Although though he was a native of Lisbon, Antony derived his surname from the Italian city of Padua, where his mature years were passed and where his relics are still venerated in the basilica, Il Santo. He was born in 1195 of a noble Portuguese family, and was baptized Ferdinand. His parents sent him to be educated by the clergy of the cathedral of Lisbon. At the age of fifteen he joined the canons regular of St. Augustine, and at seventeen, in order to have more seclusion, asked for and obtained leave to transfer to the priory of St. Cross, of the same order, at Coimbra, then the capital of Portugal. There, for a period of eight years, he devoted himself to study and prayer. With the help of a remarkable memory he acquired a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures.
In the year 1220, Don Pedro, crown prince of Portugal, brought back from Morocco the relics of some Franciscan missionaries who had recently suffered martyrdom. The young student conceived an ardent desire to die for his faith, a hope he had little chance of realizing while he lived in a monastic enclosure. He spoke of this to some mendicant Franciscans who came to St. Cross, and was encouraged by them to apply for admission to their order. Although he met with some obstacles, he at length obtained his release and received the Franciscan habit in the chapel of St. Antony of Olivares, near Coimbra, early in 1221. He changed his name to Antony in honor of St. Antony of Egypt, to whom this chapel was dedicated.
Almost at once he was permitted to embark for Morocco on a mission to preach Christianity to the Moors. He had scarcely arrived when he was prostrated by a severe illness, which obliged him to return to Europe. The ship in which he sailed for home was driven out of its course by contrary winds and he found himself landed at Messina, Sicily. From there he made his way to Assisi, where, he had learned from his Sicilian brethren, a chapter general was about to be held. It was the great gathering of 1221, the last chapter, as it proved, open to all members of the order, and presided over by Brother Elias, the new vicar-general, with the saintly Francis seated at his feet. The whole spectacle seems to have deeply impressed the young Portuguese friar.
At the close of the proceedings the friars set out for the posts assigned to them by their respective provincial ministers. In the absence of any Portuguese provincial, Antony was allowed to attach himself to Brother Gratian, the provincial of Romagna, who sent him to the lonely hermitage of San Paolo, near Forli, either at his own request, that he might live for a time in retirement, or as chaplain to the lay friars of the community. We do not know whether Antony was already a priest at the time. What is certain is that no one then suspected the brilliant intellectual gifts latent in the sickly young brother. When he was not praying in the chapel or in a little grotto, he was serving the other friars by washing their cooking pots and dishes after the common meal.
His talents were not to remain hidden long. It happened that an ordination service of both Franciscans and Dominicans was to be held at Forli, on which occasion all the candidates for consecration were to be entertained at the Franciscan Convent there. Through some misunderstanding, not one of the Dominicans had come prepared to deliver the expected address at the ceremony and no one among the Franciscans seemed ready to fill the breach. Antony, who was present, perhaps in attendance on his superior, was told by him to go forward and speak whatever the Holy Ghost put into his mouth. Diffidently, he obeyed. Once having begun he delivered an address which astonished all who heard it by its eloquence, fervor, and learning. Brother Gratian promptly sent the brilliant young friar out to preach in the cities of the province. As a preacher Antony was an immediate success. He proved particularly effective in converting heretics, of whom there were many in northern Italy. They were often men of education and open to conviction by Antony's keen and resourceful methods of argument.
In addition to his work as an itinerant preacher, he was appointed reader in theology to the Franciscans, the first to fill such a post. In a letter, generally considered authentic, and characteristically guarded in its approval of book learning, Francis himself confirmed the appointment. "To my dearest brother Antony, brother Francis sends greetings in Jesus Christ. I am well pleased that you should read sacred theology to the friars, provided that such study does not quench the spirit of holy prayer and devotion according to our rule."
