Monday, June 13, 2016

The Evangelical Doctor

Can we not say that the virtuous lives of the saints are like measuring lines stretched over souls to make sure our lives take the proper shape and measure up to their good example? Whenever, then, we celebrate the feast of a saint, let us look to them as giving us the pattern our lives should take. In speaking thus of the saints in one of his sermons, Saint Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) was obviously not speaking in that immediate context of devotion to himself. But, within just one year after his death, Anthony was himself canonized by Pope Gregory IX, and he remains to our own day one of the Catholic world's most recognized and popular saints. 

During the last Jubilee year (2000), I had the privilege of visiting Padua and venerating the famous saint's relics. The story is told that, some 30 or so years after his death, when the saint's tomb was opened, Saint Bonaventure (then Minister General of the Franciscans) held in his hand Anthony's still incorrupt tongue and composed the antiphon: O blessed tongue, that always blessed the Lord, and made others bless and praise him; it is now manifest what great merits you possess in the sight of God.

Anthony's saintly popularity is based in large measure on his reputation as a miracle-worker. As everyone knows, he is widely invoked by those seeking lost objects! But Bonaventure's praise of Anthony's tongue highlights the center of Anthony's sanctity - his evangelical zeal. Belatedly proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1946, Saint Anthony is known among the Doctors as Doctor Evangelicus ("Evangelical Doctor").

But long before being declared a Doctor it was his very Franciscan spirituality, which - along with his miracle-working - that has so endeared him to the faithful around the world, especially in his native Portugal and his adopted Italy. Back in the 1990s, at Saint Peter's Parish in downtown Toronto, the parish's long established Italian community used to celebrate a great feast in Saint Anthony's honor. This included a major parish dinner, a Mass and distribution of blessed bread ("Saint Anthony's Bread"), and a great street procession through the neighborhood with his statue and his relic. (The accompanying photos the procession with his statue, and me carrying his relic and and blessing the bread.)

In this sad era that so glorifies wealth and demeans (and even criminalizes) the poor, the distribution of Saint Anthony's Bread expresses a symbolic connection between devotion to Saint Anthony and identification with the poor. As Saint Anthony reminds us in one of his sermons: Today Christ stands at our door and knocks in the person of the poor.

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