Sacred Mysteries: The short life of the saint who finds lost things

The 17th-century Royal Chapel of St Anthony, Old Goa
The 17th-century Royal Chapel of St Anthony, Old Goa - Bridgeman

When I first visited Padua, I found the interior of the large cathedral bare, white, cold and empty. The medieval structure had been rebuilt in Renaissance style, not being completed until the middle of the 18th century.

Half a mile away, I found the basilica of St Anthony of Padua busy, colourful, warm and thronged with pilgrims.

St Anthony is a popular saint, depicted winningly as holding the Child Jesus in his arms. Many people attribute to the saint a willingness to find objects that have been lost. He does not seem fussy about his clients. I have often found him obliging in his intercession, sometimes in an astonishing way that cannot be explained by psychological prompting.

Of course some object to asking for saints to pray to God on their behalf. I can’t quite see why that should be ruled out if it is perfectly allowable to ask people still alive on earth to say a prayer.

Anyway, St Anthony (1195-1231) took his name from the great St Anthony, the desert monk. But St Anthony was only “of Padua” because he died and was buried there.

He was born in Lisbon and baptised Fernando. As a young man he joined the Canons Regular of the Holy Cross, who followed the monastic rule of St Augustine. It was only at a hermitage at Coimbra dedicated to St Anthony that his life changed, when he joined the Franciscans and took the name Anthony.

This was in 1220, 11 years after the Franciscans had been founded. St Francis of Assisi was still alive, and in 1219 had gone to Egypt, where he succeeded in meeting Sultan Malik al-Kamil. In 1220 five Franciscan friars were beheaded in Morocco.

They had first of all preached in Seville, the capital of al-Andalus in the Almohad Caliphate, which straddled the straits of Gibraltar. The friars were arrested and sent to Marrakesh, where the Caliph ruled. He attempted to send them back to Spain, but they persisted in preaching in Marrakesh and were put to death.

As I understand it, St Anthony came across relics of these martyrs at Coimbra, met some live Franciscans, and was moved to join them. St Francis certainly approved of preaching to the Islamic world. The next year, 1221, he wrote in the Franciscan rule, the Regula non bullata, that friars might choose to live among Muslims “not engaging in arguments or disputes”, but “acknowledging that they are Christians”. Or else they could “announce the Word of God, when they see it pleases the Lord”, so that unbelievers might be baptised and “enter the kingdom of God”.

This was obviously high-risk, but Anthony got permission to set off for Morocco. There he fell ill and to his disappointment was sent back to Europe. A storm diverted his ship to Sicily and he recovered his health in Italy. St Francis entrusted him with teaching  theology to the brothers, so long as this did “not extinguish their spirit of prayer and devotion”.

Anthony’s skill in preaching was discovered by accident, when the expected preacher did not materialise. There is a legend of his preaching to the fishes at Rimini until the curious townsfolk latched on to his words. His vision of the Child Jesus is attributed to the period before his early death aged 35.

He was canonised, at a time when surprisingly few were declared saints, less than a year after his death.

Many churches have a collecting box fixed to the wall marked “St Anthony’s Bread”. It is for alms for the poor, to whom he, like St Francis, was devoted and imitated. His day falls on June 13.