St Anthony & Women

June 09 2018 | by

“WOMEN in the Middle Ages found themselves perpetually oscillating between a pit and a pedestal,” so began a chapter on medieval women. Attitudes toward women varied by their social class. Noble women were treated with greater respect than peasant women, yet most men agreed, in theory at least, that women were inferior beings. This gave husbands the right to punish their wives, sometimes severely. Canon law stated, “It is plain that wives should be subject to their husbands and should almost be servants.” Peasant women fit the servant mold, for they not only bore and raised their children, but they also worked continuously at home, in shops, and in fields and gardens. They toiled from sunrise to sunset.

On the other hand, high born women were looked upon not as servants but as lovers. Troubadours sang courtly love songs about gorgeous mistresses of noble men whose trysts often ended tragically. The wellborn knight who did not attempt to seduce his lover, but rather admired her from afar was the knightly ideal embraced by St. Francis of Assisi. Such a noble but chaste love was appropriately directed toward a virtuous woman.

Clergy often preached that women were instruments of the devil who was the supreme temptress. Men were advised to treat women with caution and discipline lest women lead men astray into sexual sin and other evils. After all, didn’t Adam fall from God’s grace because of Eve?


High regard for women


St. Anthony’s view toward women was uncommon for his time. Rather than seeing women as possessions of men, temptresses, or household drudges, Anthony considered each woman to be a unique and valuable creation of God. Anthony not only treated all women with respect and compassion, but he frequently went out of his way to be particularly kind to them. His sermon notes do not preach any themes that degrade women. On the contrary, Anthony often extols feminine qualities and uses them to illustrate qualities of God.

The first woman in Anthony’s life is, of course, his mother Maria Theresa. Although historians dispute the background of Anthony’s family, most concede that his father Martino was a knight and Maria Theresa a noblewoman. In addition to their son Anthony, the couple also gave birth to Anthony’s brother named Pedro and his two sisters Maria and Feliciana. Feliciana married. Some authors claim that Anthony raised her dead son to life. Pedro became a reasonably wealthy man who bequeathed some houses he owned to canons of the cathedral. Maria entered a community of nuns of St. Augustine. Her convent was attached to St. Vincent Monastery where Anthony entered as a young man. Evidently Anthony’s family was one of strong faith as it fostered two religious vocations plus a lay man who supported the Church.


Gentleness to women


Although Anthony seems to have come from a noble family, his concern extended to everyone, noble and peasant alike. Some of his most intriguing miracles involved peasant women. Brother Pierre, who lived with Anthony at a friary in Brive, France, liked to tell the story of a kitchen maid who was sent by her mistress to bring vegetables to the friars during a driving rainstorm. Anthony had been the cook at the time and had requested the produce. The maid ran all the way to the friary with the requested food, and all the way back home to her noble mistress. Only when she returned did she realize that she was not wet. This tender concern for a simple kitchen maid is indicative of the qualities which made Anthony so well loved.

This same gentleness is evident in the incident involving the peasant woman at Marseilles, France. Anthony and another friar stopped at her humble house, requesting shelter and something to eat. Wanting to impress the friars, the woman insisted on serving them some of her wine in her fine glass goblet, her only possession of any value. When she descended into her cellar to get the wine, she was so flustered about having the famous preacher Father Anthony in her house that she forgot to turn off the wine tap. When she entered the house with her pitcher of wine, she discovered that Anthony’s companion friar had dropped the goblet and broken it. Suddenly she remembered that she had left the tap open and she rushed downstairs to find that her supply of wine had flooded her cellar. Anthony eased the woman’s distress with two miracles – restoring the wine glass to its original shape and causing the wine keg to be again full.


Popular among women


Anthony is believed to have been the confessor of Sister Elena Enselmini, a religious sister who was living, in the manner of St. Clare, in a convent in Padua as one of the Poor Ladies. Anthony fostered her great devotion to the Passion of Jesus. Other than that, we know little about the relationship between Anthony and Sister Helena who, in 1695, was declared Blessed by Pope Innocent XII.

