Many of us pray to St Anthony when we lose things, and we may even call him “Doctor of the Church” and not know why. Well, Anthony had a licence to teach (licentia docendi in Latin) because Francis realised that his friars needed to study theology in order to be effective preachers of the Word, and maintain orthodoxy of faith against numerous heresies. He wrote Anthony a letter stating that “it pleases” him that Anthony should teach theology, but that he should never “extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion” (EpAnt).
Anthony complied with Francis’ request, and thus became the first teacher of theology in the Franciscan Order. And teach and preach he did, in a way that led people not to himself, but to Christ. That is humility in action. Anthony’s theology is grounded on the “poverty and humility of our Lord Jesus Christ”. This mirrors the thoughts of Francis, who loved to speak of “poverty” together with “humility” in reference to our Lord, especially in his Incarnation and Passion. If Jesus emptied himself to assume the form of a man, and gave himself up to death on a cross (Phil 2:6), then we, as followers of Christ, are called to walk this journey of self-emptying and kenosis in order to love and serve our brothers and sisters in creation.
In fact, Anthony considered humility so important that he called it the source, root and font of all other virtues.
We acknowledge ourselves as we are before God, and God sees us as we are and loves us. That is the beauty of Franciscan spirituality, the beauty of simply being. We are called to appreciate and love the beauty and dignity of our own selves, and of other beings, and thus live this love in fraternity – sharing, serving, sacrificing.
Anthony also invites us to “the sweetness of contemplation”, to die to the world and live solely for God. It is this desire for God that urges us to a conversion of life in penance, to live out our holiness of life in service of all, especially the poor.
St Anthony was a man truly after the heart of St Francis, both in words and works; our Doctor of the Church, the one who helps us to find our way back to God.
“St Anthony, please help me, I cannot find my keys!”
How often have we found ourselves reaching out to St Anthony for something like this? You may even have a story about how your misplaced items were miraculously found. Many of us have also entrusted St Anthony with our difficulties and struggles. He is a powerful intercessor through whom God’s blessings can be felt and experienced in the fullness of generosity. St Anthony continually offers each of us a sure sign of consolation, hope and deep trust in the Lord’s providence.
Who is St Anthony of Padua?
It may surprise some of you to learn that he was neither from Padua, Italy nor named Anthony when he was born. This beloved saint of ours was born to a wealthy family in Lisbon, Portugal in 1195, and baptised Ferdinand Bulhom. At the age of 15, Ferdinand entered the order of St Augustine and lived in the monastery of the Augustinian Abbey of St Vincent in Lisbon. There his spiritual life matured and deepened. Legend tells us that he desired a deeper life with God, and seeking solitude away from the hustle and bustle of Lisbon, asked to transfer to the Augustinian motherhouse in Coimbra, Portugal. In 1220, Ferdinand heard of five Franciscan protomartyrs who had died for their faith in Morocco. Deeply inspired by their passionate commitment to the Gospel, Ferdinand decided to adopt the Franciscan way of life and took the name Anthony. Anthony’s deep sense of humility and poverty drew him into a life of seclusion and contemplation after the manner of Francis. He led a quiet life of penance and prayer at the hermitage of Montepaolo.
How did St Anthony come to be known as the patron of lost things?
Legend has it that while he was living in the friary at Montpellier in France, he miraculously recovered an item of great importance that had gone missing. This was a book of Psalms that he had copied by hand, and it contained his notes and commentaries that he used in his lectures. Anthony was deeply distressed when he realised that the book had been taken away by a novice who had left the friary, and that he did not know where the novice had gone. Without his teaching material, Anthony was at a loss. Trusting in the Lord’s providence, he prayed that the novice would have a change of heart. Shortly thereafter, the novice returned with the book and begged for forgiveness. He also asked to re-join the Order. The stolen book of Psalms is said to be preserved in a friary in Bologna, Italy.
Popular devotions to our beloved saint sprang up shortly after his passing, and many people turned to him for intercession. German Friar Julian of Speyer composed the famous sequence “Si Quaeris Miracula” sometime between 1232 to 1240 in honour of St Anthony the wonder-worker. Many of us will recognise this antiphon taken from the Si Quaeris prayer in our devotion:
“The sea obeys and fetters break, and lifeless limbs you do restore. While treasures lost are found again, when young and old aid implore.”
The Franciscan Friars and Tuesday Devotion to St Anthony
The Church recognises St Anthony for the many blessings and miracles that God worked through him, and in Singapore, the Franciscan Friars continue the tradition of dedicating every Tuesday to the devotion of this miracle worker. Indeed, our mission relies on the intercession of St Anthony. The first friary, established in Singapore in 1957, was named St Anthony’s Friary, and in 1991, the Custody of St Anthony of Padua (Malaysia- Singapore-Brunei) was officially erected, dependent on the Australian Province of the Holy Spirit.
