June 13th was the feast of St Antony of Padua.
Born in Lisbon (Portugal) in 1195 into a noble family with connectiona at the court of King Alfonso II, Fernando Martins de Bulhões chose at the age of 15 to become an Augustinian canon at the monastery of San Vincente (near Lisbon) before relocating to the priory of Santa Cruz at Coîmbra.
In 1220 Fernando was inspired by a visit Don Pedro of Portugal who carried with him from Morocco the relics of recent Franciscan martyrs to transfer to the Franciscan order, and, entering the friary at Olivares in 1221, he adopted the Antony in honour of St Antony the Abbot, the greatest of the desert fathers.
He traveled to Morocco where he was part of a Franciscan project to convert Muslims to Christianity, but, on his arrival, the onset of ill-health prevented him from participating in this mission, and he was sent back home to Portugal. However, his ship was wrecked off the Sicilian coast, and, finding himself in Italy, he managed to attend the Franciscan general chapter of Assisi in 1221.
His ongoing ill-health initially made it difficult for him to gain admission to a Franciscan friary in Italy, but finally he was sent to the hospice of San Paolo near Forli (close to Bologna), where he lived partly as a hermit and partly as a cook/kitchen-cleaner surrounded by friars who were neither scholars nor preachers.
One day, a mix-up among some visiting Dominicans over who was supposed to be preaching a sermon resulted in Antony being invited to extemporize a homily – and, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, he duly obliged. His reputation as a brilliant and charismatic preacher was immediately established, and from that moment onwards the Italian Franciscans utilized him as one of their premier evangelists.
St Francis was so impressed that he licensed Antony to teach theology in all Franciscan houses, and appointed him as the order’s first lector in theology. Antony was a gifted expositor of theology (he taught at the universities of Montpellier and Toulouse), but he was first and foremost a preacher, and it was in this capacity that he was pronounced by Pope Gregory IX to be a “jewel case of the Bible” and was commissioned to preach on some of the great feasts of the liturgical year.
Released from his papal duties so that he could focus more exclusively on preaching, Antony now based himself at the monastery of Santa Maria in Padua, preaching (and writing) sermons on the saints, on Sundays and Holy Days, on the refutation of heresies, on social injustices (he campaigned against usury and debtors’ prisons), and on the vices of clergy and laity. His sermons drew enormous crowds, and became major events which profoundly affected those in attendance.
Antony died in 1231, worn out by his arduous preaching schedule, and lies buried behind the altar of his chapel in the Basilica di Sant’Antonio in Padua, where numerous miracles have occurred. He is often portrayed preaching to the fish (where St Francis preached to the birds, St Antony preached to the fish), displaying a consecrated Host to a mule who duly venerated it in preference to feeding on a readily available bundle of hay, resisting the attacks of devils, and carrying (and conversing with) the Infant Jesus – an event witnessed by a householder spying on his famous guest.
The icon pictured above is available from Monastery Icons.