Today we are talking about one of the most disputed saints in history, a saint who for Italians is undoubtedly Saint Anthony of Padua. But be careful to say it here in Lisbon! Here is Saint Anthony of Lisbon. During my tours, I invite my tourists to do a little experiment: look for Santo Antonio on wikipedia. Try and you will see that, if in all languages it is Saint Anthony of Padua, in Portuguese it is Saint Anthony of Lisbon. But then, what is the truth?
He is one of the most loved saints in Christianity, yet Saint Anthony of Padua, as he is known today, has always carried with him this curious controversy linked to his name.
To be fair, it must be said that Antonio lived in Padua for just 3 years, the last of his adventurous life. Fernando Martins de Bulhões – this is his real name – was born into a wealthy family in 1195 in Lisbon; at the time the city had returned to Christianity from about 40 years, after Alfonso Henriques stole it from the Moors thus becoming the first king of Portugal. The father Martinho, a knight of the king, lived with his family in a house near the Lisbon Cathedral, where Fernando was baptized.
In 1210, at the age of just fifteen, he entered the Order of Augustinians at the Abbey of St. Vincent in Lisbon. After about 2 years he was transferred to the Convent of Santa Cruz in Coimbra, he remained there for about 8 years, during which he studied theology assiduously. In 1219 the beheaded bodies of 5 friars sent by Francis of Assisi to Morocco arrived at the convent with the task of converting Muslims. Fernando was so shocked by the incident that he decided to leave the Augustinians to join the Franciscan Order. He therefore chose to change his first name to Anthony, and to leave as a missionary himself.
Antonio embarked for Morocco in the autumn of 1220. However, upon arriving in Africa, he contracted a tropical fever that forced him to return to Europe. But on the return voyage towards the Iberian Peninsula, the ship encountered a fierce storm that diverted its course towards the Mediterranean.
The boat was wrecked in Sicily. Here, Antonio found refuge in the Franciscan convent of Messina, where he learned of the fact that in May of that year (1221) Francis had convened the elective and legislative assembly of the friars of the Order. After a long journey, Antonio arrived in Assisi where he personally met the future patron saint of Italy. Antonio received the order to preach and from there he left for a new conversion mission, this time to northern Italy, and at the end of 1224 he moved to southern France.
After spending 2 years in France, Antonio returned to Italy in 1226 when he learned of Francis’ death. His sermons began to be followed by fools of people, and they did not even stop when, he exhausted by the continuous travels and long fasts to which he underwent, he became ill enough to be forced to be carried in his arms to the pulpit. He died on June 13, 1231, at the age of 36.
Thanks to the fame he gained, from the day of the funeral his tomb became a pilgrimage destination for thousands of devotees who paraded in front of the sarcophagus day and night asking for graces and healings. So many miracles were attributed to his intercession that the Bishop of Padua “by popular acclaim” had to submit them to the judgment of Pope Gregory IX. In June 1232, exactly one year after his death, Antonio was named Saint with “53 approved miracles” and the denomination of Saint Anthony of Padua. That same year, construction work began on the Basilica intended to preserve the remains in the Venetian capital and which today receives millions of visitors every year.
And the Lisboets, your fellow citizens? They still have to be satisfied with a fragment of bone from the left arm, granted by the Paduan Franciscans and kept in the crypt of the humbler, but equally beautiful, Church of Santo António de Lisboa, which stands a few steps from the Cathedral in the exact place where, as the legend, there was the house of his parents.
On the other hand, the largest popular festival in the city is dedicated to the saint, the famous Night of St. Anthony which every year between 12 and 13 June (anniversary of his death) fills all the neighbourhoods with marches, songs, dances and the characteristic scent of sardines, grilled and eaten outdoors. But we will talk about this another time.