By Virginia Vollmer, OFS
In 1220 St. Francis of Assisi sent St. Berard and four other friars to Morocco to evangelize. They stopped at Coimbra, Portugal at the Augustinian abbey before going on to Morocco. It was there that they made an impression on a young Augustinian canon named Fernando with their simple way of life and call to evangelize. When their martyred bodies were returned for burial, Fernando was inspired to become a Franciscan friar. He was accepted into the order and took the name Anthony. Brother Anthony was zealous for martyrdom, wanting to follow in the footsteps of St Berard. But sometimes the journey we think we are on is not the one God is calling us to.
Brother Anthony went on to Morocco but immediately became so ill that he had to return to Portugal. A storm forced the ship to change course and land in Sicily. Anthony slowly recovered and learned more about the Franciscan order. In 1221 a general chapter of the order was called during Pentecost. Francis met Anthony there, but he did not know at the time that Anthony was well educated and an ordained priest because Anthony had been keeping this to himself. Anthony’s next assignment was at the hospice in Monte Paolo, where there was an ordination scheduled for both Dominicans and Franciscans. It appeared that no one had been appointed to preach for this ordination. The Dominicans were known as preachers so the Franciscans thought they would provide the homilist. The Dominicans assumed that as the Franciscans were hosting, they would select a preacher. What to do? The abbot asked the new friar Anthony to speak and let the Holy Spirit be his guide. He astonished his audience by the strength of his voice, his knowledge of scripture, and his eloquence.
News reached Francis about Anthony’s talent and education. Francis knew that for the friars to successfully evangelize they needed knowledge of scriptures. Anthony was authorized to preach and to teach. He was sent to the schools in Bologne, Montpellier, and Toulouse. But it was his preaching for which he became known, especially about compassion for the sick and charity to the poor. The size of the crowds became so great that they would gather in the town squares because the churches could not hold their numbers.
St Anthony lived a short life of just 35 years. His last assignment was in Padua, and that is where he died on June 13, 1231. He was canonized less than a year later. His sermons were collected and are still available. For his preaching and sermons, he was named Doctor of the Church in 1946.
There are many legends of St Anthony. One is about his preaching to the fish. The people of Rimini refused to listen to his preaching (no, the friars were not welcomed everywhere). So, Anthony went to the river and preached. The fish popped up their heads in row after row and appeared to listen to him. The people of Rimini were humbled and called him back.
St. Anthony has become best known as the saint of lost articles and lost people. The story is told that a novice once decided to leave the order and took with him Anthony’s psalter. Psalters were precious because all books were hand copied. And Anthony kept all his teaching notes in the psalter. He prayed for the return of the psalter and a change of heart of the young man. Both happened. “St. Anthony’s Bread” is a donation to charity as thanksgiving for the finding of the lost through his intercession.