The following excerpt is from the book, Saint Anthony of Padua: The Story of His Life and Popular Devotions, which was published in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of St. Anthony Messenger by Franciscan Father Norman Perry (1929-1999).
Who is St. Anthony of Padua?
St. Anthony of Padua is one of the Catholic Church’s most popular saints. Saint Anthony of
Padua, patron saint of lost and stolen articles, was a powerful Franciscan preacher and
teacher. He’s typically portrayed holding the child Jesus—or a lily—or a book—or all
three—in his arms. Many people give alms to St. Anthony Bread in thanksgiving to God for
blessings received through the prayers of St. Anthony.
St. Anthony of Padua’s life is what every Christian’s life is meant to be; a steady courage
to face the ups and downs of life, the call to love and forgive, to be concerned for the needs
of others, to deal with crisis great and small, and to have our feet solidly on the ground of
total trusting love and dependence on God.
St Anthony is beloved throughout the world and is responsive to all people and all needs.
His intercessory powers before our God are awesome.
Legends about Anthony abound. But let’s turn to the known facts about him. Anthony was
born in 1195 (13 years after St. Francis) in Lisbon, Portugal and given the name of
Fernando at Baptism. His parents, Martin and Mary Bulhom, apparently belonged to one of
the prominent families of the city.
At the age of 15 he entered the religious order of St. Augustine. Monastery life was hardly
peaceful for young Fernando, nor conducive to prayer and study, as his old friends came to
visit frequently and engaged in vehement political discussions.
After two years he was sent to Coimbra. There he began nine years of intense study,
learning the Augustinian theology that he would later combine with the Franciscan vision.
Fernando was probably ordained a priest during this time.
The life of the young priest took a crucial turn when the bodies of the first five Franciscan
martyrs were returned from Morocco. They had preached in the mosque in Seville, almost
being martyred at the outset, but the sultan allowed them to pass on to Morocco, where,
after continuing to preach Christ despite repeated warnings, they were tortured and
beheaded. Now, in the presence of the queen and a huge crowd, their remains were carried
in solemn procession to Fernando’s monastery.
He was overjoyed and inspired to a momentous decision. He went to the little friary in
Coimbra and said, “Brother, I would gladly put on the habit of your Order if you would
promise to send me as soon as possible to the land of the Saracens, that I may gain the
crown of the holy martyrs.” After some challenges from the prior of the Augustinians, he
was allowed to leave that priory and receive the Franciscan habit, taking the name Anthony.
True to their promise, the Franciscans allowed Anthony to go to Morocco, to be a witness
for Christ, and a martyr as well. But, as often happens, the gift he wanted to give was not
the gift that was to be asked of him. He became seriously ill, and after several months
realized he had to go home.
He never arrived. His ship ran into storms and high winds and was blown east across the
Mediterranean. Months later he arrived on the east coast of Sicily. The friars at nearby
Messina, though they didn’t know him, welcomed him and began nursing him back to
health. Still ailing, he wanted to attend the great Pentecost Chapter of Mats (so called
because the 3,000 friars could not be housed and slept on mats). Francis was there, also
sick. History does not reveal any meeting between Francis and Anthony.
Since the young man was from “out of town,” he received no assignment at the meeting,
so he asked to go with a provincial superior from northern Italy. “Instruct me in the
Franciscan life,” he asked, not mentioning his prior theological training. Now, like Francis,
he had his first choice—a life of seclusion and contemplation in a hermitage near
Perhaps we would never have heard of Anthony if he hadn’t gone to an ordination of
Dominicans and Franciscans in 1222. As they gathered for a meal afterward, the provincial
suggested that one of the friars give a short sermon. Quite typically, everybody ducked. So
Anthony was asked to give “just something simple,” since he presumably had no education.
Anthony too demurred, but finally began to speak in a simple, artless way. The fire within
him became evident. His knowledge was unmistakable, but his holiness was what really
impressed everyone there.
Now he was exposed. His quiet life of prayer and penance at the hermitage was exchanged
for that of a public preacher. Francis heard of Anthony’s previously hidden gifts, and
Anthony was assigned to preach in northern Italy. The problem with many preachers in
Anthony’s day was that their life-style contrasted sharply with that of the poor people to
whom they preached. In our experience, it could be compared to an evangelist arriving in
a slum driving a Mercedes, delivering a homily from his car and speeding off to a vacation
resort. Anthony saw that words were obviously not enough. He had to show gospel
poverty. People wanted more than self-disciplined, even penitent priests. They wanted
genuineness of gospel living. And in Anthony they found it. They were moved by who he
was, more than what he said.
Despite his efforts, not everyone listened. Legend has it that one day, faced with deaf ears;
Anthony went to the river and preached to the fishes. That, reads the traditional tale, got
Anthony traveled tirelessly in both northern Italy and southern France—perhaps 400
trips—choosing to enter the cities where the heretics were strongest. Yet the sermons he
has left behind rarely show him taking direct issue with the heretics. As the historian Clasen
interprets it, Anthony preferred to present the grandeur of Christianity in positive ways. It
was no good to prove people wrong: Anthony wanted to win them to the right, the
healthiness of real sorrow and conversion, the wonder of reconciliation with a loving Father.
