Dear Friend of Saint Francis:
May the Lord give you Peace!
During the month of June, the universal church solemnly remembers the life of a friar whose popular devotion distracts our attention from what truly ought to be his enduring legacy. So accustomed are we to associate him with lost car keys, almsgiving and miraculous healing that we frequently lose sight of his awesome gift for preaching and holy theology.
According to the Catholic Forum website, Saint Anthony of Padua’s name is invoked against shipwrecks; against starvation; against starving; by American Indians; amputees; animals; asses; barrenness; boatmen; Brazil; diocese of Beaumont, Texas; domestic animals; elderly people; expectant mothers; faith in the Blessed Sacrament; Ferrazzano, Italy; fishermen; harvests; horses; Lisbon, Portugal; lost articles; lower animals; mail; mariners; diocese of Masbate, Philippines; oppressed people; Padua, Italy; paupers; poor people; Portugal; pregnant women; sailors; Sandia Indian Pueblo; seekers of lost articles; shipwrecks; starvation; starving people; sterility; swineherds; Tigua Indians; travel hostesses; travellers; and watermen. That’s Saint Anthony of popular reputation.
Saint Anthony of Padua – who was actually born Ferdinand of Lisbon – was also an awesome preacher. Evidently, he had a powerful gift for bringing the Gospel to life. For this reason, a tradition emerged by which he would be portrayed in art as holding a book of scriptures on which stood a childhood likeness of Jesus.
It was this quality that drew the attention of Saint Francis who would later name him the first theologian of the order. While Saint Anthony was attending an ordination of Franciscan and Dominican priests at Forli, it was discovered that no one had been appointed to preach. Most friars present were unwilling to preach without preparation. Saint Anthony accepted the invitation and astonished everyone not only with his zeal and eloquence, but also with his profound theological knowledge.
Saint Francis himself soon heard of his ability and named him teacher of theology. Two years before his death, Saint Francis wrote, “To Brother Anthony, Brother Francis sends his greetings. It is my pleasure that you teach theology to the brethren, provided, however, that as the Rule prescribes, the spirit of prayer and devotion may not be extinguished. Farewell.”
Saint Anthony was in fact the first theologian of the Order. Despite the caution to preserve prayer and devotion, this appointment does reveal the importance attached to study in the preparation of preachers when Saint Francis was still alive. In fact, it is precisely Saint Francis’ balanced concern for study and for prayer that is the subject of this month’s reflection on the spirituality of the poverello.
It is my pleasure that you teach theology…
(provided) the spirit of prayer…not be extinguished
– Saint Francis of Assisi
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It saddens me to hear people sometimes say that the Franciscan tradition lacks sound theological foundations. I have even heard it said that this spirituality is unsuited to intellectual pursuits and even that it is antithetic to learning.
If anything, Franciscan spirituality is – I believe – ideally suited to an authentic exploration of questions that arise from the most enigmatic mysteries of our faith. This is so because it begins with a prayerful humility that is, one the one hand, firmly grounded in the source of all truth and, on the other, confidently open to new and surprising insights. It is at once theoretical and practical; never esoteric but always incarnate. Because it is so well grounded, true Franciscan spirituality can always be hospitable to new possibilities.
In fact, the Franciscan legacy comprises centuries of theological exploration and insight that deserves more credit and ought to be more conspicuous. Even during the poverello’s lifetime, members of the rapidly growing order were attending, teaching and founding schools of theological study. In the first volume of a fascinating “Franciscan Heritage Series”, Kenan Osborne OFM writes, “After the first Franciscan students began to attend the major universities in Europe around 1219, their Franciscan spirituality impressed several key diocesan professors of theology, particularly at the universities of Paris and Oxford. Theological insights gradually interfaced with the distinctive Franciscan spirituality and this development became what we today call the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition.”
A marvelous series of symposium papers has been published in recent years by the Commission on the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition (English-speaking Conference of the OFM). The three volumes available to date celebrate the richness of the Franciscan theological legacy.
Within the Franciscan tradition run two streams that sometimes diverge from one another, but more frequently converge, namely intellectual and evangelical currents. Saint Anthony is a good example of someone who understood the relationship between these and blended these in engaging but simple terms. It may be for this reason that we tend to undervalue the theological content of his sermons. Their integration is perhaps better appreciating in the work of Saint Bonaventure.
Seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of will,
not in understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research.
– Saint Bonaventure, Journey of the Mind to God
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Among Franciscan theologians, Saint Anthony’s is never the name that first springs to mind. Often, we think of Alexander of Hales, Saint Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, or William of Ockham, or even more contemporary people. While these learned men did make remarkable contributions to the advancement of theological reflection, a lack of scholarly works is not sufficient reason to dismiss Saint Anthony as a significant theologian.
Jesus said that we must judge a tree by its fruit. Judging by this standard, some eminent theologians have borne bitter, worm-infested fruit (none of them Franciscan of course!), whereas some – like Saint Anthony – have in all simplicity borne aromatic blossoms and nutritious fruit.
While devotion to Saint Anthony is widespread, much of it is relates to his compassion for the poor. Last month I remarked on the tradition known as Satin Anthony’s Bread. Numerous books have highlighted his kindness and dedication to the Gospel life, but little appears about him as a theologian per se. I take the liberty here of quoting one author who does note a few useful observations about Saint Anthony’s theology.
To take some measure of this first teacher one should be aware of his Augustinian background. It is known that his teachers in Portugal were themselves trained in Paris at the Augustinian school of St. Victor. Furthermore, it is known that Anthony had personal contact with Victorine theology in Italy through his friendship with Thomas Gallus.
An even better measure of Anthony, the theologian, can be taken from his writings. These have the form of model sermons. From them we can learn about his thought and something about his preaching style.
– George Marcil, “The Franciscan School” in The History of Franciscan Theology
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Theo-logy (Greek: God-meaning) concerns the study of God’s nature and relationship to us. The object of theological investigation cannot be grasped by the intellect alone. Consequently, it should be evident that speculation and debate are necessary but inadequate tools. Prayer is also essential.
It is sometimes said that true theology is done on our knees. It is also said that all saints are theologians but not all theologians are saints. I think Saint Anthony would have agreed. Though Franciscan theology is neither well known nor understood, it is generally appreciated for its focus on Gospel living. Christ is the alpha and the omega of our intellectual heritage.
As I sit at my computer writing this reflection, I compare theological study to the knowledge and skill that I need to use the hardware and software associated with this amazingly effective and efficient communications technology. But I also compare prayer to the simple fact that all of this knowledge and skill is useless if the machine is not plugged into the power socket on the wall. To paraphrase a familiar adage: I pray that I might understand.
Saint Anthony lived from 1195 to 1231. This year, we mark sixty years since the first Franciscan teacher of theology was declared Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XII.
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May the Lord bless you with wisdom as you pray and study to know him more clearly, to love him more dearly and to serve him more nearly. May he fill your heart with peace and joy. And may he fill your life with abundant grace.
crib and cross
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