For many years, the Tuesday devotion to St Anthony was held in the Church of St Mary of the Angels ,Singapore. Many have joined us in prayer and experienced the solace of his tender care. We also have fond memories of sharing hearty bowls of porridge and blessed bread in fellowship. We took the devotion online in 2020 when COVID restrictions meant we could no longer have the devotion in church. Since then, week after week, the student friars join the faithful virtually to pray and offer up their intercession to St Anthony.
In 2021, we launched a virtual shrine to St Anthony, enabling people to offer up their petitions and letters of thanksgiving online. These are offered by the friars in the Greccio community in their daily prayer.
As we prepare to celebrate the Feast of St Anthony on 13 June, let us continue to open our hearts to the love of Christ in trusting abandonment.
Article written by the Friars-in-Initial Formation
Following the example of St Francis, each friar (and indeed everyone) is called to a life of conversion. As such, it is easy to relate Franciscan spirituality with a spirituality of the Cross, of Christ’s passion. But is not Franciscan spirituality fundamentally anchored on the Resurrection? After all, what is conversion but a movement away from sin and self-love towards a renewal of the mind, and a resurrected way of life made possible by Christ risen again?
Conversion is rooted in the hope of Easter. So we are called to imitate Jesus not only in his poverty, passion and suffering, but also in his glory as we claim the victory of Christ over our old selves and live as children of light. The Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus all tell one story: the Paschal mystery. This link between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is aptly demonstrated by the stigmata. It is interesting that the wounds of Christ that keenly remind us of his gruesome death are what convinced St Thomas of the Risen Lord. Likewise, it is true that many times, it is our own brokenness that awakens us to our acute need for God.
Indeed, the movement from death to life is a pattern of reality for all who believe in Jesus. The San Damiano cross captures this truth beautifully. On it, the Risen Christ, still wounded by our sins, stands and welcomes us with open eyes and open arms. It illustrates the death and life, helplessness and power of God simultaneously. Even poverty, a much-cherished virtue in Franciscanism, is a remembrance of the Resurrection.
We recall that as Jesus rose from the dead, the linen cloth was left behind. This is a powerful symbol of a Christian’s utter dependence on God – for in Him, we have all we need. In the face of God who has overcome all, even death, to save us, poverty appears to be the only valid response. We know that if we abandon our whole selves to God, and persevere in imitating Jesus, we will surely be raised up like Him as well.
St Francis knew what it meant to persevere. At his death, his biographer Thomas of Celano noted something wondrous and had this to say: “And they beheld his flesh which had been dark before glittering with exceeding whiteness and promising by its beauty the reward of a blessed resurrection. Finally, they saw his face like the face of an angel, as if he were alive and not dead.” (The First Life of St Francis, Chapter 9, no 112).
Easter has come. We can begin anew. May the path of St Francis lead us to the joy of encountering our Risen Saviour! Alleluia!
St Francis of Assisi is well known for his love of poverty, but he was not born into poverty. In fact, he was born into wealth and privilege, and dreamt of glory on the battlefield. He thought these would bring him happiness. It was not until he encountered the leper that he realised that true happiness is found in God alone.
This was the key event that led Francis to his conversion. “And the Lord himself led me among them (the lepers) and I showed mercy towards them. And withdrawing from them, that which once seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body,” said Francis.
Wanting to imitate Christ, he embraced radical poverty. For Francis, that meant not only renouncing material goods but also putting on the attitude of Christ. It meant striving to be perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect, serving with humility and charity, being poor among the poor.
As the lepers helped him to overcome his revulsion, he began to show compassion to all, treating everyone as if they were Christ himself. Francis and the early brothers devoted themselves to the care of lepers, who were rejected by society, and to bringing God’s love, peace, joy and hope to those were desolate.
The brothers began to look beyond themselves and began to seek to comfort those who were suffering physically and emotionally. The more Francis immersed himself in serving others, in putting his faith in action, the more he was drawn to empty himself, to going the extra mile for the sake of others. He found his ability to love magnified every day, and this led him to strive to perpetually seek God’s will in his life. Francis’ quest led him to the knowledge that our God is the “Most High Glorious God”, a God who is love, mercy and compassion.
“What was bitter was changed into sweetness” for him for he was able to discover the dignity and beauty of each person, rich or poor, healthy or sick, strong or weak, young or old.
In steadfastly following the will of God in his life, Francis began to experience life to the full. He felt a strong sense of God in his daily life, and the awareness of God’s presence within him gave him a new way of looking at the world. He began to see God’s presence in others. “What was bitter was changed into sweetness” for him for he was able to discover the dignity and beauty of each person, rich or poor, healthy or sick, strong or weak, young or old. They were all God’s beloved children. He found that all of creation manifested the beauty of God. It was God’s gift to him. As Francis put it, “the Lord himself led me among them”.