Antony spent two years in northern Italy, after which he taught theology in the universities of Montpellier and Toulouse and held the offices of guardian or prior of a monastery at Puy and of custodian at Limoges. For his ability in formulating arguments against the heresies of the Albigensians, he became widely known under the sobriquet of "Hammer of Heretics." It became more and more plain that his career lay in the pulpit. Antony had not Francis' sweetness and simplicity, and he was no poet, but he had learning, eloquence, marked powers of logical analysis and reasoning, a burning zeal for souls, a magnetic personality, and a sonorous voice that carried far. The mere sight of him sometimes brought sinners to their knees, for he appeared to radiate spiritual force. Crowds flocked to hear him, and hardened criminals, careless Catholics, heretics, all alike were converted and brought to Confession. Men locked up their shops and offices to go and attend his sermons; women rose early or stayed overnight in church to secure their places. When churches could not hold the congregations, he preached to them in public squares and market places.
In 1226, shortly after the death of St. Francis, Antony was recalled to Italy, apparently to become a provincial minister. It is not clear what his attitude was towards the dissensions which were rising everywhere in the order over the nature of the obedience to be paid to the rule and testament of Francis. Antony, it seems, acted as envoy from the discordant chapter general of 1226 to the innovating Pope Gregory IX, to lay before him the various conflicts that had arisen. On that same occasion he obtained from Gregory his release from office-holding, so that he might devote himself to preaching. The Pope had a high respect for him, and because of his extraordinary familiarity with the Scriptures once called him "the Ark of the Testament."
Thereafter Antony made his home in Padua, a city which he already knew and where he was highly revered. There, more than anywhere else, he could see the results of his ministry. Not only were his sermons listened to by enormous congregations, but they led to a widespread reformation of morals and conduct in the city. Long standing quarrels were amicably settled, hopeless prisoners were liberated, owners of ill-gotten goods made restitution, often in public at Antony's feet. In the name of the poor he denounced the prevailing vice of extortionate usury and induced the city magistrates to pass a law exempting from prison debtors willing to surrender all their possessions to satisfy their creditors. He is said to have ventured boldly into the presence of the truculent and dangerous Duke Eccelino III, the Emperor's son-in-law, to plead for the liberation of some citizens of Verona whom the duke was holding captive. The attempt was unsuccessful, but due to the respect he inspired he was listened to with tolerance and allowed to depart unmolested.
In the spring of 1231, after preaching a powerful course of sermons, Antony's strength gave out and he retired with two of the brothers to a woodland retreat. It was soon clear that his days were numbered, and he asked to be taken back to Padua. He never got beyond the outskirts of the city. On June 13, in the apartment reserved for the chaplain of the sisterhood of Poor Clares of Arcella, he received the last rites and died. He was only in his thirty-sixth year. Within a year of his death he was canonized, and the Paduans have always regarded his relics as their most precious possession. They built a basilica to their saint in 1263.
The innumerable benefits he has won for those who prayed at his altars have obtained for Antony the name of the "Wonder-working Saint." Since the seventeenth century he has often been painted with the Infant Saviour on his arm because of a late legend to the effect that once, when stopping with a friend, his host, glancing through a window, had a glimpse of him gazing with rapture on the Holy Child, whom he was holding in his arms. In the earlier portraits he usually carries a book, symbolic of his knowledge of the Bible, or a lily. Occasionally he is accompanied by a mule which, legend says, fell on its knees before the Sacrament when upheld in the hands of the saint, and by so doing converted its heretical owner to a belief in the Real Presence. Antony is the special patron of barren and pregnant women, of the poor, and of travelers; alms given to obtain his intercession are called "St. Antony's Bread." How he came to be invoked, as he now is, as the finder of lost articles has not been satisfactorily explained. The only story that bears on the subject at all is contained in the so called Chronicles of the Twenty-four Generals, number 21. A novice ran away from his monastery carrying with him a valuable psalter which Antony had been using. He prayed for its recovery and the novice was frightened by a startling apparition into bringing it back.
From "Lives of Saints," published by John J. Crawley.