St Anthony even exclaimed: “Through you, Paradise has entered our world!” St Anthony found great delight and strength in invoking the “sweet name of Mary”, the “New Eve” and “Star of the Sea”, and his devoted imitation of the poor, humble Virgin in her poverty, littleness and purity of heart was such that his holy life became the very presence of Mary in the world.
And in the light of his being like Mary, who “always had her mind raised straight up to God in the contemplation of heavenly things”, it is no wonder we have the delightful account of St Anthony holding and adoring the Child Jesus in his arms.
May we learn from St Anthony, in the words of St John Paul II, that “devotion to Mary, by highlighting the human dimension of the Incarnation, helps us better to discern the face of a God who shares the joys and sufferings of humanity, the ‘God-with-us’ whom she conceived as man in her most pure womb, gave birth to, cared for and followed with unspeakable love from his days in Nazareth and Bethlehem to those of the cross and resurrection”.
Mary, our Queen, Holy Mother of God,we beg you to hear our prayer.
Make our hearts overflow with divine grace and resplendent with heavenly wisdom. Render them strong with your might and rich in virtue.
Pour down upon us the gift of mercy so that we may obtain the pardon of our sins.
Help us to live in such a way as to merit the glory and bliss of heaven.
May this be granted us by your Son Jesus who has exalted you above the angels, has crowned you as Queen, and has seated you with him forever on his refulgent throne. Amen.
A prayer of St Anthony of Padua, whose feast we celebrate on 13 June, after the Marion month of May when devotions are made in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
I remember the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Franciscan presence in Singapore and Malaysia in 2008, working with people as passionate about the Franciscan Order as I am. I remember too how I felt after the celebrations were over. I felt an indescribable void within, like I was a piece of dead wood drifting in the ocean, and the waves kept pushing me further and further away from the shore. I felt that I was being pulled away from any purposeful existence in my life.
When I confided in a good friend, MD, he said:
“Reinvent yourself. Repurpose your choice of being a Franciscan. Find new meaning in what you are doing. Redefine your relationship with God. Perhaps the old definitions are not working for you anymore.”
Those wise words have remained with me all these years, and MD’s suggestion to reinvent myself have become something deeply spiritual.
Reinvent yourself daily in your journey with God. A dynamic relationship with God is an invitation to look at every day with new lenses. Each new day is an opportunity to recover from mistakes made because of stupidity, selfishness and self-absorption. Each day is a new chance to experience the love of Jesus, to live with the dignity that has been given to us freely by God.
Since the celebrations in 2008, we friars in Singapore and Malaysia have reinvented ourselves in many ways. Sometimes purposefully and sometimes out of necessity. The need to remain relevant in the lives of our communities has made us find ways to stay fresh, renewed or updated even in tried and tested environments such as parishes. Old ways of doing things can lead to lost opportunities.
We are now in the midst of another chance for reinvention. The pandemic is causing much misery around the world. With millions of people dead, livelihoods destroyed, the sick unable to obtain a basic commodity like oxygen, what kind of disciples are we supposed to be in the midst of lockdowns and threats of new variants of the virus?
The resurrected carpenter from Galilee changed the lives of ordinary people by inviting them to renew and reinvent their understanding of how God was working in their world. The disciples of Jesus experienced tumultuous times, but not only did the faith survive, it thrived in many areas. History shows that difficult and challenging times were often opportunities for the Church to revisit the Gospel of Jesus and accept the invitation to authentic living.
So how do we make sense of our faith in the midst of the many challenges that we face as a Church? I submit that we accept the invitation to reinvent and renew.
As Pope Francis said in pre-COVID times, his preference is for a Church “which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security”.
The Holy Father’s invitation is to all of us, not just the clergy and Religious. Pope Francis encourages us to read the spirit of the times, to not be stuck in the old ways of living our faith, to trust God and reinvent the way we live our faith.
The past 18 months or so have shown us the need to do this. In these unprecedented times, participating in the Eucharist means being quick to book Masses when the online bookings open, and only being able to do so in one parish. With the limited numbers allowed at each Mass, getting confirmation of a Mass booking is almost like winning the lottery.
For some, the trouble is not worth the effort. They do not want to compete with fellow Catholics over attendance at Mass (with all the restrictions of mask wearing, no singing and no socialising).
