A small and corpulent preacher with an irresistible personality
Born in 1195, Antony began life in Lisbon as Fernando Martins de Bulhões. His parents, rich and well-connected, entrusted his education to the cathedral clergy.
Rather to their dismay, religion “took” in the boy, who decided at 15 to join the regular canons of St Augustine in the suburbs of Lisbon. Two years later, anxious to avoid continual visits from his friends, he transferred to the priory at Coïmbra, then capital of Portugal.
There he remained for the next eight years, devoting himself to prayer and study, and acquiring a deep knowledge of the Bible.
In 1220 Fernando was greatly affected by relics of Franciscan friars who had recently been martyred in Morocco. Inspired to become a missionary, and eager for martyrdom, he now joined the Franciscans, taking the name Antony in religion.
When he was sent to Morocco, though, he was immediately laid low by severe illness, which obliged him to return to Europe.
Driven off course by unfavourable winds, his ship landed at Messina, in Sicily. From there Antony proceeded to Assisi to attend the Franciscan General Chapter of 1221. St Francis himself was present.
Subsequently, Antony was sent to the hermitage of San Paolo, near Forli. There, due to some muddle, he was obliged, without any preparation, to deliver the address at an ordination.
Though no one expected anything of such a modest brother, Antony performed so brilliantly that he was ordered out to preach in Lombardy. And St Francis himself approved the appointment of the young Portuguese to instruct the friars at Bologna and Padua.
Antony’s learning, eloquence and zeal, happily allied to his sonorous voice, inspired devotion, and won him admirers wheresoever he appeared. Though he was small and (notwithstanding his austerities) corpulent, his personality proved irresistible. Soon reports began to circulate of the miracles which he had wrought.
Yet Antony could be fierce in chastising unworthy priests, and in rebuking those who oppressed the poor. He particularly detested usury.
Pope Gregory IX became a great admirer, encouraging Antony to undertake preaching peregrinations from his base in Padua.
In 1231 Antony, still only 36, but exhausted, went on retreat in the woods at Camposanpiero. As his health continued to decline, he struggled to return to Padua, only to die (on June 13) in the outskirts of the town.
Antony was canonised within a year, and has always been one of the most popular of saints. Many of his sermons survived, to underpin his elevation in 1946 to Doctor of the Church.
His reputation for recovering lost property may be attributed to a story that a nun once carried off his psalter. Antony prayed for its return; the malefactor was visited with terrifying apparitions; and the psalter speedily recovered.