St Anthony was born in Lisbon towards the end of the twelfth century and by tradition on 15 August 1195, and was baptised Fernando. He was born into a reasonably well to do family, his father may have had connections with the royal court and he was educated at the school attached to Lisbon Cathedral. At the age of seventeen Anthony entered the Augustinian priory of São Vicente outside Lisbon’s walls where he remained for one or two years before transferring to the Augustinian monastery of Santa Cruz in Coimbra – the Portuguese mother house of the day.
His first encounter with Franciscan Friars
He remained in Coimbra for about eight years studying and developing and it was during that time Anthony was ordained as a priest. He became acquainted with a group of friars from the new Franciscan order who came to beg for alms at the monastery door, and he was deeply moved when in 1219 the bodies of the five Franciscan protomartyrs were returned from Morocco for burial at Santa Cruz. Dom Fernando saw a sharp contrast between his own comfortable cloistered life and the heroic self sacrifice of the preaching friars, and he petitioned to be released from his Augustinian Order and straight away joined the Order of Friars Minor taking the new name Anthony.
The Franciscan novitiate was imposed by Pope Honorius III in September 1220 and it is generally thought that St Anthony joined the order in the summer of 1220 and therefore did not serve a novitiate. Additionally we may well suppose that a vowed and ordained religious seeking to join the new order at that early stage would not be required to serve his novitiate. St Anthony was clothed, professed and at his own request sent to Morocco to preach the Gospel.
The trip to Morocco was a disaster: St Anthony fell ill, and was unable to preach at all. He passed the winter in Morocco until the spring of 1221 when he set sail to return to Portugal. The ship in which he was travelling became caught in a violent storm and he was blown hundreds of miles off course, eventually landing on Sicily. He was cared for by the friars at Messina in the north-east corner of the island, and having been informed by them of the forthcoming Franciscan general chapter he set off north for Assisi.
The Chapter Of Mats 1221
The Pentecost Chapter of 1221, known as the Chapter of the Mats as there were so many friars the beds ran out and the brothers had to sleep on mats (!), was the occasion perhaps when St Anthony first met St Francis, but there is no record of any such meeting. St Anthony went largely unnoticed at the chapter and as his brethren were given tasks to do he was left unassigned. Finally he was noticed by the provincial of Bologna, Gratian who on discovering St Anthony was a priest asked him to go to a small hermitage in Montepaolo to celebrate the Mass for a small group of lay friars there.
Forli – St Anthony’s First Experience of preaching
Anthony spent his days at Montepaolo doing menial tasks and in prayer no doubt reflecting on the considerable transformation from promising Augustinian Canon to anonymous Franciscan Friar. But unexpectedly this all changed. St Anthony and his brethren descended from the hills to attend a joint Franciscan/Dominican ordination at Forli. The tradition was that at a big Dominican event a Franciscan would be invited to preach and at a big Franciscan event a Dominican would be invited to preach. At this was joint even there had been a mix up nobody had been assigned to the task. In some desperation Friar Gratian asked St Anthony to say a few words, but he protested that he was only fit for sweeping floors and washing dishes. However, compelled under obedience, he began to preach, nervously at first, but rising to the task he preached with great accomplishment, so that as the Assidua [the first biography of Saint Anthony] tells us “the friars [were] struck by wonder and admiration…Indeed the unexpected depth of his words increased their astonishment; but, to no lesser degree, the spirit with which he spoke and his fervent charity edified them”.
Continued Preaching & Teaching
The secret of St Anthony’s learning was out and he was relieved of his position at Montepaolo and sent to be preacher: firstly in and around Forli, later in Bologna where he was permitted by St Francis to teach the friars of theology, and subsequently as far afield as France. St Anthony is recorded as being at the Chapter in Arles in September 1224. From there he went on to Montpellier, Toulouse and Le Puy en Velay where he was elected guardian. He established a new Franciscan foundation in Brive around 1226 and he spent the end of 1226 and the beginning of 1227 in Limoges.
Saint Francis died in October 1226 and in mid 1227 St Anthony returned to Italy where he was appointed as provincial of Emilia-Ronagna. At this time he took up residence in Padua. He carried out his provincial duties, continued to preach across the region and also lead a delegation to Rome and preached before Pope Gregory IX.
Exhausted by this work he resigned his office in May 1230, and ‘retired’ to Padua. The Assidua tells us that at this time he enjoyed the hospitality of a certain nobleman named Tiso who had an estate north of Padua at Camposanpiero, and St Anthony spent much time praying and writing in a cell or tree house built for him in a nut tree. St Anthony was assisted by his secretary and faithful friend Blessed Luke Belludi. Recurrent poor health, which some think can be traced back to his illness in Morocco, took its toll again in May 1231, and in June recognising that his end was near he asked to be taken back to Padua. He died on the way at Arcella some seven miles north of the city on 13 June 1231.
Miracles surrounded his death as well as unseemly squabbles about who should have custody of the body! Anthony was finally buried in Padua. He was canonised the following year on 30 May 1232 by Pope Gregory IX. Under the direction of Blessed Luke Belludi a great basilica was built in Padua to which St Anthony’s mortal remains were transferred in 1263.