Public Preacher, Franciscan Teacher
Anthony’s superior, St. Francis, was cautious about education such as his protégé
possessed. He had seen too many theologians taking pride in their sophisticated knowledge.
Still, if the friars had to hit the roads and preach to all sorts of people, they needed a firm
grounding in Scripture and theology. So, when he heard the glowing report of Anthony’s
debut at the ordinations, Francis wrote in 1224, “It pleases me that you should teach the
friars sacred theology, provided that in such studies they do not destroy the spirit of holy
prayer and devotedness, as contained in the Rule.”
Anthony first taught in a friary in Bologna, which became a famous school. The theology
book of the time was the Bible. In one extant sermon by the saint, there are at least 183
passages from Scripture. While none of his theological conferences and discussions were
written down, we do have two volumes of his sermons: Sunday Sermons and Feastday
Sermons. His method included the use of allegory and symbolic explanation of Scripture.
Anthony continued to preach as he taught the friars and assumed more responsibility within
the Order. In 1226 he was appointed provincial superior of northern Italy, but still found
time for contemplative prayer in a small hermitage. Around Easter in 1228 (he was only 33
years old), while in Rome, he met Pope Gregory IX, who had been a faithful friend and
adviser of St. Francis. Naturally, the famous preacher was invited to speak. He did it
humbly, as always. The response was so great that people later said that it seemed the
miracle of Pentecost was repeated.
Padua Enters the Picture
Padua, Italy is a short distance west of Venice. At the time of Anthony, it was one of the
most important cities in the country, with an important university for the study of civil and
canon law. Sometimes Anthony left Padua for greater solitude. He went to a place loved by
Francis—LaVerna, where Francis received the wounds of Jesus. He also found a grotto near
the friary where he could pray in solitude.
In poor health, and still provincial superior of northern Italy, he went to the General Chapter
in Rome and asked to be relieved of his duties. But he was later recalled as part of a special
commission to discuss certain matters of the Franciscan Rule with the pope.
Back in Padua, he preached his last and most famous Lenten sermons. The crowds were so
great—sometimes 30,000—that the churches could not hold them, so he went into the
piazzas or the open fields. People waited all night to hear him. He needed a bodyguard to
protect him from the people armed with scissors who wanted to snip off a piece of his habitas a relic. After his morning Mass and sermon, he would hear confessions. This sometimes lasted all day—as did his fasting.
The great energy he had expended during the Lent of 1231 left him exhausted. He went to
a little town near Padua, but seeing death coming close, he wanted to return to the city that
he loved. The journey in a wagon weakened him so much, however, that he had to stop at
Arcella. He had to bless Padua from a distance, as Francis had blessed Assisi.
At Arcella, he received the last sacraments, sang and prayed with the friars there. When
one of them asked Anthony what he was staring at so intently, he answered, “I see my
Lord!” He died in peace a short time after that. He was only 36 and had been a Franciscan
but 10 years.
The following year, his friend, Pope Gregory IX, moved by the many miracles that occurred
at Anthony’s tomb, declared him a saint. Anthony was a simple and humble friar who
preached the Good News lovingly and with fearless courage. The youth whom his fellow
friars thought was uneducated became one of the great preachers and theologians of his
day. He was a man of great penance and apostolic zeal. But he was primarily a saint of the
Miracles and Traditions of St. Anthony
The reason for invoking St. Anthony’s help in finding lost or stolen things is traced back to
an incident in his own life. As the story goes, Anthony had a book of psalms that was very
important to him. Besides the value of any book before the invention of printing, the psalter
had the notes and comments he had made to use in teaching students in his Franciscan
A novice who had already grown tired of living religious life decided to depart the
community. Besides going AWOL he also took Anthony’s psalter! Upon realizing his psalter
was missing, Anthony prayed it would be found or returned to him. And after his prayer the
thieving novice was moved to return the psalter to Anthony and to return to the Order,
which accepted him back. Legend has embroidered this story a bit. It has the novice
stopped in his flight by a horrible devil, brandishing an ax and threatening to trample him
underfoot if he did not immediately return the book. Obviously a devil would hardly
command anyone to do something good. But the core of the story would seem to be true.
And the stolen book is said to be preserved in the Franciscan friary in Bologna.
In any event, shortly after his death people began praying through Anthony to find or
recover lost and stolen articles. And the Responsory of St. Anthony composed by his
contemporary, Julian of Spires, O.F.M., proclaims
The sea obeys and fetters break
And lifeless limbs thou dost restore
While treasures lost are found again
When young or old thine aid implore.
