very rich whose money and power control the governments and policies of the world, even in so called democratic countries. The numerous poor vary, so that the poor in developed nations would frequently be considered lower middle class in under developed countries. The world still has its homeless people and beggars, the outcasts and those who live and die in the streets, just as they did in the time of St. Anthony. Reuters News Service projects that by the year 2030, the middle class will exceed the poor worldwide by 2 billion people.


The Preacher


Anthony travelled about on foot, preaching in town squares and in the churches when a popular preacher was a huge attraction. We can hardly imagine thousands flocking to hear someone preaching about God. But, in Anthony’s time, life was tenuous and no one was sure if he or she would be alive next week. Belief in an afterlife was strong, and most people did not doubt that God existed. Since life in this world was dangerous and unpredictable, people wanted to believe that life in the next world was stable and glorious. Because the centre of life was in the cities’ piazzas and churches and not around a television set, a computer, or an iPad, people came in great numbers to hear an animated preacher who would tell them how to get to heaven. St. Anthony was such a preacher.


Multimedia approach


Can we imagine St. Anthony in our world today? If he wanted to preach in a public park, he would first have to acquire permits from the city government. He would be required to have insurance and police protection for his listeners. He would have to schedule the day and location – no impromptu public gatherings today. This is a far cry from St. Anthony arriving in town, waiting for a clear day, then proceeding to the town square, and having everyone cluster around to hear what he was saying.

What would St. Anthony do today? Would he be a preacher who gives missions and retreats? Quite probably. But he would not limit himself to preaching to the choir. He would want to be out in the town square to engage people who do not yet know Jesus. How could he reach the largest audience? A website of homilies! YouTube! Radio! The Franciscans had benefactors who gave them use of property and supplied them with food. St. Anthony would have had his benefactors in our day, too, and these people would sponsor his website, YouTube videos, and radio program. We can imagine St. Anthony preaching on public television, particularly if his popularity grew to the point that people clamoured to hear him. Anthony was a charismatic man; people were drawn by his gentleness, his intelligence, his youth, his deep faith, and his forcefulness. They would have been drawn to him today or in any time. Anthony’s driving passion was to bring all people to salvation. He used every means in his time to do so, so why would he not use every means in our time?


Modern metaphors


However, could St. Anthony have adapted to this time? Certainly! Anthony was a popular preacher. He related the faith to common elements in the world around him. His analogies sometimes seem far-fetched, but this is because the science of his day was not as accurate as the science of ours. Thus St. Anthony could compare the Blessed Mother to an elephant, a novel animal during his time. How did he ever make such a comparison? Using the scientific information of his day, Anthony would tell his listeners that an elephant would be frightened by a mouse and run away, just as the Blessed Mother is frightened by the mouse of sin and flees from it.

Can you imagine what spiritual truths St. Anthony might derive from an airplane? He might say that, just as a plane is packed with passengers and then coasts along before being airborne above the world, so the Lord has us drift along, but then will carry us into the heights of his love if only we will allow ourselves to enter into his presence just as we have to allow ourselves to enter a plane. If we don’t enter the plane, we will never get off the ground, and if we do not enter into the presence of God we will never let him carry us into his love.

Can you imagine Anthony using the Internet as an analogy of how God can be present to everyone in the world at the same time? No matter where people are, they can all access the same website and see the same things at the same time. Although the website content will be fixed, people’s perceptions of and reactions to it may differ. Nevertheless, the webmaster determines the contents and appearance of the site. God comes to us in the Holy Spirit Who can be present to all at the same time, even though responses to the Spirit may differ. Of course the analogy is imperfect, as all analogies are, but analogies make a point, and Anthony used them well.


Engaging unbelievers


During Anthony’s time, most people adhered to a faith. In our time, atheism and agnosticism are  growing. Anthony would not have remained sequestered in churches; he would have gone out to unbelievers and engaged them in conversation. He would have wanted people to question their questions about God’s existence.

St. Anthony understood those who doubted. In his sermon notes for the First Sunday after Easter (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals, translated by Paul Spilsbury, Edizioni Messaggero, Padova, 2007, Volume I, pp. 264f), Anthony wrote about St. Thomas who had to put his fingers into the place of the nails and his hand into Christ’s side. Anthony noted, “Thomas means ‘abyss’, because by doubting he came to know more profoundly, and stood more firmly… It was not by chance but by divine dispensation that Thomas was absent and did not believe what he heard… The kind Lord would not leave his disciple in doubt… because he was to be a chosen vessel.” Anthony is saying that those who doubt can become vessels of election when they believe. He is not discouraged by doubters, but sees hope for them. Anthony goes on to mention the example of Saul, who became Paul when the scales of doubt fell from his eyes.


Reason & faith


Anthony understood the role of reason in faith. He wrote, in this same set of sermon notes, “Rational, without guile.” He then notes that, “Rational is what pertains to reason.” Next he quotes from Guigo the Carthusian, “Reason is that aspect of the mind whereby we see truth in itself, not as embodied; or it is the very contemplation of truth, not by the body. It is, even, the truth itself which is contemplated.” He then adds that we should be “‘rational’ as relating to God and to ourselves; ‘without guile’ as to our neighbour.” (Sermons, I, 268). We can deduce that he would have engaged atheists on their Internet forums, explaining to them the faith and showing them the fallacies in their own reasonings. Following his example, we should inform ourselves about the teachings of the Church and about the tenants of atheism so that we can engage in a meaningful dialogue about Jesus with those who do not believe.


Follow me


Anthony engaged the popular culture and captured its attention. He used images and analogies that piqued the interest of the people. After catching their attention, as he did when he preached to the fish, he would cleverly and faithfully turn the discussion to Christ. In today’s world that is following one leader or another, Anthony’s words ring out to the seekers. “Follow me, then; and I will show you what eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the heart of man [1 Cor 4.9]. Follow me, and as Isaiah says: ‘I will give thee hidden treasures and the concealed riches of secret places’ [Is 45.3]. ‘Then thou shalt see and abound, and thy heart shall wonder and be enlarged’ [Is 60.5]. ‘You will see God face to face, just as he is.’ You will abound with the delights and riches of the double robe of soul and body. Your heart will wonder at the choirs of angels and the mansions of the blessed… Follow me, then.” (Sermons, IV, 35f). Whose heart would not beat a little faster to hear these words of the Saint?

Updated on October 06 2016