Fernando (Ferdinand in English) was the Saint’s baptismal name. Born in Lisbon, Portugal in 1195, of an aristocratic family, he was probably about 15 years old when he said farewell to the bright worldly prospects that lay before him. Fernando consecrated himself in about 1210 to service of God as a religious among the Canons Regular of St. Augustine.
But, in the Augustinian monastery near his native city, he was distracted by visits from relatives and friends. After spending two years there, he asked to be transferred to another monastery. He was sent to Holy Cross in Coimbra, a great center of learning and the capital of Portugal at that time.
Fernando devoted the next eight years of his life to study and prayer, immersing himself in Sacred Scripture. This period laid the foundation for his later work of preaching the Gospel.
At Olivais, near his monastery, a few early followers of St. Francis had a little dwelling. Fernando often helped them when they begged for alms. He admired the humble, joyful hearts of these men who cheerfully renounced worldly values. But far greater sacrifice by these zealous Franciscans proved the turning point in Fernando’s idealistic life.
In 1219 St. Francis had sent his first missionaries – Berard, Peter, Accursio, Adiuto, and Otto – to the Muslims. When they urged that the King of Morocco convert to the Christian faith, he put them to death by the sword on January 16, 1220. The relics of these friars were brought back to Portugal and laid to rest in the Church of the Holy Cross in Coimbra where Fernando lived.
Inspired by the friars’ martyrdom, he felt called to join the Franciscan community at Olivais in the summer of 1220, taking the name of Anthony, a saintly hermit of the fourth century.
He then set sail for Morocco, but on reaching his destination fell seriously ill and was bedridden for several months. Forced to abandon his plans, he decided to return home. En route, his ship encountered a severe storm and was driven to the coast of Sicily, south of Messina, where Franciscan friars welcomed him and nursed him to health.
In the spring of 1221, a general gathering of some 3,000 Franciscans took place at Assisi, and Anthony went to meet his new brothers. Afterward, seeking God’s will, he spent a year in Montepaolo at a mountain hermitage of the friars. Invoking the heritage of his patron saint, he devoted himself to prayer and study in the daily life of a hermit.
God’s call to Anthony to enter into the heart of the world came in the summer of 1222. After a priestly ordination of Franciscans and Dominicans at Forli, all gathered for a festive dinner. When no one accepted the superior’s invitation to give a talk, he called on Anthony. The friars were soon spellbound by his words – awed by his knowledge of the Scriptures and moved by his eloquence and fervor.
Soon afterward Anthony embarked on his career as a Franciscan preacher that would continue through France and Italy for the next nine years. His sermons often drew large crowds that overflowed town squares and filled vast fields.
The Franciscan final Rule was approved by Pope Honorius III in 1223. Around the same time, Anthony was chosen by Francis to teach theology to his friars, uniting the vision of St. Augustine with the ideals of Francis. This became the special mark of the Franciscan school of theology. Anthony also served as leader the Franciscans in a region of northern Italy.
St. Francis died in 1226 and was canonized in 1228. From that year onward, Anthony took up residence in Padua but was often on the road, continuing a lasting Franciscan mission of love at work. In his sermons, he defended the Church's teachings against those who rejected them. He spoke out against unjust interest rates and interceded for debtors. He challenged people to give alms to the poor. His stirring works revealed how deeply he understood the problems of the people.
And he strengthened his words with a holy life. “The preacher must, by word and example,” he wrote, “be a sun to those to whom he preaches. You are, says the Lord, the light of the world … our light must warm the hearts of people, while our teaching enlightens them.”
Perhaps one of the most famous stories about the Saint concerns an appearance of Jesus to him in the form of a child near the end of Anthony's life. He was working on a book of sermons for saints’ feasts, while staying at a small Franciscan friary not far from Padua. Anthony’s mystical experience of the Child Jesus reflects the central place of the Incarnation of the Son of God in his sermons.
After giving a series of Lenten sermons to the people of Padua in the spring of 1231, Anthony became seriously ill. In the chaplain's quarters of the Poor Clare Convent at Arcella near Padua, on June 13, 1231, he died singing – like St. Francis – his final song, a hymn to Mary.
The children of Padua ran through the streets calling out, “The Saint has died! The holy father has died!” The Church declared Anthony a saint on May 30, 1232, less than a year after his death. Construction of a worthy burial church was soon underway for him in Padua. When Anthony’s remains were transferred to the newly completed basilica in 1263, his tongue was found intact. Reverence for the Saint spread from his burial place and has continued ever since.
Undoubtedly, St. Anthony worked many miracles during his lifetime – particularly on behalf of the sick. But he truly became the Wonder Worker of Padua after death. His fame in obtaining miraculous favors from God has inspired artists throughout the ages. Many images have come to be associated with him as a consequence of this influence – the Child Jesus on his arm, the Bible or a lily in his hand, a loaf of bread extended to the poor.
Anthony’s reputation as a ‘finder of lost things’ assures us that evil cannot overwhelm us, for we have been redeemed by Christ and that no request is too small to make of our heavenly friends, the saints. Contemporary devotion also invokes Anthony as a “finder of lost faith” for those alienated from the Church and as a healer of emotional problems as well as bodily sufferings.