When Fernando Became Anthony

June 06 2020 | by

WE HUMANS can only stammer and stutter when it comes to the mystery that is God. As St Thomas Aquinas said about God in the 13th century, the “best knowledge we have about God is that we really don’t know much.” What the Angelic Doctor noted is this: God is ‘ineffable’ meaning that words fail to capture the mystery that is God. As the German poet, Hoelderin once put it, “God is near yet hard to take hold of.” Perhaps about things we cannot speak, we should be silent.

As we celebrate the 800th anniversary of St Anthony’s reception into the Franciscan order, we don’t know exactly why St Anthony, named Fernando at birth, decided to become a Franciscan. Moreover, theologians to this day cannot say why God has worked so many miracles through the intercession of St Anthony, just as, in a similar way, they can’t explain why God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus.

As frail human beings, God’s ways are not our ways. God is indeed a “fascinating and tremendous mystery.” In this connection a ‘mystery’ may best be understood as a truth we cannot fully comprehend or understand. As St Paul says in 1 Corinthians, 13:12 “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”


My devotion


I had an unbelievable experience fifty years ago, when I visited the Basilica of St Anthony in Padua. It was an experience I shall never forget. I was on a train to see Venice as a tourist, and perchance decided to visit Padua, since it was only about an hour away. I entered the Basilica and immediately was drawn to the altar where the remains of il Santo, the Saint, were kept. Words fail to capture this transcendent event. I had an overwhelming feeling that I was in a holy and awesome place. It completely took my breath away, and I had a strong intuition that I was in God’s presence. It knocked my socks off. It reminded me of what I had read about in the Hebrew Scriptures when Moses encountered God in the Burning Bush.  

To this day I have had devotion to St. Anthony of Padua. In fact, for this reason, roughly a decade ago, I wrote about forty articles for the Messenger of Saint Anthony. I often pray to St. Anthony to find my wallet or car keys. And my devotion has had an effect on my wife, Nancy, and my three children. My wife helped establish the first free-standing Hospice in the State of Alabama through the East Alabama Medical Center.

She directed a staff of about twenty nurses, social workers, and massage therapists. Whenever my wife lost anything, she said, “Please, St Anthony, help me because something is lost and can’t be found.” Nancy’s staff would then come to her when a member lost something and say “Nancy, what’s the prayer you say to St Anthony when something is lost?” And keep in mind, most members of her staff were non-Catholics and they did not hesitate to call on St Anthony in times of troubled water.


Stories and legends


There are also many stories and legends about Fernando, just as there are many diverse stories and legends about the founders of other religions like Jesus, the Buddha, and Confucius. Some of the stories and legends about these charismatic figures are true, while others are either myths or exaggerations.

Historians cannot even agree on the exact year Fernando was born. Some, like Vergilio Gamboso in his book, St. Anthony of Padua: His life and teaching say Fernando was born in 1190 or thereabouts, while others argue that he was born in 1195.   

Questions abound about the life of St. Anthony. For example, was it only through happenstance that Fernando decided to enter the first order founded by St Francis of Assisi?  Why didn’t St Anthony join one of the established orders like the Benedictines or Carthusians? After all, the Benedictines were already well established before St Anthony came on the scene. They had at least a dozen renowned monasteries in Italy, such as Monte Cassino.

As a youngster, St Anthony attended the Bishop of Lisbon’s School, a private school, geared for the children of well-to-do families. At that time there were no compulsory schools required by the state for children. Rather, children were educated by the clergy in cathedral churches and in monasteries where Anthony studied Latin, science, history and religion.

Scholars are particularly in the dark about the early life of St. Anthony. They question how old Fernando was when he joined the Augustinian order. It appears that he spent two years at the Abbey of St. Vincent in Lisbon, but felt he needed (for his own piece of mind) to get away from family and friends. Thus, he received permission to transfer to the Abbey of the Holy Cross in Coimbra, the capital of Portugal, run by the Augustinian canons.    


A learned man


Our saint, who we would today call an intellectual, fell in love with the excellent library at the Abbey. He read voraciously the works of St Augustine and patristic writers like St Ambrose, St Jerome, St Bede and St Isidore of Seville. These writers contributed to his education to become a priest. During the eight years spent in this Abbey, Anthony learned to write and speak Latin elegantly. I have first-hand knowledge of this because as a student I translated one of the sermons of St Anthony from Latin into English, and was impressed with his command of Latin.

It’s astonishing that Fernando joined the Franciscan order in 1220 and changed his name to Anthony. At that time, he had already been ordained as a priest. Why did he join the Franciscans? Remember, Fernando came from a wealthy family and the early Franciscans begged for their living, depending on handouts from generous donors and well-wishers. Fernando joined the Franciscans in part because he felt called by God to preach to the Saracens or Muslims, in which case he wished to become a martyr for the Christian faith. He became a passenger on a boat that would take him to Morocco, but became seriously ill and had to return home.

On the way back to Lisbon a powerful wind blew the ship completely off course so that it eventually landed in Sicily. Bad health made it impossible for Anthony to be a missionary and, trusting in God’s providence, he learned to deal with this misfortune. Hence, he went to Bologna to teach theology, along with other places in southern France like Toulouse and Montpellier.


A letter from St Francis


The early Franciscans as a whole did not place much emphasis on education. Some friars wondered whether Anthony belonged in the Franciscan Order. Hence, they asked St Francis himself whether it was consonant with the Rules of the order that a friar be educated and teach others. St Francis replied in writing to this question in 1224: “To Brother Anthony, my bishop (meaning teacher of theology) Brother Francis sends his greetings. It is my pleasure that thou teach to the brethren, provided however, that as the Rule prescribes, the spirit of prayer and devotion may not be extinguished.” Case ended.

As a friar Anthony preached against the Albigensian heresy in the south of France and against the Cathari in the north and center of Italy. St Anthony had at least two things going for him as he countered these heretical groups. First, he had a prodigious memory and knew the teachings of the Church Fathers like St Augustine backwards and forwards. Second, he preached with zeal and youthful enthusiasm. This was a difficult combination to beat. The result was this: Anthony was instrumental in making many of his opponents return to the Catholic Church. For these reasons he received the title, “Hammer of Heretics.”


Hope is a flower


What lessons can we take away from the life of St. Anthony? First, we learn that God can write straight with crooked lines. This means that on our journey through life, we never know what God has in store for us. We are like Anthony, often blown off course by the winds of change. It seems that the twist and turns that mark our life cannot be known beforehand. We are called to put our hope and trust in the hands of our almighty Father, who knows what’s best for us, even though we may not know what the next turn in the road will bring. Life puts obstacles in our way when we least expect it.

Second, we must imitate the faith of Abraham, who set out for a land he did not know. Faith means to put one foot behind the other and go. This is what St Peter did when he walked on water. Sometimes we’re blind to God’s presence when we walk by faith. As Hebrews chapter 11:1 says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.   

Third, one lesson I have learned from St Anthony is this: hope is a flower that buds perennially. We walk by faith and hope. It’s not dangerous to hold onto a thread, provided that God is on the other side holding that thread tightly.

Updated on June 10 2020