//DRAWING CLOSE TO JESUS – Feast of St. Anthony of Padua

DRAWING CLOSE TO JESUS – Feast of St. Anthony of Padua

Having known your pastor, Father Keith, for well over 30 years now, having met him as a Freshman in college… at one point leaving the Chapel after Daily Mass and each of us thinking the other was definitely going to be a priest and praise God, we were both right… it’s hard to imagine any request he could make that I wouldn’t honor or respond to (or at least try to). But when he asked me to preach for one of your parish’s Patronal Feast Days – St. Anthony of Padua- on my side of the text message conversation, I must confess that I paused for a moment. Because the last time I talked about St. Anthony, I kind of got into trouble.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the FEAST OF ST. ANTHONY OF PADUA June 13, 2024 that I was honored to offer at the parish who claims him as their patronal feast in Easton PA.  I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim

It was after a Sunday Mass just about 2 years ago at one of my weekend assignments, Holy Family Church in Nutley, New Jersey, which happens to be an Italian National Parish, that my Great-Grandmother, when she immigrated from Calabria, had my Grandmother baptized. My other two Grandparents, who were from Sicily, had been parishioners there for most of their lives as well. Even decades removed, with a lot of different nationalities having come and truly made Holy Family Parish their home as well, its Italian roots are still very obvious. So when these two women came up and the one asked, “Father, where was Saint Anthony from” I was kind of thrown by the question – like were they thinking of some other Saint named Anthony or were they unclear about where exactly the city in the homeland that claims him is located so I kind of asked and said “Saint Anthony of Padua?” The one woman got this huge smile as if to say not only had I answered correctly but also proved her point as she looked at the other woman. Who, before another word was spoken, jumped in and asked, “Isn’t he also St. Anthony of Lisbon?”  Foolishly not reading the situation correctly and even considering the possibility that I wasn’t speaking to two fellow Italians, I just brushed that off, saying, “Oh, that’s just Portuguese Fake News.” OOOFA – Lady Number 2 was definitely not Italian and was very much Portuguese. Suffice it to say, I’m off that Christmas Card list and not getting any Malasada’s from her.

I honestly felt bad that I upset her that much – and was doing the same thing that she did, where I played into ethnic pride and made him more of a paisan than honoring him as a Saint.   This can happen with our devotion and our admiration of the Saints. Where we forget what made them a Saint and why we admired them in the first place. This happens a lot to St. Anthony, probably more than others. He can be relegated to someone we think about when we’ve lost something where we call out to him:  Dear St. Anthony, please come around. Something’s been lost and can’t be found. Some have expanded those intercessions to include asking for his aid in finding a parking space. Or he can be used as part of a marketing/sales campaign – one local bakery had a sign advertising they were selling “St. Anthony Bread.”

Both customs are tied to beautiful true stories from this beloved Saint. The notion of him being a “Patron saint of lost items” comes from when Anthony was a friar living in Bologna, a city in Italy. One of his few possessions at the time was a single volume book of the Bible containing all the Psalms.  Since this was years before the printing press had been invented, books were incredibly expensive, having to be hand-written. When one of the young novices felt he wasn’t called to be a friar anymore and decided to leave the community and return to his former life, he also took Anthony’s book of Psalms with him. When Anthony discovered that the book was missing, and knowing that as a friar who had taken a vow of poverty, it would be impossible for him to replace it on his own, he prayed to the Lord that it would be found. The story goes that not only was the thief moved to return the book, but he also returned to the Franciscans, eventually becoming a friar.

The custom of St. Anthony bread was even more elaborate. Years after Anthony had died and had already been canonized a Saint, construction on a Church to be built in his honor in Padua was being done. One day, near the construction site, a young boy fell into this massive barrel of water and drowned. Knowing how many miracles had been attributed to St. Anthony’s prayers during both his earthly and heavenly lives, the devastated and distraught mother called out to Anthony to pray for her son. If his life was restored, she promised to give a gift of corn to the poor equal to the amount her son weighed. When the child was restored, the overjoyed mother fulfilled her promise.  Which began this custom of memorializing blessings received in a tangible way and sharing them with others especially those in need took off.  Italians love bread, so it wasn’t long before that became a great way of continuing that tradition.