Francis knew that God’s gifts were to be shared with others. As he experienced life to the full, he wanted others to also have meaningful lives. For he knew that it is in mutual sharing, in washing each other’s feet that God’s reign is manifested among us.
The seasons of Advent and Christmas offer us the possibility of doing things in other ways. The Pope speaks of the Church as a “field hospital”. God, he says, is not found in “neat, orderly places and things, distant from reality”. As we set out our Advent candles, cribs, Christmas trees and lights, do we remember that God walks by our side especially now with the world in turmoil? The Incarnation has given us the message that God has moved into our neighbourhoods. How does this theological reality impact our daily spiritual lives?
For many of us, our neighbourhoods can sometimes be depressing places where we live with anxiety, shame, guilt, fear and so many other feelings and behaviours that prevent us from knowing that we are indeed loved. God has moved into such neighbourhoods.
During Advent, the Isaiah readings during Mass invite us to embrace a God who has come to console us and free us from the prisons of our sins. John the Baptist encourages us to make straight paths in our lives so that we can see God as God really is, and not the way we want God to be.
God is with us in good times and in bad. Couples professing their vows on their wedding day promise to be there for each other in good times and in bad. God, in the Incarnation of Jesus, has made the same promise to us. In Jesus, the new covenant, this promise is sealed forever.
But how do we know this for sure, especially during those times we cannot sense the presence of God? John Henry Newman, the 19th Century English theologian, scholar and poet, said his search for God did not end with his studies or his priesthood. He is quoted as saying “I sought to hear the voice of God and climbed the topmost steeple, but God declared: Go down again – I dwell among the people.”
In the Gospels, we find Jesus largely among ordinary people, the outcasts, the disease-ridden and those society had labelled unworthy or sinful. The Gospel of Matthew (25:31-46) clearly describes Jesus as not just among people, but as the least among them. The Gospel of John says: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).
We rush to register for Mass, but a genuine desire to receive the Lord in the celebration of the Eucharist must be matched with an equally real longing to experience the same Lord in the lives of others – all others and not only like-mind people.
The language the psalmist uses describes the general nature of life for many people: “waters up to my neck”, “sinking into depths where there is no foothold”, “my eyes fail”, “shame covers my face”, etc. But there is steadfast faith that God will deliver. The psalmist prays “in your great love, O God, answer me with your sure salvation” (69:13).
Salvation. This is what we are assured of. God did not promise a life without struggles and challenges. Our lives can be messy. We struggle, we suffer, but as we do, we hold on to the sure and certain hope that the ultimate life that comes with God is ours, and will never be taken away from us.
Jesus showed that the way to a full life in the resurrection is to carry the cross of humanity’s burden, with our eyes fixed on God’s kingdom, and walk the path towards Easter. We tell ourselves that “this is only Friday, Sunday will come”. That is the blessed assurance given to us in the suffering of Christ. For as it says in Hebrews, “it is not as if we have a high priest who is incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us …” We believe in a God who knows what it means to be human.
So how can we express our faith anew in this season when we celebrate the Incarnation? At the opening Mass for the Synod on 10 October, Pope Francis encouraged the Church to become “experts in the art of encounter”. He invited us to walk together on the same road by encountering our God in one another. On this road we listen to others and to one another with the heart, with no judgment. When we encounter and listen to others sincerely, we then need to discern what changes we are invited to embrace in order to make room in our hearts for God.
May this Christmas truly become the feast of the Incarnation for each of us.
The story of St Francis and the Christmas Crib at Greccio shows what was really important to Francis – the poverty of Jesus and his mother, and the discomfort felt by the little baby. For Francis, the external poverty of Christ’s birth at Bethlehem was representative of the radical poverty of the Incarnation. Celano also placed an emphasis on the virtues of simplicity, poverty, and humility, leading us to understand that the poverty of Francis is in imitation of the poverty of Jesus.
During the seasons of Advent and Christmas, we invite you to spend some time in quiet prayer before the Christmas Crib, and offer some questions for your reflection.
1. What is the place of poverty – simplicity – humility in my life?
2. Celano wrote of how Francis wished “to enact the memory of that babe who was born in Bethlehem”. Where do we enact “memory” in our lives? Are we able to re-read the events of our lives and perceive the Lord’s presence in them?
3. What truly is the place of the Eucharist in my life, in the course of my day?
4. What is the place of the senses in my relationship with God, and in how my faith is expressed?
5. How open am I to the new and to what challenges me? How can I grasp the beauty of poverty?
Francis spoke of making room for creativity, which opens us up to the new. We are invited to give space to feelings, to joy, to songs, to festive celebration. We are also called to enjoy the beauty of poverty, which in the story of Greccio is characterised by a dignity and beauty that become a source of joy.