Why does virtually every statue of St. Anthony show him holding the Christ child in his arms? We might have expected him to be depicted holding a lost set of car keys! Nor would it be surprising to see him holding a Bible, for he was one of the most famous Scripture teachers of his day.
But why the child Jesus? What does this tell us about Anthony? And ultimately, what does it tell us about ourselves, as we get ready to celebrate the feast of the birth of that child into the world and into our hearts? Was there something about this Franciscan preacher that can show us how to embrace Jesus more closely?
This very popular saint was born in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1195. His baptismal name was Ferdinand. Ferdinand was taught by the Augustinian friars. When he was old enough, he joined their order. At the age of twenty-five, Ferdinand’s life took an exciting turn. He heard about some Franciscans who had been martyred by the Moors in Morocco. These friars were St. Berard and his companions. (We celebrate their feast on January 16.) Ferdinand was so impressed with the courage of the martyrs that he got permission to transfer from the Augustinian Order to the Franciscan Order. This order was very new. St. Francis, its founder, was still alive. Ferdinand took the new name “Anthony.” He went off to Africa to preach about Jesus to the Moors. But he soon became so sick that his superiors called him back to Portugal. On the way there, however, his ship was caught in a terrible storm. It had to land in Italy instead of returning to Portugal.
No one in his new religious order realized how brilliant and talented Anthony was. He never spoke about himself or how much he knew. So the Franciscan superiors assigned him to a quiet friary in Italy. There he washed pots and pans. One day Anthony was unexpectedly asked to preach in front of a crowd of priests and important people. Everyone was surprised at the wonderful things he said about God. From then on, until he died nine years later, Anthony was sent to preach all over Italy. He was so popular that people even closed their stores to go to hear him.
After 1226, Anthony remained in the city of Padua, Italy. There his preaching completely changed the lives of the people. He helped the poor and worked to keep people who couldn’t pay their bills from being thrown into prison. His sermons helped people to not only understand their faith better, but to put it into practice, too.
Anthony died at Arcella, near Padua, Italy, on June 13, 1231. He was only thirty-six years old. Pope Gregory IX proclaimed him a saint just one year later.
Many people ask St. Anthony to pray to God for them when they need help. And many miracles have taken place through his intercession. Statues of St. Anthony show him holding the Infant Jesus because Jesus once appeared to him as a baby. Other pictures show St. Anthony holding a Bible. This is because he knew, loved and preached the Word of God so well. In fact, St. Anthony knew Scripture so well that Pope Pius XII proclaimed him the “Evangelical Doctor,” or Doctor of Sacred Scripture.
-Daughters of St. Paul