In Imitation of Christ, we read, "Every time I have been among men, I have returned less a man." St. Anthony did not return a lesser man, when he left the company of men; on the contrary, he said, he became a better man through all those, he loved. It is true, if you place your faith in man, it can break you. If instead, you place the Face of Jesus upon the face of man, seeing Jesus, like St. Thomas Aquinas, you will say, "I am doing it all for You, Lord." Then loving the Jesus you see in him, like St. Anthony, you will become a better man, transformed by that love.
Anthony Preaches to the hard heartedAnthony was called back to Italy. She was being contaminated by her invaders. Originally, these mercenaries came into this land of love and faith, by the invitation of the Italians themselves. These murderers-for-hire, were supposed to attack, or defend them from their fellow Italians. Instead, the blood shed, was not only that of Italian bodies, but of Italian souls. If you sleep with the snakes, you soon get bitten; and so, the venom of the hired soon poisoned those, who had hired them. The Italians not only took on the coldness of the killers, losing their renowned warmth and friendliness, but they lost their precious belief in the Faith. They began to adopt the customs of these new friends, and their lies. And so, heresy spread like a fire out of control throughout this once terra firma of the Seat of the Catholic Church. This land of Saints was fast becoming a stinking swamp of sinners. Was this why Anthony had to travel thousands of miles from home and dreams, to be ship-wrecked on these shores?
St. Anthony was thrust into the midst of battle, waging war against heretics and their malignant growth among the innocent, and often gullible, faithful. He took this mission of preaching very seriously:
"It behooves a preacher to lead on earth a heavenly life, in keeping with the truths he is charged to announce to the people."
St. Anthony not only preached; he lived what he preached. One day, he asked a brother Franciscan to accompany him, as he set out, to share the Gospel in the neighboring towns. Later, returning home, his companion asked St. Anthony why he had not preached. "But," St. Anthony replied, "we have preached." He told his companion, it was their love of the Savior, their humility, and their dedication to the Truth that was the living sermon. For, all who had seen them, experienced Jesus alive in them.
Everywhere St. Anthony went, he drew crowds. Not only did he speak with authority and simplicity, but when he appeared, with all that love shining through his eyes, the faithful would rush toward him. They wanted to get close to him, to touch him, to kiss the hem of his habit or the crucifix on his rosary. This had to be a martyrdom of its own. Like Francis before him, Anthony knew and taught that he is nothing: Jesus is all, and Who they love is not him, but the Jesus that shines out of his otherwise lifeless body.
People have been searching for Jesus since the beginning of time. When we see someone, like Anthony, who so closely resembles Him, we are drawn and hopefully converted. This was the sign! People, after hearing him talk, returned to the Sacraments; reconciliation came about between states, neighbors and families; restitution was made by those who had taken unfair advantage of others; women and men, who had turned to a life of vice and sin, repented and started to live faithfully the life, to which Jesus had called them.
St. Anthony and the Miracle of the Eucharist
He was called back to Italy to fight heretics, but again God, writing straight with crooked lines, had another plan as well...Prove to them, I am with them to the end of time.
He went to Rimini, on the Adriatic Sea, to the southeast of Padua. He was not faring successfully there. The heretics made fun of him, and when he spoke of the Eucharist, they became hysterical, ridiculing him.
St. Anthony was known for his sharp temper. When the heretics poked fun at him while he spoke at the port of Rimini, he turned towards the sea, and spoke to the fish. The fish, for their part, raised their bodies out of the water, and perched, as it were, on top of the water, listening to the homily given by St. Anthony. When he was finished, St. Anthony blessed the fish, at which point they returned to the sea.
The enemies of the Church, on seeing this, were completely overwhelmed. Word spread throughout the town, and heretics by the droves were converted. But there was one man, Bonvillo, by name, who wasn't impressed with St. Anthony's persuasive ways. He said to him, "You, who hold fish spellbound, let's see if you can do the same to my mule." A challenge was made. The heretic would starve his mule for three days. At the end of that time, St. Anthony would stand on one end of the square, holding the Eucharist, and Bonvillo on the other, with a pail of the animal's favorite fodder. If the mule went to St. Anthony first, the heretic would stop persecuting Catholics.