Anthony was known and loved for his ceaseless preaching to and hearing the confessions of prostitutes. Many of them turned from lives of ill repute after hearing Anthony preach and receiving absolution from him.

Anthony was a popular saint among all women, some of whom, wherever he went, tried to snip off pieces of his habit with scissors to keep them for relics. He always resisted this type of devotion. The Assidua states that “It would not have been possible to protect him from the onrushing throng if he had not been surrounded by a large group of strong young men, or if he did not quickly flee to another place, or, still, if he did not wait until the crowd departed” (Life of St. Anthony (Assidua) by a Contemporary Franciscan, Edizoni Messaggero Padua, p .34).


Healer of women


After his death St. Anthony was invoked by the faithful, particularly in Padua and neighboring towns. Many miracles followed his death, often occurring at his tomb. According to the contemporary biography of St. Anthony, the Assidua, women were frequently the beneficiaries of Anthony’s posthumous healing ability. For example, Cunizza, Riccarda, Cesaria, Prosdocima, Gertrude, Margaret, Guilla, and two additional women named Mary were healed of various crippling conditions.

The Assidua mentions only one miracle of healing attributed to St. Anthony during his lifetime – the cure of a 4-year-old girl named Padovana who lived with her family in Padua. The Assidua states, “Although she was 4 years old, she was absolutely incapable of using her feet and moved like a reptile, crawling with the help of her hands. Furthermore, it was said that, since she suffered from epilepsy, she would often fall and roll around.” While carrying his daughter through Padua one day, the child’s father happened to meet St. Anthony. At the father’s pleading, Anthony made the sign of the cross over the child. When the father arrived home, he made his daughter stand on her feet. From using a footstool as an initial prop, the girl eventually was able to walk unsupported and no longer suffered any illness or epilepsy  (Life of St. Anthony – Assidua, p 74).


The Blessed Mother


The woman to whom Anthony was most devoted was the Blessed Mother. Rare is the sermon in which the Saint did not mention the Mother of Christ. In his sermon notes for the friars, Anthony devoted several pages specifically to Marian sermons. These include sermons for Mary’s Nativity, the Annunciation to Mary, the Nativity of Jesus, Mary’s Purification in the Temple, and the Assumption of Mary.

Mary’s Nativity celebrates her birth to Saints Ann and Joachim. The Nativity of Mary, or more commonly called the Birthday of Mary, is celebrated on September 8 which is exactly 9 months after the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8 when the Church celebrates that Mary, by divine grace in preparation to be the Mother of God, was conceived without stain of original sin.

St. Anthony’s prayer, which ends his sermon notes on the Nativity of Mary, exemplifies his deep faith in the Mother of Our Lord: “We ask you then, our Lady, that as you are the morning star, you may by your splendor drive away the cloud of the devil’s suggestions which covers the earth of our minds. Do you, who are the full moon, fill our emptiness and scatter the darkness of our sins, so that we may be able to come to the fullness of eternal life, to the light of unending glory. May he grant this, who brought you forth to be our light, who made you to be born on this day, that he might be born of you. To him be honor and glory forever and ever, Amen” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals, Vol. III, p. 394, Edizioni Messaggero Padova).


Marian devotion


St. Anthony was said to have been born on the feast of the Assumption of Mary, August 15. The prayer which he wrote in his sermon notes for the Assumption foreshadows the feast of the Queenship of Mary (August 22) which was established in 1954 by Pope Pius XII.

“We ask you then, our Lady, great Mother of God, lifted high above the choirs of angels, to fill the cup of our heart with heavenly grace; to make it gleam with the gold of wisdom; to make it solid with the power of your virtue; to adorn it with the precious stone of virtues; to pour upon us, O blessed olive-tree, the oil of your mercy to cover the multitude of our sins. By you may we be found fit to be raised to the height of heavenly glory, and to be blessed with the blessed; by the power of Jesus Christ your Son, who this day has raised you above the choirs of angels, crowned you with the diadem of his kingdom, and set you upon the throne of eternal light. To him be honor and glory through endless ages. Let the whole Church say: Amen. Alleulia” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals, Vol. III, p. 437, Edizioni Messaggero Padova).

Updated on June 09 2018