As the saying goes, “nothing is truly lost until mom and St. Anthony can’t find it!” Typically depicted as a young friar holding the child Jesus, holding a book, or a lily, and sometimes juggling all three, St. Anthony of Padua is one of the most well known saints of the Catholic faith. So just who is this saint and why do we turn to him when we lose something?
1. His name was Fernando Martins
St. Anthony wasn’t always “Anthony.” He was born Fernando Martins to a rather well established and wealthy family in Lisbon, Portugal in 1195. (This would make him about 13 years younger than St. Francis of Assisi.) Fernando found his vocation and entered the Augustinian monastery when he was only 15. Contrary to our present day perception of monastic life, the Augustinian Abbey where Fernando sought a life of prayer was far from always quiet and peaceful. Visitors who were known to begin raucous political debates were not uncommon and it is likely that young Fr. Fernando would have known some of the more boisterous debaters as friends before he entered the monastery. After a few years he was sent to the Augustinian Abbey in Coimbra. There, in the Abbey of Santa Cruz, he studied theology and latin and was probably ordained a priest.
2. He was inspired by Franciscan Martyrs
Coimbra was home not only to the Augustinian Canons but also to the new and growing order known as the Franciscans. When the bodies of five Franciscan friars who were martyred for preaching the faith to the Muslims of Morocco were returned to Coimbra, an impressive and solemn procession took place in the town. Even the queen was present to welcome the earthly remains of the martyrs back home. So moved was Fr. Fernando by the sacrifice of these five men that he is said to have gone to the Franciscan friary and asked to become a Franciscan, but only if he too could be sent to spread the Gospel and die a martyr as well. Eventually Fr. Fernando was allowed to leave the Augustinian order and exchanged his black cincture and Augustinian cloak for the poor habit of a Franciscan. Upon his entry into the order established by St. Francis, he changed his name to Anthony. He had found where he belonged.
3. He had bad luck with boats and missed meeting St. Francis
True to their word, the Franciscans sent Anthony to Morocco where he thought he would die a martyr for the faith. God, however, had other plans. Many times in the lives of those who are seeking holiness and who desire to give themselves for Christ, we read how God has used illness to reset and redirect zealous hearts. Such was the case with Anthony, the would-be martyr who became so sick he had to abandon his immediate hopes of martyrdom and go back to Coimbra to recover. God, however, still had other designs. Anthony’s ship encountered storms, bad winds, rough seas, and was eventually blown off course across the Mediterranean Sea. It seems our finder-of-lost-things couldn’t find his way home. Instead, he arrived in Sicily, very sick. He was nursed back to health by some fellow friars, and it is said he was even in the vicinity of St. Francis of Assisi, who at the time was also sick, though the two did not meet each other. At least not yet.
4. Even fish listened to him!
While still regaining his strength, and unexpectedly in Italy, Fr. Anthony realized that his first vocational desire—to live a quiet monastic life—was once again a possibility. As he continued to recover he was sent to Tuscany where he was able to study and pray in peace and solitude. Poverty was so dear to Franciscans that they were wary of those who were too highly educated. For Anthony’s part, he preferred to live simply and embraced Franciscan poverty. He never let on that he had been educated in theology and latin as an Augustinian. Some time after his recovery Anthony attended an ordination of Dominicans and Franciscans. There was a mix-up with whom was supposed to preach the homily and after some scrambling by the superior of the Franciscan hermitage, Anthony was asked to preach a simple sermon and speak as the Holy Spirit compelled him. When Anthony grudgingly complied, it can only be assumed that God smiled, having accomplished what he had been preparing Anthony for all along. Our saintly “finder” found his voice.
Soon Anthony’s gift of preaching became so well known that St. Francis requested he be sent to Northern Italy to preach the Gospel. When stubborn townsfolk wouldn’t pay attention to Anthony, legend has it that he went to a nearby river and preached instead to the fish, who appeared to be listening attentively. When the people of the town noticed that even the fish listened to his words, they became curious and gave him their attention too!
5. He is a Doctor
St. Francis was said to be very wary of his friars becoming too learned, which, he said, became a temptation to pride and self-importance. This was sometimes all too evident with those sent to preach and spread the Gospel. In Anthony, however, St. Francis found a true brother. Never self-important, and having embraced the same poverty in which most of his audience lived, Fr. Anthony soon became trusted by and important to St. Francis. He was given the task of educating the Franciscan friars and eventually became the provincial superior of the order for Northern Italy. For his depth of knowledge, imbued with personal holiness, and his ability to explain the deep, mysterious truths of the faith to simple, ordinary, and often uneducated people, Anthony was made a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XII.
6. He didn’t actually “find” any lost items
So how did he become the patron saint of lost or stolen objects? In 1224 St. Francis asked Anthony to teach theology to the friars, “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.” To assist him in teaching, St. Francis gave him his psalter (book of psalms). This must have been very cherished, especially since books were rare at that time. One day a young novice decided he wanted to leave the order, and he took Fr. Anthony’s psalter with him as he ran off. Understandably upset by this, Anthony prayed that the young man would be moved in his conscience to return the book. Well, this is where our finder of lost items gets his reputation, because not only did the young man return the stolen book, he also returned to the order, having re-found his vocation too!
7. He was only in his mid-thirties when he died
Fr. Anthony lived a saintly and full life, a life dedicated to finding God’s will, prayer, and poverty. It may come as a shock then, to discover that he died at the young age of 36! (Some accounts say age 35.) By the time of his death, as another illness took hold of him, he had preached for the pope, taught at the friary in Bologna, Italy, had drawn crowds of 30,000 or more and made more than 400 trips to preach the gospel, both in and out of Italy! During his last sermons he even needed body guards to keep people from cutting off parts of his habit to keep as relics. Like another friar from Pietrelcina, Italy, who would follow his example, he would practice austere penances, preach, and then hear confessions sometimes all day long. He desired to die in his beloved Padua but was unable to make the journey in his last days, giving the city a final blessing from the nearby town of Arcella. Before passing it is said that he saw Jesus and exclaimed, “I see my Lord!” He was canonized a year later by Pope Gregory IX, the very same pope who had heard him preach.
8. You can still see his tongue
Almost 340 years after his death, St. Anthony’s body was exhumed, as was often done with saints. His tongue is in a gold reliquary in the basilica in Padua along with his lower jaw and vocal cords. The young man who desired a life of quiet contemplation, with the zeal of the martyrs, and the gift of preaching is definitely more than just a finder of lost items and misplaced car keys. His life is an example of what God can do with each one of us if we would only ask this powerful intercessor for a little help in finding him and his will for us. St. Anthony, pray us!