Servant of the Gospel

May 09 2024 | by

ON OUR journey with Anthony we have now reached a point where we are again confronted with sketchy information. After his famous sermon in the Cathedral of Forlì, Anthony’s future path was now clear; however, the most reliable sources now fall silent again! There are no reports about how the news of this sudden discovery of his preaching talent made its way round the Order. There is no mention of when Francis may have heard something about it, nor even of when the Order’s Minister General, Elias of Cortona, gave his permission for Anthony to start his work as a preacher! Whether Elias actually gave it, or whether it was only the then-Minister Provincial who offered his blessing, cannot be known for certain. This is all the Assidua offers us:

“Inasmuch as, according to the Lord’s saying, ‘a city built on a mountain cannot be hidden,’ shortly thereafter the minister was informed of what happened. Anthony, therefore, broke his peaceful silence and was constrained to talk to the public. When the duty of preaching was imposed upon him, the faithful dweller of the hermitage was sent out into the world and his lips, closed for so long, were opened to proclaim the glory of God. Sustained, then, by the authority of the one who sent him, he strove so much to fulfill his role of preaching that he merited for his strenuous efforts the title of ‘Evangelist’. Accordingly, going about cities and castles, villages and countryside, he sowed the seed of life most abundantly and fervently.”


On the move


How did Anthony react to this sudden change in his life? The early sources say absolutely nothing: there are no reports on how the Saint reacted. The Assidua, for instance, merely describes how the Saint was constantly on the move.

“As he moved from one place to another, utterly denying himself any rest because of his zeal for souls, it happened that by heavenly inspiration he reached the city of Rimini. Since he saw there many people deceived by perverse heresy, he soon called together all the inhabitants of the city and began to preach fervently. Although he was not versed in the subtleties of philosophers, he confounded the cunning doctrines of the heretics more lucidly than the sun. His powerful words and salutary doctrine so rooted themselves in the hearts of his listeners that, when the defilement of error was eliminated, a large crowd of believers adhered faithfully to the Lord.”

And this account even offers us the specific name of one of these heretics:

“Among them there was a heretic by the name of Bononillo, who was for thirty years seduced by error into disbelief. Through his servant Anthony, the Lord brought him back to the path of truth. Once he accepted to do penance, he devoutly obeyed the commandments of the Holy Roman Church until the end.”

According to several ancient biographies, Bononillo did not believe in Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. Worse, he mocked those who did. Saint Anthony asked Bononillo, “If the mule you ride adored the Body of Christ in the Eucharist, would you believe in the truth of the Blessed Sacrament?” Bononillo not only agreed, but even said he would starve his mule for three days beforehand. 

The challenge was set. Saint Anthony, too, fasted for three days. After the three days were over, hay was set before the mule’s nose in the town square. Some distance away stood St. Anthony holding the Blessed Sacrament. The mule never touched the hay, but walked to where St. Anthony stood, bent its front legs, and knelt in adoration before the Holy Eucharist! Bononillo knelt, too, in profession of his newfound belief in the Blessed Sacrament.


Complex reality


Although without a precise date, the above event offers us the opportunity to see Anthony, who had been silent for so long, getting on with the work he loved best: non-stop preaching and the search for heretics in order to convert them. It represents a perfect example for many other episodes and reports which have neither dates nor precise locations. In any case, it at least offers us a rough outline of what Anthony was taking upon himself. A couple of explanations are still needed to show what the Church was facing in those times.

The Church’s mission is a difficult one; it has been so since its inception, and will be so for all time! The Church is, as the Second Vatican Council describes, a “realitas complexa” (a complex reality): formed from two quite different realities. On the one hand it is a community of believers founded by God, but on the other hand, it is also an ‘association’ with chairmen, meetings, internal rules and many other more mundane aspects – the so-called ‘measurable’ external aspects of the Church. This, however, is a slightly over-simplified account of the situation, for both these realities constantly come together in history, and neither can be considered and understood without the other. Now during the lifetimes of Anthony, Francis and Dominic, the Church had to face up to quite a number of crises, tense relations and differences of opinion, but if you look at any period in the Church’s history, you will still find the same problems: numerous divisions and conflicts, with various groups splitting away from the main body.


Radical movements


Now in Anthony’s time the new communities of Dominicans and, above all, Franciscans, are causing quite a stir within the Church. They are setting the ‘trend’: radical discipleship of the Gospel. And this is because people are taking offense at the ‘external’ developments of power in the Church, especially by its leaders. This disaffection with the Church and its leaders is causing many people to deviate from its teachings. However, there is also another reason for this loss of faith in the Church, and that is that pastoral care and the teaching of the faith fall by the wayside when many local priests are mainly concerned with their own material survival in the context of the political and economic upheavals of the time. In such situations insecurity regarding faith grows even more, and when this insecurity spreads, all kinds of ‘salvation providers’ step in place of the parish priests; this situation, by the way, is as true today as it was then.

So in Anthony’s time there were plenty of groups which threw themselves into the Gospel with full vigor, with the desire to live it radically. However, some of these groups exaggerated and became violent or heretical in the process. One of the great achievements of the Franciscan order was that it was able to avoid going down the path of heresy, even though the price the Order had to pay – regimentation and a certain degree of conformity to the hierarchy of the Church – was also high.


Anti-Church slogans


Anthony’s milieu was therefore full of the slogans that heretical groups were circulating, and our ‘hammer of heretics’ (one of Anthony’s titles) was now banging against them by tackling them in his sermons, which are almost all moral sermons – even if this word now has a slightly negative connotation. In them, our Saint tries to raise people’s awareness of the right path of life and of the sound teachings of the Church.

This, however, was not always easy, because people like to run to any type of preacher who appears in the villages and towns. In those days, when there was no television, it was a kind of folk festival when one of these itinerant preachers set up their soapboxes on the market square. These firebrand preachers brought a change to the monotony of everyday life, however, it was not always certain that they succeeded in getting their message across.

There is a legend about Anthony which testifies to one such failure of his. It takes place in Rimini, where Anthony once had to make do with a strange audience because the people of the city simply didn’t want to hear him. So without further ado, Anthony preached to the fish – at least they were willing to listen to him!

It is to be hoped that our well-trained theologian and preacher did not make the mistake of many subsequent ‘hammers of heretics’ of not merely arguing against erroneous teachings, but also of beating against the person of the heretic himself, at least in words. If the person in error is identified with the error he is propagating, the end result is usually a funeral pyre on which the error and the erring person are mercilessly sacrificed.

I, for my part, prefer other epithets for our Saint, like the official ‘Evangelical Doctor’ for instance, even though he may not always have used velvet gloves when dealing with heretics.

Updated on May 13 2024