Who Was St. Anthony?

January 23 2023 | by

TO WRITE about Anthony of Padua in a magazine whose title bears his name might arouse the suspicion that one is simply trying to break down unlocked doors. Should it not be presumed that by now everything is known about Anthony, and that there is no need to publish anything more on the matter?

In the beginning such discouraging questions do spring to mind. We think that we already have a thorough knowledge of the person about whom we are going to talk about. We know so well the concepts and catchwords that are used to explain the importance of this holy man! He is ‘Il Santo’ (‘The Saint’ for Paduans and Italians). He is the ‘Doctor Evangelicus’, the learned man of the Bible. He is a leading Franciscan theologian. He is the relentless pursuer of heretics. He is the one ‘with the Infant Jesus in his arms’, and perhaps for many (and this is the peculiar image they have of our Saint) he is the ‘Patron of Lost Objects’, responsible for all those objects that have been lost and not yet found. Catchwords, concepts: both are frequently used to give depth of meaning to Anthony’s life, but often they are not sufficient, and explain too little.


Our intent


 Perhaps these doors, openings and passages into the life and character of the hero of our title have not been unlocked; perhaps they have even been disfigured. One might go so far as to say that these formulas and introductions we have quoted have become stumbling blocks at the start of our journey.

In any case, we have one main reason for our new attempt in this and subsequent issues of the Messenger of Saint Anthony. The hope that the curtain hiding the sacred, spiritual and personal turning points in this saintly life will be lifted in order to offer a short, richly alternating and intersecting life that may draw us nearer to the heart of this man.

However, we should always keep in mind the idea (as is indeed true in any attempt to describe a person’s life) that I am introducing ‘my’ Anthony of Padua, ‘my’ approach, ‘my’ point of view, to the central points that I have been able to interpret in his life.


An Online Entry


Who is Anthony really? Whoever asks this question using that word ‘really’ is often only asking for simple and barren dates, which an encyclopedia could offer us, and in Saint Anthony’s case would probably continue something like this: “Anthony of Padua: Anthony of Padua was born in 1195 to an aristocratic Portuguese family. At the age of 15 he entered the local religious order. After a meeting with some of the first martyrs of the Franciscan Order, Anthony decided to leave the Augustinians and to join the Franciscans. In 1220, he attempted to reach Morocco so that he too might preach and die there for his beliefs, as had the Franciscan martyrs. The attempt failed. In 1221 Anthony participated in the General Chapter of the Franciscans in Assisi. From this time on, Anthony devoted his life to preaching in Italy. He died in 1231 near Padua, and in 1232 Pope Gregory proclaimed him a saint. Anthony’s Tomb is in Padua, where a large basilica was built in his honor. Initially, he was represented as a Franciscan, with his cord and habit. In Germany, it was only from the 15th century that he was depicted with the Bible, Lily and the Cross with the Infant Jesus, Monstrance, Fish and donkey; the heading on the cross and flaming heart were added later.”

That would be an online entry, not far from the truth, sketching some aspects of his life, yet without going into any depth. We wouldn’t have come any closer to discovering the ‘real’ Anthony.


A couple of figures


The 36 years of Anthony’s short life, of which only 11 were spent as a Franciscan friar, are summarized and reduced to a few lines, a couple of pieces of information, but nothing more. Nevertheless, at this point we can still see that despite touching ever so briefly on his life, not everything went smoothly or according to plan. Something more is hidden between the lines which is worth bringing to the surface. This Anthony did not have the opportunity to live a long and satisfying life. He changed his Religious Order once, which is not something easily done. His attempt to become a martyr foundered. How did someone like Anthony come to terms with such a failure? How did he suffer and learn to live with the scars of not living up to his expectations? And all this happened over a period of only a few years?

A couple of figures and some items of information have already given rise to so many questions which cannot be answered by an encyclopedia entry: What kind of person and holy figure could be illustrated here? Who was this Anthony?

Perhaps a letter can give us some clues and assist us in drawing closer to him. It is a letter which Anthony once received....


Greetings to my bishop


It is a letter written by someone who is no less famous than the person to whom it was addressed. It is also very short: Brother Francis sends greetings to Brother Anthony, my Bishop. I am pleased that you teach sacred theology to the brothers providing that, as is contained in the Rule, you “do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion” during study of this kind.

This letter – one is almost tempted to say a telegram – does not seem to say much at first glance. And yet as a result, the relationship between these two Friars Minor is brought into full light. Francis addresses Anthony as Bishop (although he never became one) because he is trying to express what Anthony meant to him, and also to the newly founded and expanding Order of Friars Minor. ‘Bishop’ was a title of honor for Anthony, a deeply spiritual brother and a true friend. It is also an open indication of how Francis, the spiritual authority of the Friars Minor, who was neither a priest nor a student of theology, viewed this priest of great spirituality in the Order because of his teaching activities. It is, therefore, a decisive turning point for the community whose life Francis wanted to be as close as possible to the Gospel. As a result, Anthony was to play an important role in the Franciscan Order: Theology had its part to play.


Teacher of Theology


Even if Anthony was not the only deeply spiritual person in the circle of Friars Minor, he was, as Francis indirectly says, the only person to whom this task could be entrusted: the only person who would be able to teach theology which was so important for the spiritual growth of the friars. On the other hand, it had been Anthony’s original intention to live in such a simple and unpretentious way, both without riches and without the benefit of libraries. It was, therefore, the greatest of honors.

We must remind ourselves that Anthony had only entered the Franciscan Order two or three years earlier, and Francis’ letter was written in either 1223 or 1224. However, Anthony was not destined to be a teacher of Theology for long: he spent only two months in Bologna, before new tasks were to occupy him.


Preacher, teacher & student


Duties and challenges were constantly to be found along the pathway of this holy man from Lisbon, who faced them with faith and courage while he was a theological guide for his brothers. Francis sensed that Anthony would interpret these challenges in his own particular way, because he was a preacher who confronted the problems of his times and of his companions, and yet he was always the student who learnt from the experiences of life and acquired knowledge, forever accompanied by the Holy Scriptures.


Examining this Anthony


We will trace the driving force and turning points in Anthony’s life, and the things which motivated him. We will try to understand what factors in the Order were responsible for changing him, and what he aimed for and intended with his frequently changing plans and obscure expressions. It was only his plan to be a martyr that had foundered, but there were many other aspects which at a superficial glance had been incorrectly thought out.

We will examine Anthony and the singular signs that he left behind, following in the footsteps of the crucified Christ. These footsteps took him away from the path that he had marked out for the future, following his first meeting with the Franciscans in Portugal, but they led him to fame as an itinerant preacher who drew the masses.






Updated on January 31 2023