While both these customs and practices are some of the most common things associated with St. Anthony, there’s one thing in particular that I think is pivotal in understanding who St. Anthony was, what made him a Saint, and what he wants us to imitate. Which might also be one of the things that is least appreciated even though it’s depicted so often:  St. Anthony holding the Baby Jesus. This goes back to a miraculous incident toward the end of his short, young life as a Friar.   Anthony was preaching a Lenten mission in Padua, Italy. By this point in his life and ministry, his reputation as a holy, relatable priest had grown so much that he had to attend to pretty massive crowds, preaching, hearing confessions and counseling people. So, he needed a place to rest and recuperate away from the Church in Padua. A few miles away, a man named Count Tiso offered him lodging on his extensive property. The Count credited his returning to his Catholic faith after living a sinful and selfish life to hearing Anthony preach, so he felt honored that he could provide hospitality for him. The story goes that late one evening, Count Tiso observed what he thought was fire coming from Anthony’s rooms. He rushed into them only to discover what he thought was a fire was actually this transcendent light radiating a mystical experience that was taking place, where Count Tiso observed Anthony standing there holding the Christ child. Unsurprisingly, because of Anthony’s humility, he asked Count Tiso not to share details of this story while Anthony was alive. Count Tiso kept his promise, but soon after Anthony’s death, the story went, as we would say today, “viral.” Helping to endear this already beloved, prayerful, humble young man who died at the age of 35 and contributed to the crowds of faithful people clamoring for him to be canonized quickly, which he was. Only a year after his death, he was named “Saint Anthony.”

Why such a mystical, miraculous experience occurred is known to God alone. However, with some reflection, we can find some divine validation of some theories:  St. Anthony first heard the call to follow Jesus as a priest at age 15, when he entered the seminary and was ordained at age 19.   It wasn’t long after his ordination, that he asked to join the Franciscan Friars.  We can forget that when he joined, it wasn’t even called that since Francis of Assisi was still very much alive, and the Order of Friars Minor that he had founded was only 11 years into its missionary work. Unlike so many others who as they grow older can get a bit more tired and hardened – for these two men, Francis and Anthony, the more they prayed, the more they served, the more they learned about Jesus – the more youthful and idealistic.  They took to heart Jesus’ words in the Gospel and tried to radically conform their lives to His by taking His words seriously…  Whether it was hearing the call to give away all that they possessed in order to be free, available to go wherever the Lord wanted or needed them to go… or seeing Jesus in the faces of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned and attending to their temporal needs.

In the volumes that can be written about both of these men, ultimately, they both encountered Jesus Christ so profoundly and in the depths of their hearts and souls, the love of Him so possessed theirs that the only way they could respond to this gift was to share their love for Him, to share Him and His love for humanity.   Committed Christians, know that is best done when we make sacrifices and offer them to be united with Jesus’ offering of Himself on the Cross.   But in Francis and Anthony they highlight another way that discipleship is equally achieved:  By becoming “like little children.”

Because while we rightly look to the Cross—the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ—as the single greatest act of love from God of humanity.  We can’t forget that wasn’t the only one. Of the many things that Francis gifted the Church, he’s credited as the first to create a nativity scene where the Church found herself more intentionally contemplating the birth of Jesus Christ.   And by highlighting the Manger, the baby Jesus, we’re brought to contemplate another aspect of the wonder and mystery of God’s love in Jesus Christ.   The same Lord God who created creation – who is holiness so much so that our ancestors of the covenant, our Jewish brothers and sisters, couldn’t even utter His name, touch the Ark of the Covenant that contained the 10 commandments, and the one-time they’re at the bottom of Mt. Sinai when Moses is meeting God face to face and they simply see the Mountain with fire, smoke and thunder – it was so overwhelming to them they begged never to encounter God and simply have Moses speak to God and share what he said to them  – that all changes in Jesus Christ.    In Jesus – God draws near to us.  God becomes one of us, one with us… and tells us He wants us to draw near to Him, become one with Him.

By turning our gaze to the birth of Christ, we’re reminded that Jesus’ entire life was of emptying himself out, humbling himself, and sacrificing. And before we can be brave and courageous enough to imagine following Him to the Cross, we might have to back it up to earlier in Jesus’ life and following Him to the Manger.

And that’s what we see in a remarkable way with St. Anthony.  That’s what captured people’s attention and hearts over 8 centruies ago and speaks to us today. What made Anthony a Saint was how he did that, starting out as a young boy and entering the seminary. What made Anthony a Saint was that when the harshness of this world could be felt even among someone he considered a brother stealing from him he trusted that God would care, God would provide, God would bring healing and reconciliation and fulfillment in ways we could never conceive or imagine.  What made Anthony a Saint was his attention and care to those suffering and in need, not obsessing about why things were the way they were or worrying how he could help but seeing and attending to them with the little he had and finding how God would use him and his littleness to work miracles for people.

For us, it’s perfectly fine, and it’s probably a good thing that in moments when “something is lost that must be found,” instead of being frustrated and aggravated, we turn to prayer. I’ll be sure to be taking home and enjoying some of your St. Anthony’s bread. And whether you are Portuguese, Italian, or of any other nationality, the more important bond and link we share with Anthony is being brothers and sisters in Christ.   As we celebrate his life and witness, as we carry him in procession, even more importantly is for us to find ways of being open to the Holy Spirit and His promptings to follow Anthony’s example.  St. Anthony once said:  “Actions speak louder than words; Let your words teach and your actions speak.”

May this revered Saint pray for us to be men and women who in our words and actions demonstrate how we carry Jesus in our very lives and bring Him to the world.