There is certainly an urgent need to review the way we have been practising our faith. Participating in the Eucharist is a vital part of our faith. What happens now that we are not able to attend, because of the COVID restrictions, even on a Sunday? Will some no longer see a need to attend Mass?
Reinventing necessarily means that we live our Eucharistic faith in our world. This means, as the Pope has warned us, not being “a Church that is concerned with being the centre and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures”.
If what matters to me only is whether I can get a place in Church for Mass, then perhaps I am placing myself at the centre. The Archdiocese (of Singapore) has had to restrict the number of Masses each person can book in order to enable more to participate in the Eucharist. Do I consider others when I make my Mass bookings? Am I one of the those who made the restriction necessary?
The Eucharist is about forgiveness, inclusivity, standing against sin and injustice. The teaching of Jesus invites us to bring faith, hope and charity to others, thus becoming sacraments for them. In challenging times, we can be tempted to become self-absorbed and we cease being sacramental signs for others.
Now perhaps is the appropriate time to be the Eucharist for others.
The road to eternity can be hazardous and long. Our lives are fraught with challenges and anxieties, and we live in a world today that is in crisis. A pandemic has swept over the world with the death toll rising each day. Scientists warn that climate change will have increasingly devastating effects, not least of which are rising temperatures and rising sea levels. The arms race continues relentlessly, with more and more money spent on technologies that kill and destroy, while millions of people remain mired in poverty.
A pilgrimage has the intention of gaining something of spiritual value, even in difficult situations. While a pilgrimage can be made to a particular destination, the journey itself fosters spiritual awareness and growth. Often the pilgrim’s relationship with God takes on new meaning during the pilgrimage.
As Christians, eternity is our destination, and our life on earth is our pilgrimage towards it. As we face the difficulties and challenges in our lives, we would do well to look for the moments that lead to spiritual deepening.
I admit I am not a fan of pilgrimages. They are sometimes veiled sightseeing tours or opportunities to travel to other places and accumulate souvenirs that lie in cupboards and drawers thereafter.
A Camino – or the “Way” – is different. This is a walk to hear the desires of our hearts and to listen to the voice of God.
The first camino I did was not the more famous Santiago de Compostela. I did the Via de Francesco, or the St Francis Way.
This camino is a walk around the places where St Francis of Assisi lived. We walked the paths that Francis took, visited the places where he encountered the supreme love of God that left him in awe and wonder. The basilicas, cathedrals, churches and other places where Francis roamed were interesting places, yes, but they were also places where we ourselves encountered God. Instead of simply absorbing interesting facts of buildings, architecture and art, we saw the stones and handwork of artists as the telling of the faith story of a man whose encounter with God was so powerful and real.
Visiting the historical places of St Francis and St Clare prepared us for the camino of our lives. In Assisi, we immersed ourselves in the spirituality of the two saints and found ourselves yearning for more. After familiarising ourselves with the historical contexts of the cradle of Franciscan spirituality, we needed to find our own journeys. The camino provided us with the landscape to do just that.
We each had our own story with God, and these sacred stories came alive during the camino. Walking in nature’s cathedral – the forest – we simply marvelled at the footprints of God. Everything of the grandeur of God spoke to us.
One of the most memorable places on the Via de Francesco is Poggio Bustone, where Francis began his mission of peace. The place is surrounded by verdant woods and looks out onto a mystical panorama.
On one of the trips to that town, the other pilgrims and I made our way up to the upper hermitage via a steep hill. It was supposed to take only 30 minutes, but it rained so heavily that we struggled to walk up. I remember feeling very irritated and angry, and even regretting being there. But there was no going back. The only way to find some respite from the storm was to keep moving towards our destination.
After what felt like an endless gruelling walk uphill, we finally reached the sanctuary for the Eucharist. We were tired and drenched. During the celebration of the Eucharist, I remembered that this was where St Francis had had his vision of the total remission of his past sins. It made me realise that our pilgrimage on earth can sometimes feel like walking up a steep hill in the rain, with many obstacles, especially our struggles with sin. The Eucharist assures us of the absolute and total forgiveness of sins always offered to us by our God.
When the camino ended, we made our way to the Basilica of St Anthony at Padua. Here, I have another admission to make: I did not find the relics and the magnificent building particularly spiritually inspiring. It was yet another box I could tick off, another place visited.