The beast was starved for three days. St. Anthony fasted and prayed for three days. On the third day, St. Anthony celebrated Mass at the local church. After the Mass, he took a consecrated Host with him out into the square. The square was packed with heretics on one side, and those who had been converted on the other. Bonvillo, the heretic, had his mule by his side. He tempted the animal with the pail of fodder that was to be the bait. At the given time, St. Anthony went to one corner of the square, with the Eucharist in his hand. The heretic went off to the other side, with the pail of delicious smelling food in his hands. He tried to lure the mule with the food.
St. Anthony gave the animal a little sermon. He said, "Creature of God, in His name, I command you to come here to adore Him, so that it will give truth to all, of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist."
The mule ignored his owner and the food, and went instead over to where St. Anthony held the Body of Christ. He knelt down on both legs, and lowered his head in reverence. When all were convinced that the Lord had won out over the heretic, St. Anthony blessed the mule, who then got up, and proceeded to eat all the fodder in the pail.
The heretic Bonvillo followed the example of his mule. He went down on his knees, head bowed to the ground, in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. He was converted back to the faith. Before St. Anthony left Rimini, he had converted all the heretics in that region. He was given the title Hammer of the Heretics. It's not known for sure if it was given him as a result of the conversions in Rimini, or simply because he had the reputation of beating down his opponents into conversion. Poor St. Anthony! For such a brilliant man, and fervent defender of the faith, he is given the strangest titles. There is a shrine in Rimini, in honor of the Eucharistic Miracle of St. Anthony and the Donkey.
When preaching to heretics, St. Anthony always presented the Word of Christ in the fullness of the Catholic Church. As God is positive, he taught positively; as Jesus was gentle, Anthony spoke gently. The only time he was known to stray from this course, was when he defended the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. In one of his homilies, he firmly said,
"Upon the Altar there takes place the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. That Body which the Virgin begot, which hung upon the Cross and was placed in the sepulchre, which rose again the third day, and ascended to the right Hand of the Father, this Body the Church today and everyday presents and distributes to her faithful.
When the priest speaks the words: This is My Body, the essence of the bread is changed into the Body of Christ."
His courageous and uncompromising defense of the True Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, to the heretics, has given birth to some of the very documents and teachings, used in Seminaries for almost eight hundred years, affirming and reaffirming the Heart of the Church, our Lord Alive in our midst, to our future priests, the shepherds that will lead us to the Father. This humble man, defender of the Faith, who never lost his gift of true humility, once hidden in a kitchen "amongst the pots and pans," earned the honored and respected title of Doctor of the Church, possibly more for this defense of His Lord and Savior in the Holy Eucharist than for any of his other discourses on the Faith.
St. Francis dies and Anthony is called back to Assisi
Arriving in Assisi, St. Anthony made his first stop at the tomb of St. Francis. As he prayed, mourning the loss of his Seraphic Father, Anthony could already feel the pain, the whole Order would suffer, as they became divided, brother against brother, some for keeping the Rule as left by Francis, and others for radically modifying it. Our Saint was thrust into the midst of this struggle that had to make the Angels weep. Although there were those, who would have split the Order in two, with dissension, Anthony was, like Francis before him, the peacemaker. He called for reconciliation and unity, while pleading to the friars to remain true to the Rule and dream of their Seraphic Father.
Elections were held. The little band, which had followed the "poor one," had grown into thousands; organization was needed, with headship. Little known six years before, St. Anthony was nominated Minister Provincial of Emilia (northern part of Italy). The preaching that had taken him out of comfortable obscurity, had led many to convert and return to Mother Church. Through his example of Saintly life, his work spreading the Order, and his defense of the Faith, he had inspired multitudes to lay down their lives for the Gospel. Now, he was being called to lead young friars to a deeper commitment of mind, heart and soul to this radical life of Francis, as Minister Provincial!
As he was famous and highly respected, he was also, humble and considerate, more a companion to the friars than a Superior. He asked them to consider him one of them, to regard him as a servant, available to them at all times. Following the example of Christ, Anthony would wash the feet of his friars. He loved to go into the kitchen, in each of the Friaries, and help the brothers clean and cook. He wrote,
"A Superior ought to be loved, rather than feared. Love makes bitter things sweet and heavy things light; fear makes even easy things, burdensome."
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