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. Anthony of Padua, also venerated as Saint Anthony of Lisbon, was born in Lisbon, Portugal, which was then a part of Spain, in 1195 A.D., and named Fernando de Bulhoes. He is one of the most beloved Catholic saints today, and he was much loved even in his own time. Saint Anthony’s physical appearance was unremarkable; he was short and slightly plump, but everyone who heard him speak was drawn to him. St. Anthony was known to have a winning smile, a loud voice and a prodigious memory. His fervent faith must have been apparent from a young age, for by fifteen, he had entered the Augustinian Abbey of St. Vincent at Lisbon against his well-to-do family’s wishes.
Then, in 1219, St. Anthony had a portentous meeting with five Franciscans who were on their way to preach to the Muslims in Morocco. The friars were martyred during their mission, and their mutilated bodies brought back to Spain where they were carried in solemn procession. St. Anthony was apparently very moved by the Franciscans’ sacrifice and their simple lifestyle. He asked his order for permission to join the Franciscans, and in the summer of 1220, received his habit. He took the name Anthony, after St. Anthony the Great.
Saint Anthony greatly desired to follow in the footsteps of the five Franciscans who had so affected him, and preach in Morocco, but ill health forced him to return soon after his arrival there. However, his home bound ship was never to reach Spain; a storm forced it to land instead on the coast of Italy. Franciscans there had pity on the ailing Anthony and assigned him to the rural hospice of San Paolo outside of Bologna. In that location, St. Anthony lived as a hermit and worked in the kitchen, his educated background either unknown or ignored.
The hermitage was, in time, visited by a gathering of Dominicans. As that order was known for its preaching, the Franciscans did not prepare a homily themselves. When it was found that the Dominicans had expected their hosts to provide a preacher, the head of the hermitage, in desperation, called upon Anthony to speak some simple words from his heart. The friars were probably hoping at most for a minimal amount of embarrassment in front of the more learned Dominicans. Instead, the whole company was awestruck by the brilliant words emanating from the mouth of St. Anthony. It was the beginning of his fame as a preacher. St. Francis himself learned of St. Anthony’s extraordinary speaking abilities and sent Anthony a note exhorting him to preach to the other Franciscans.
In 1226 the Franciscans chose St. Anthony as an envoy to Pope Gregory IX from the general chapter, and on May 30, 1227 he was elected minister provincial of part of Italy. St. Anthony humbly served as directed but in June of 1230 he asked for release from his duties in order to devote himself to preaching. His request was granted, and from then on, St. Anthony resided in the monastery at Padua where he wrote, among other things, his famous sermons on the saints.
The beloved preacher became ill with dropsy in 1231 and on June 13, now his feast day, he died at the Poor Clare convent in Arcella at the young age of 36. Legend has it that children cried and angels rang bells when St. Anthony died. His body was buried in a chapel, which is now enclosed by the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua. In 1263, when his relics were transferred to the Basilica, his tongue was found to be still fresh and red in color. Saint Anthony’s was the second fastest canonization in history; he was declared a saint 352 days after his death, by the same Pope Gregory he had met in life .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.