The second most revered Franciscan saint is honored today by the universal Church with an obligatory memorial. St. Anthony of Padua, known to many for finding all things lost, was born in Portugal of a wealthy and noble family in 1195. He first became an Augustinian Monk and received an excellent theological education in Scripture and the writings of the Fathers. Baptized with the name Ferdinand, and ordained in the Augustinians, the young man was deeply moved by the generosity of the first Franciscan martyrs and asked to join the new community established by Francis of Assisi in order to be sent to preach to the Muslims. He did become a Franciscan and took the name of Anthony. He was not able to undertake the missionary work he longed for because of extreme ill health, but he did come to the attention of St. Francis who admired the balance of his academic skills and his holiness, so he was assigned to Padua to teach. It was as a preacher that he became most recognized, however. His profound appreciation of Scripture and openness to the power of the Spirit made him an exceedingly successful preacher as he influenced people of all walks of life to undergo deep conversion of life when they heard his sermons.
I grew up in a parish and attended a Catholic School, both named for St. Anthony of Padua. One younger brother was ordained a priest on Anthony’s day and another was married on that feast, so without a lot of deliberate intention, Anthony has been a significant actor in the background of my faith formation and family history, as is the case for many of us who grew up Catholic. It might be easy to romanticize Anthony, but a look at the details of his life makes him a highly real figure – even in our modern Church and world. I have always loved the fact that that he longed to be a missionary and preach the Good News to those in the Non-Christian world who knew the least about Christ, but ended up preaching to and bringing to conversion men and women, laity and clergy in the heart of the Christian world. He was most effective in stirring into flame devotion to Christ through the Scriptures for believers who had “drifted” into worshiping the false gods of 13th Century Europe. He particularly preached against violence, excessive wealth, and the oppressive use of political power – all scandalous behaviors of both Civil and Church authorities of the time – and he did so with a quality of compassion that won people to the faith rather than frightened them into compliance.
The wonderful preaching of Elijah described in the first reading is a perfect selection for the memorial of Anthony’s contribution to the Church. Elijah is seeking to win the hearts of the Israelites who had pledged fidelity to the LORD, but had gradually turned to giving honor to the Canaanite god, Baal, who was a storm god – one who was understood to favor the wealthy and the powerful. In every way, Baal symbolizes the failure of those who have committed themselves to the ways of YHWH but who have chosen to pursue violence, injustice and greed instead. In today’s reading Elijah sets up a kind of “contest” which appears to pit him alone against 450 prophets of Baal. Elijah is on the side of the real God, the LORD, so this is also a kind of cosmic contest between Baal and YHWH. From hindsight the outcome is easy to predict. The LORD is real and alive and Baal is a construct of human sin. All idolatry is essentially the worship of a false god – a false source of security. Elijah demonstrates that real security can be found only in the LORD.
The Gospel tells us that God’s work through the law and the prophets is not over, but has been brought to fulfillment in the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus is both the Revelation and the Fulfillment of YHWH’s plan, “hidden for generations past” as Paul has stated, but now disclosed for those with the eyes to see, ears to hear and the heart to act in faith on his Good News of salvation.
Anthony of Padua gave his 36 years of life to this revelation, spending his energy and resources to bringing others home to the genuine safety and security of the true God by his preaching and example – even as Elijah did. Perhaps the most important “lost” that Anthony finds for us is the faith we may have lost or left behind in our pursuit of acceptance, or recognition or false security. Paying attention to the message of either of these prophets provides a good place to “remain” on this early summer feast while we pray with the Psalmist: “Keep me safe, O God, you are my hope.” (Ps 16.1)
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