St. Anthony Bread is a term used for offerings made in thanksgiving to God for blessings
received through the prayers of St. Anthony. Sometimes the alms are given for the
education of priests. In some places parents also make a gift for the poor after placing a
newborn child under the protection of St. Anthony. It is a practice in some churches to bless
small loaves of bread on the feast of St. Anthony and give them to those who want them.
Different legends or stories account for the donation of what is called St. Anthony Bread.
By at least one account it goes back to 1263, when it is said a child drowned near the
Basilica of St. Anthony which was still being built. His mother promised that if the child was
restored to her she would give for the poor an amount of corn equal to the child’s weight.
Her prayer and promise were rewarded with the boy’s return to life.
Another reason for the practice is traced back to Louise Bouffier, a shopkeeper in Toulon,
France. A locksmith was prepared to break open her shop door after no key would open it.
Bouffier asked the locksmith to try his keys one more time after she prayed and promised
to give bread to the poor in honor of St. Anthony if the door would open without force. The
door then opened. After others received favors through the intercession of St. Anthony, they
joined Louise Bouffier in founding the charity of St. Anthony Bread.
St. Anthony and the Child Jesus
St. Anthony has been pictured by artists and sculptors in all kinds of ways. He is depicted
with a book in his hands, with a lily or torch. He has been painted preaching to fish, holding
a monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament in front of a mule or preaching in the public
square or from a nut tree.
But since the 17th century we most often find the saint shown with the child Jesus in his
arm or even with the child standing on a book the saint holds. A story about St. Anthony
related in the complete edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saints (edited, revised and
supplemented by Herbert Anthony Thurston, S.J., and Donald Attwater) projects back into
the past a visit of Anthony to the Lord of Chatenauneuf. Anthony was praying far into the
night when suddenly the room was filled with light more brilliant than the sun. Jesus then
appeared to St. Anthony under the form of a little child. Chatenauneuf, attracted by the
brilliant light that filled his house, was drawn to witness the vision but promised to tell no
one of it until after St. Anthony’s death.
Some may see a similarity and connection between this story and the story in the life of St.
Francis when he reenacted at Greccio the story of Jesus, and the Christ Child became alive
in his arms. There are other accounts of appearances of the child Jesus to Francis and some
These stories link Anthony with Francis in a sense of wonder and awe concerning the
mystery of Christ’s incarnation. They speak of a fascination with the humility and
vulnerability of Christ who emptied himself to become one like us in all things except sin.
For Anthony, like Francis, poverty was a way of imitating Jesus who was born in a stable
and would have no place to lay his head.
In Portugal, Italy, France and Spain, St. Anthony is the patron saint of sailors and
fishermen. According to some biographers his statue is sometimes placed in a shrine on the
ship’s mast. And the sailors sometimes scold him if he doesn’t respond quickly enough to
their prayers. Not only those who travel the seas but also other travelers and vacationers pray that they may be kept safe because of Anthony’s intercession. Several stories and legends may account for associating the saint with travelers and sailors.
First, there is the very real fact of Anthony’s own travels in preaching the gospel,
particularly his journey and mission to preach the gospel in Morocco, a mission cut short by
severe illness. But after his recovery and return to Europe, he was a man always on the go,
heralding the Good News.
There is also a story of two Franciscan sisters who wished to make a pilgrimage to a shrine
of our Lady but did not know the way. A young man is supposed to have volunteered to
guide them. Upon their return from the pilgrimage one of the sisters announced that it was
her patron saint, Anthony, who had guided them.
Still another story says that in 1647 Father Erastius Villani of Padua was returning by ship
to Italy from Amsterdam. The ship with its crew and passengers was caught in a violent
storm. All seemed doomed. Father Erastius encouraged everyone to pray to St. Anthony.
Then he threw some pieces of cloth that had touched a relic of St. Anthony into the heaving
seas. At once, the storm ended, the winds stopped and the sea became calm.
Teacher, Preacher, Doctor of the Scriptures
Among the Franciscans themselves and in the liturgy of his feast, St. Anthony is celebrated
as a teacher and preacher extraordinaire. He was the first teacher in the Franciscan Order,
given the special approval and blessing of St. Francis to instruct his brother Franciscans. His
effectiveness as a preacher calling people back to the faith resulted in the title “Hammer of
Heretics.” Just as important were his peacemaking and calls for justice.
In canonizing Anthony in 1232, Pope Gregory IX spoke of him as the “Ark of the Testament”
and the “Repository of Holy Scripture.” That explains why St. Anthony is frequently pictured
with a burning light or a book of the Scriptures in his hands. In 1946 Pope Pius XII officially
declared Anthony a Doctor of the Universal Church. It is in Anthony“s love of the word of
God and his prayerful efforts to understand and apply it to the situations of everyday life
that the Church especially wants us to imitate St. Anthony. While noting in the prayer of his
feast Anthony’s effectiveness as an intercessor, the Church wants us to learn from Anthony,
the teacher, the meaning of true wisdom and what it means to become like Jesus, who
humbled and emptied himself for our sakes and went about doing good.