Thursday, June 13, 2013

O Sant' Antonio

Today's feast of the "Evangelical Doctor," Saint Anthony of Padua (1195-1231), one of the Church's most popular saints, reminds me of my first assignment - as associate pastor at St. Peter's parish, Toronto, in the late 1990s. One of the annual highlights of parish life was the St. Anthony Festival, in which for six years I had the great privilege of carrying the saint's relic in the procession through the neighborhood. What a wonderful parish community I experienced there! Anthony being my middle name, that also makes Saint Anthony one of my patrons. O Saint' Antonio, prega per me!

My grandmother was very devoted to Saint Anthony, to whom she had prayed for the safe return of one of her sons who was serving in the war against Japan. She had a high opinion of his intercession - and was of the opinion that he ranked very high in the heavenly court. Like St. Francis before him - and Padre Pio after - Anthony is indeed very popular. I'm sure the Franciscan habit helps!

It was the Franciscans who gave him the name Anthony when he joined the order in 1220 filled with missionary zeal to imitate the Franciscan martyrs of Morocco. He had been born Ferdinand and had initially pursued a more conventional vocation as a Canon Regular of Saint Augustine in his home city of Lisbon, Portugal. Anthony never got to Morocco. Instead sickness and shipwreck landed him in Italy, where he exercised a fruitful, productive ministry for the rest of his life - hence, the popular identification of Anthony with Italy and Italians' great devotion to him. He was a zealous missionary preacher - and, as anyone who wants to preach should aspire to be, also a very learned one. He was the first Franciscan professor of scripture, and was referred to as "the Living Ark of the Testament" by Pope Gregory IX.

After his death in Padua  on June 13, 1231, he was quickly canonized in less than a year. When his tomb was opened some 30+ years later, his tongue 9with which he had preached so eloquently and effectively) was found to be incorrupt. On that occasion, Saint Bonaventure, held the precious relic in his hands and exclaimed "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!"

Preaching is not the only way God's kingdom advances in this world. As Saint Anthony himself said (in a sermon!): "The man who is filled with the Holy Spirit speaks in different languages. These different languages are different ways of witnessing to Christ, such as humility, poverty, patience, and obedience; we speak in those languages when we reveal in ourselves these virtues to others. actions speak louder than words; let your words teach and your actions speak."

And, as Anthony's own life of heroic sanctity eloquently witnesses, preaching - aimed at true conversion - has its important part to play in evangelization. Historically, it has been understood as a constituent element of the Paulist charism.  Anthony's example of learning and eloquence combined with zeal for souls remains a model to be emulated, as he himself occupies his present prominent place in the Mystical Body as intercessor and miracle-worker.

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