St Anthony himself, however, has always been a spiritual inspiration for me. Growing up in a Catholic family, I was taught that he would find lost things for us, including faith. But the saint is so much more than a miracle worker. His humility, joy, simplicity and great love for the poor and for God continue to inspire me to live a Franciscan life that is lean and free of clutter. St Anthony’s pilgrimage on earth was one that brought, and continues to bring, many people to God. I am one of these. Inspired by St Anthony, I know my pilgrimage of life on earth must be one of reaching out to the poor and the marginalised, and of creating a society that includes rather than ostracises.
The restrictions on travel because of the pandemic present an opportunity for us to review our lives. If we think of life as a pilgrimage, we can begin the camino into ourselves and the deep recesses of our mind and soul. If we embrace the encounters on this very personal camino, we will reach our destination spiritually enriched.
St Anthony’s Bread traditionally refers to loaves of bread blessed and shared in honour of St Anthony, and to alms given to the poor in thanksgiving for blessings received through the prayers of St Anthony.
One legend dates back to the year 1263, when a child drowned near the Paduan Basilica of St Anthony during its construction. The child’s mother prayed to the saint to bring her boy back to life. In return, she promised to give to the poor an amount of corn equal to the child’s weight. When the child was miraculously revived, the mother made good on her promise.
Centuries later, in 1888, a woman named Louise Bouffier, who managed a small bakery in the seaside village of Toulon, France, found she could not open the door with her key. Neither could a locksmith, who told her that he would have to break the door open. While he went to get his tools, Louise prayed to St Anthony that she would give some of her bakery’s bread to the poor if the door could be opened without force. When the locksmith returned, he tried the lock again and was easily able to let Louise in. True to her word, Louise made sure that the poor of Toulon received their due.
Before long, Louise’s friends began to follow her example of promising a gift of bread or alms to the poor in return for prayers answered by the intercession of St Anthony. In the 1890s, they formalised this practice by founding a charity called “St Anthony’s Bread”.
In the spirit of this charity, some parishes bless and distribute small loaves of bread on 13 June, his feast day.
If you are making bread for the poor, or to share with family and friends, here is a prayer you can use from the Franciscan liturgical books.
Adapted from faithmag.com/legend-st-anthonys-bread
Many years ago now, during my first visit to Assisi, I found by chance a book written by Italian poet and artist Umberto Verdirosi entitled “Behind the Canvas”.
On one page, entitled “Il povero cristo” in Italian and “The encounter” in English, is a painting of a vagabond wearing a red scarf standing before the Crucified Jesus who wears asimilar red scarf around his own waist. The accompanying poem, which begins with “Non parlare, guarda!”, reads in English:
“Speak not, behold! Illuminated by Light Divine, in twain they are today. As if to say that Christ’s cross is known as Man. After his long trek the Eternal Child is destitute of all except a scarf he kept in token of his faith.”
Francis of Assisi was a simple person who understood things as he saw and experienced them. Initially, he saw the Passion of Jesus as mere human suffering and pain, and hence he thought that his body needed to be constantly tamed and purged. But as he grew in the Spirit, Francis began to see and experience Jesus’ Passion (and the Cross) in a different light. He began seeking to imitate Jesus’ Passion in the light of God’s love, and found this when he received the stigmata at La Verna. For Francis, this was the lesson of the Cross and the Passion of Jesus.
As I step into the liturgical season of Lent and into Easter, I cannot help but ask myself what do I “Non parlare, guarda! – Speak not, behold!” of Jesus’ Passion and of my own passion?
It is easy to speak of Jesus’ Passion and my passion from the perspective of pain and suffering. Yet when I behold the Crucified Jesus, I see God as one who does not just love, but who also carries and embraces my passion. It is this love that brings forth hope to Easter and everyday life. Thus, I am able to see and experience my passion as moments of joy, peace and goodness.
On another page of Verdirosi’s book is a painting of Francis before the Crucified Jesus. The accompanying poem begins with “C’era una volta un uomo innamorata dell’amore”, in English “Once upon a time there was a man who fell in love with love itself”.
“Fell in love with love itself” is what Lent to Easter is. What conversion is. What the Passion and Cross of Jesus are. And what and who St Francis of Assisi and being a Franciscan are.
In the following of Francis’ spirituality, the challenge that is always before me and you is to discern what it means to embrace Jesus, his Passion and Cross. This will not be easy but we can do it if we are optimistic and hopeful.