Taught by God

June 14 2020 | by

WHEN Anthony was born in Lisbon in 1195, Francis, then almost 14 years old, was finishing his formal education in Assisi. Most likely, the two future saints had similar childhood classroom experiences. However, Anthony went on to more years of formal education, while Francis’s subsequent education was in his father’s cloth shop.  

At that time the Church educated only boys of noble and wealthy families. Mothers or servants taught girls at home. Anthony was taught by an uncle at the bishop’s school attached to the Lisbon, Portugal, Cathedral. Francis’ instructors were canons of the Church of Saint George in Assisi.

Education, while free, was a luxury, in that it was only for the wealthy who could afford to send their sons to school rather than have them labor in the fields or trades to help provide sustenance to their families. Anthony’s father, a knight, was a member of the lesser nobility. He had servants and a reliable income. Francis’ father was a wealthy, self-made cloth merchant. Although about only 5 percent of the population was educated, both fathers apparently felt that education was important for these sons whom the fathers imagined would fulfill their parents’ dreams. Anthony would become a knight, inheriting and managing his father’s estate. Francis would inherit Pietro’s successful cloth trade and become one of Assisi’s wealthiest merchants.

Cathedral and church schools demanded hard work and long hours of study. They taught valuable business skills: administration, record keeping, arithmetic. Education gave even greater emphasis to reading and writing in Latin, the language of the Church. With the Scriptures, especially the Psalms, as the preferred text, students were taught by memorization and recitation. Apparently both Francis and Anthony excelled in memorization. Francis quoted extensively from the Psalms in his writings. Pope Gregory IX stated that, should the Scriptures be lost, Anthony could reproduce them from memory.


Strict discipline


Rhetoric – the art of public speaking and persuasion – was also a major subject. As adults, Francis and Anthony both drew immense crowds. We might imagine that, as youngsters, both exhibited a natural flair for the dramatic.

Lessons frequently began at sunrise and finished at sunset, so summer schooldays were longer than winter ones. Discipline was strict. Students who misbehaved, were lazy, or who did poor work, were punished, often severely. Students used a stylus on a wax tablet for writing. Only advanced students and adults used quill and parchment.  

By the age of 14 students had received a sturdy, basic education. Then young people often began training for their adult livelihood. Pietro removed 14-year-old Francis from school so as to teach him the cloth trade. Francis later learned the art of knighthood and weaponry, probably from an Assisi knight. At that time he aspired to knighthood as a profession and as a means to upward mobility.  


Learned man


Anthony appears to have been educated beyond the age of 14, soon thereafter entering the Augustinian monastery in Lisbon, where he was educated in the monastic school. Typically, the monks focused on art and science, exploring the theories of Plato, Eratosthenes, Aristotle, and Hippocrates. Anthony’s four volumes of sermon notes display almost indisputable evidence that at least one monk was teaching the latest theories of physics, botany, biology, and astronomy. Examples, from these subjects, pepper Anthony’s sermon notes. Francis makes no such references.

Anthony was extremely well educated while maintaining a deep prayer life. Approving of this combination, Francis permitted Anthony to possess books to teach the friars. Anthony was a moving university, teaching the friars at Bologna, Montpellier, Toulouse, and Padua. While some historians believe that he held the office of lector of theology at one or more of the universities, that supposition seems historically inaccurate. These universities established such a chair only after Anthony’s death. Some sources state that, in Bologna, Anthony’s school of theology for the friars eventually developed into the University of Bologna’s school of theology. Whether or not this is true, Anthony did teach the friars, at least in their Bologna friary.


University life


After the founding of the University of Bologna in 1088, other universities followed. Only the wealthiest and brightest young men, ranging in age from 14 to 30, would aspire to attend a university. Since about 1/3 of the high clergy (bishops, archbishops, and cardinals) had a university education, it’s probable that Anthony may have taught at least a few future leaders of the Church. Anthony would have had to keep his students interested and motivated because students, by consensus, could hire and fire teachers. If a professor failed to complete his course on time or failed to meet a certain standard, students would denounce him, endangering his job.  

University studies began between 5 and 6 am every weekday. After three or four years, a student could earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. A Master of Arts degree would take seven years. The ‘arts’ consisted of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music theory, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, all taught in Latin. Students were to be fluent in Latin, in writing, conversation, and debate. The Trivium comprised the three subjects taught first – grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Later, students would study physics, metaphysics, and moral philosophy. Each course consisted mainly of a book or key text, such as a book from the Bible or a philosopher’s text.

After attaining Master of Arts recognition, a student could then pursue studies in law, medicine, or theology, the most prestigious. These studies could take up to twelve years, after which a student was licensed to teach and practice his discipline.


The Holy Spirit


Anthony, recognized as a Doctor of the Church, taught mainly through allegory and metaphor by deriving a hidden spiritual meaning from a text or incident. Take this example: “‘Moab shall die with a noise, with the sound of a trumpet.’ [Am 2.2] Moab is the devil, who died at the sound of the trumpet of the Lord’s preaching; and at the sound of him crying out on the Cross: Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit [Lk 23.46; cf. Ps 30.6]” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals III, p. 276; translated by Paul Spilsbury; Edizoni Messaggero Padova).

Francis also taught the friars and the public, but never in a university setting. His teaching was by example, exhortation, and letters. His style was direct and more like a ‘political orator’ than a theologian, said Thomas of Split, a student at the University of Bologna who heard Francis preach there in 1222 (Francis of Assisi: Early Documents II, p. 808; JA Wayne Hellmann & William J. Short; Ed. Regis Armstrong; New City Press).

Thomas wrote, “The theme of his sermon was: Angels, People, Demons. He spoke so well and so clearly about these three kinds of rational creatures that this unlettered man’s sermon became the source of not a little amazement for the many educated people who were present” (ibid).

Anthony was more educated than Francis, but both received their greatest education from prayer and contemplation, their teacher being the Holy Spirit. Both men excelled in grasping, applying, and transmitting to others what the Spirit taught them.

Anthony: “Let us ask the Lord Jesus, beloved brothers, to send us the word of his inspiration, and to wash us in the baptism of penitence, that we may prepare his way and make straight his paths” (Sermons III, p. 280).

Francis: “Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks and serve Him with great humility.” (Canticle of the Creatures).

Updated on June 14 2020