June 2010 – Beautiful Lives VI

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

June 2010

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

In September of 1222, a group of Dominicans and Franciscans were gathered together at the cathedral in Forlì, near Bologna, in the north-central region of Emilie-Romagna, for the ordination of members of their community. For some reason, no one had been chosen beforehand to preach. Saint Anthony was asked to do so once the others had declined. He accepted in obedience. As his sermon progressed in articulate Latin, the words became more and more entrancing, and showed profound knowledge of the Gospel.

Saint Anthony had begun his religious life as an Augustinian Friar in his native Portugal. When he witnessed the return of the first Franciscan friars from Morocco, he decided to join the ranks of the new order. As an Augustinian priest, he had received rigorous training in theology.

After the revelation of his abilities at Forlì, his superiors asked him to preach in the other towns and villages of the Italian region. Romagna was troubled by civil war. As well, heretical groups were attracting more and more followers. One group promoted fierce anti-clericalism and a form of dualism that divided the world into matter, which it viewed as intrinsically evil, and mind or spirit, which it understood as being intrinsically good. This belief runs contrary to Christian doctrine as it flies in the face of teaching regarding the Incarnation.

As a result, such groups cut themselves off from society in order to avoid contamination from worldly people. In a way, they were moved by the same intuition as Saint Francis of Assisi to reject property and take up the ascetic life. But unlike them, Saint Francis and Saint Anthony were passionately faithful to the clergy, and they argued that there is much good in the physical world and that there exists a degree of evil in the mind. Saint Anthony spoke persuasively and effectively about Catholic orthodoxy.

I recently read an interesting doctoral dissertation that shows the many theological, spiritual and historical influences that bore upon his thought and preaching style. Among these were Saint Augustine, Saint Gregory, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and Hugh St. Victor. As varied as these influences were, however, his heart no less Franciscan.

The author concludes,

“Beyond the particular theological issues he discusses, Antony reveals himself as a passionate critic of abuse in the Church, yet always animated by a spirit of charity and kindness. He shows a real affection for the ‘dear brothers’ to whom the work is offered, and an enthusiasm both for Biblical study and for the Book of Nature which also reveals God.”

In all these ways, Saint Anthony was a worthy son of the poverello.

I warn and exhort the friars that in preaching that they do their expressions be considered and chaste for the sake of utility and edification of the people by announcing to them vices and virtues, punishment and glory, with brevity of speech, since a brief word did the Lord speak upon the earth.

Saint Francis, The Rule of 1223, Chapter IX

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The role of Saint Anthony as preacher cannot be separated from that of teacher. Toward the end of the year 1223, Saint Anthony was invited to teach theology in the city of Bologna. From the age of 28 to 30, he taught the fundamentals of the Catholic faith to clergy and laypeople using a simple but efficient method: He first read a sacred text and then interpreted it in an engaging way. He was, in fact, the first teacher of theology of the newly established Franciscan Order—the first link in a chain of theologians, preachers and writers, who over the centuries have brought honour to the Church.

At the beginning, Saint Francis was hesitant about his brother friars dedicating themselves to the study of theology. It seems that Saint Francis’ initial hesitation regarding the study of theology reflected the mistrust that often existed between the learned and the unlearned of his day. Saint Francis never wanted his brother friars to forget humility. But given Saint Anthony’s solid foundation in doctrine and his moral integrity, an exception was made.

The authenticity of the following letter sent to him by Saint Francis is now widely accepted by scholars. It reads, “To brother Anthony, my bishop, I wish you health. I approve of your teaching theology to the brothers, provided that, on account of this study, you do not diminish the spirit of holy prayer and devotion, as is ordained in the Rule. Be well.”

One might wonder what would a theology, or for that matter, a homiletics lesson with Saint Anthony have been like? According to the methods of the time, which he followed, allegory played an important role in explaining doctrine, as did constant references to the Bible. This style encouraged clarity, simplicity, a concern to be persuasive and practical, and involvement of the rational and emotional aspect of the human person. The objective was to persuade the listener to apply biblical dictates in daily life.

Among his contemporaries and in the generations immediately afterwards, Saint Anthony was held to be an unequalled biblical scholar. One historian says that Saint Anthony possessed such eminent knowledge that he was able to use his memory instead of books, and he knew how to express himself with abundant grace in mystical language.

The Roman Curia welcomed Saint Anthony to preach to them, and afterwards Pope Gregory IX complemented him by calling him “the Ark of the Testament.” In 1931, the seven-hundredth anniversary of St. Anthony’s death, the Congregation of Rites discussed his preaching and teaching. They declared, “The cult of Doctor, attributed for centuries to Saint Anthony of Padua, is to be confirmed and extended into in the liturgical office of the universal Church.”

Pope Pius XII had the honour of affirming this title on January 16, 1946, with the Apostolic Letter ‘Rejoice, happy Portugal.’ Indeed, Saint Anthony remains for us today a model of zealous preaching of the Gospel. He is “doctor evangelicus.” His use of various techniques did not deter him from the Gospel but rather reinforced his mission.

The employment of `concordances’ enables Antony to build a fuller treatment of a topic than the often slender Gospel foundation would allow by itself.

SRP Spilsbury, The Concordance of Scripture: The Homiletic and Exegetical Methods of St. Antony of Padua

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There are countless books written about preaching in the Catholic tradition. One in particular, by Capuchin author Richard Hart leaves no doubt about the qualities that are essential to effective homiletics by the very titles given to chapters: homily preparation is non-negotiable, becoming a pray-er, lighting a fire, creativity, good imagery, simple language, illustrations, storytelling, persuasion, humour, the preacher as prophet, biblical preaching and the Gospel well proclaimed.

One of my preferred authorities on preaching is Walter Burghardt SJ. He confesses that the influences on his preaching come from a range of sources as eclectic as the Fathers of the Church, John Henry Newman and a handful of contemporary protestant preachers, particularly Frederick Buechner and Joseph Sittler.

Like Hart, Burghardt emphasized the necessity of sound and evocative imagery. I think that this makes the difference between a message that appeals to the heart or to the mind (or neither), and one that appeals to both. The mind demands that the image be sound; the heart needs it to be evocative. The combination spells effectiveness: a lasting impression that motivates action. This is, for me, the test of a good homily. Is it both informational and inspirational? Have I learned something and will my acceptance of the message cause conversion?

Effective preaching is costly because it costs me my life: my mind, my sprit, my flesh and blood.

Walter Burghardt, Preaching: The Art and The Craft

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May God open your heart and mind to the word of God proclaimed and explained by people of prayer. May you be a channel of its light and hope. May sharing the Good News bring you peace and joy.

Fraternally in joy and hope


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