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.