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St. Vincent Vaz, S.D.B.
A man of contrasts
Even Anthony was not his original name. He was baptized Ferdinand and up to the age of twenty-six, was known to everybody by that name. He took the name Anthony only in 1221 when he received the Franciscan habit in a chapel dedicated to St. Anthony of Egypt.
He is pictured in the brown robe and cord of the Franciscans. Yet, when he decided at the age of fifteen to become a religious, he chose to enter the Lisbon monastery of the Canons-Regular of St. Augustine, and donned the white cassock and surplice of the Order which was very popular at that time.
Prayer and study
Coimbra was then the capital of Portugal, and the Augustinian monastery there was renowned for Scriptural studies. Ferdinand prepared himself for the priesthood by delving deep into Sacred Scripture. He was endowed with a prodigious memory and became a veritable scholar with a thorough knowledge of the Bible. He would soon prove himself to be the outstanding Scriptural expert of his times. So much so that Pope Gregory IX would one day, on hearing him preach, proclaim him the "Living Ark of the Covenant."
How he became a Franciscan
His Order was reluctant to lose him, but so insistent and fervent was his plea, that he was allowed to leave the cloister of the Augustinians and to embrace the Franciscan rule of life. He was almost immediately dispatched to Morocco as a missionary preacher. But no sooner had he landed in Africa than he was struck by a severe illness and had to be put on a ship returning home to Portugal.
His talents to the fore
At the end of the proceedings, in the absence of any Portuguese provincial, Anthony was assigned to Brother Gratian, ther provincial of Romagna, who sent him to the tiny Convent of San Paolo, near Forli, in Emilia. He said Mass for the lay friars and served the community by scrubbing pots and pans in the kitchen. No one suspected the brilliant qualities hidden in this young priest.
It so happened that nine months later, the preacher for an ordination service held at Forli failed to arrive. None of the eminent Dominicans or Franciscans present were willing to ascend the pulpit. The Superior's gaze fell on Anthony and in sheer desperation he ordered him to speak whatever the Holy Spirit prompted him.
What followed astounded the congregation. Words flowed with ease from the lips of the preacher. There was amazing power and strong persuasion, sparkling eloquence and profound learning, a deep penetrating voice and blazing piety. The provincial forthwith sent word to Francis that he was appointing Anthony preacher for the entire province of Romagna. Back came Francis' reply that Anthony was to be preacher for the whole of Italy.
Not only that! Anthony was to be the Master of theology for the Franciscans. "To my dearest Brother Anthony, Brother Francis sends greetings in Jesus Christ. I am well pleased that you should teach theology to the friars, provided that such study does not quench the spirit of holy prayer and devotion according to our rule."
His true fame
There is the story of how at Rimini, the people refused to listen to his sermon. So he went to the riverbank and began preaching to the fish. The fish rose to the surface of the water in well-formed rings and stayed motionless while Anthony praised God's goodness in providing them with water, freedom and things to eat. The sight attracted the bystanders and a large crowd of persons fell on their knees seeking God's mercy and pardon.
In Toulouse, we are told, there was a man named Bonviollo who said he would believe in the Real Presence only if his mule which he had starved for 3 days, would refuse a meal of oats and instead bow before the Blessed Sacrament. On the appointed day, Anthony carried the Sacred Host to the market-place where the starving mule, tied to a stake, was pawing the ground. Bonvillo was thrusting his oats in front of the animal's mouth. The mule, however, turned away from the food and kept its head on the ground in an unmistakable posture of adoration. It remained in this way till Anthony departed.
Again, there is the favourite tale which inspired the great Spanish artist, Murillo, to paint his picture of St. Anthony with the Child Jesus floating just within reach on a bank of cloud and light. It seems that once, Anthony was staying overnight with a friend. His host saw a light shining in Anthony's room. Creeping near the window, he caught a glimpse of Anthony holding the Child Jesus in his arms and gazing at the Infant with rapture.
Nor must we forget to mention how St. Anthony came to be invoked as the finder of lost articles. A novice, so the story goes, once ran away with Anthony's prayer-book which contained some precious notes for his sermons. Anthony earnestly besought heaven for its recovery and the novice, frightened by a startling apparition, hastened to return the book.
Anthony's true fame does not rest on these stories. If he is known as the "Wonder-Worker of Padua," it was because of the miracles that took place after his death. If he was much loved and revered in life it was not because of prodigies. It was due to the tremendous good he achieved with his preaching and the numerous souls he succeeded in gaining for God. He was particularly effective in converting heretics.
His lucid arguments, his magnetic personality, his ardent zeal for souls, his firm grounding in doctrine and Sacred Scripture succeeding in winning over heretics many of whom were men of education and open to conviction by Anthony's keen powers of reasoning. So influential was he in bringing back those who had strayed from the Catholic Church, that he was acclaimed the "Hammer of the Heretics."
"The mere sight of him sometimes brought sinners to their knees, for he appeared to radiate spiritual force. Crowds flocked to hear him, and hardened criminals, careless Catholics, heretics, all alike were converted and brought to confession. Men locked up their shops and offices to go and attend his sermons; women rose early or stayed overnight in church to secure their places."
Soon churches could not hold the vast numbers, and so Anthony stepped out to preach in squares and market places. When these too became overfull, he went to the hillsides and open spaces outside the towns.
The Saint of Padua
In the spring of 1231, after preaching an inspiring set of Lenten sermons, Anthony retired with two Franciscan companions to a quiet spot offered by his friend, Count Tiso, to take rest. On June 13, he began realising that his end was drawing near and asked to be taken back to St. Mary's in Padua. His sick body was placed on a peasant's cart pulled by an ox. He never reached Padua. On the outskirts of the city, in the room reserved for the chaplain of the Poor Clares at Arcella, he received the Last Sacraments and died while chanting his favourite hymn to the Blessed Virgin, O gloriossa Domina (O glorious Lady). He was barely thirty-six.
Anthony was canonized within a year of his death. On that occasion, Pope Gregory IX intoned the antiphon, O Doctor optime (O illustrious Doctor), thus anticipating the year 1946 when the title of Doctor of the Universal Church was conferred on St. Anthony by Pope Pius XII.
The Paduans built a basilica in 1263 to house the relics of their saint. When the coffin was opened on the Pope's orders to identify the remains before transferring them to the basilica, the body was found to have withered, except for the tongue which was incorrupt, glowing with freshness and redness. St. Bonaventure, one of the members of the Papal Commission, knelt down and exclaimed, "O blessed tongue which has always praised God and set on fire the hearts of men with His holy love! It is evident that you have gained untold merits in the Lord's sight."