St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) has the unenviable position of being the Patron Saint of Lost Things. This means that he is chiefly remembered when other things are not, that many people know his name but little about him, and that myriad prayers are sent up to him by people with little or no attachment to the church at large, let alone the Church of Rome, whenever they misplace the car keys.
But who was St. Anthony? What did he do? Why should we care?
St. Anthony of Padua was noble-born in Lisbon, Portugal, and joined the Order of Austin Canons at a young age. However, inspired by the martyrdom of Franciscan missionaries in Morocco and joined the Friars Minor in 1220. He sailed to Africa to engage in missionary activity there, but was forced to return to Europe due to ill health. In 1221 he was present at the General Chapter of the Order of Friars Minor at Assisi (remember that St. Francis died in 1226).
St. Anthony became a lector in theology at Bologna, Montpellier, and Toulouse, but is best remembered as a preacher. In good Franciscan fashion, he drew crowds so large they couldn’t fit in churches. He preached in the marketplaces, targetting the evils of avarice and usury. Many heard the Gospel call on their lives through the preaching of St. Anthony and came to true faith in Christ and repentance from their old ways of living.
After a few years, St. Anthony moved to Padua, Italy. Here, rather than split his time between theology and preaching the Gospel, he devoted his entire time to preaching. He died at the young age of 36.
Wait. The Patron Saint of Lost Articles was an evangelist? He wasn’t a detective or something?
David Hugh Farmer, in The Oxford Dictionary of Saints believes he gained his patronage over Lost Things because a novice once borrowed his psalter without permission, then had “a fearful apparition” that drove him to return it.
Men like St. Anthony are a reminder to Protestants that the Middle Ages were not some godless vacuum full of “superstitions”. Such a view is entirely untenable. It is true that once being a Christian became fashionable after 312 and practically necessary after 381, the Church has always had a very large population of “pew-warmers.” She has, at the best of times, been aware of this. Thus the evangelists of the Middle Ages, men like St. Francis, St. Dominic, St. Cuthbert, and St. Anthony of Padua.
St. Anthony was part of the missionary enterprise both at home and abroad. He sought to bring the life-saving Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Muslims of Africa. When health issues sent him back to Europe, he devoted the rest of his life to bringing the Gospel to the masses, to the people of Europe who may not have truly heard the salvific story, many of whom had certainly not yet been convicted in their hearts.
He is worth honouring. So, the next time you lose something, think of St. Anthony of Padua. And then think of people you know to whom you could bring the life-bringing news of Jesus Christ. That is, no doubt, how he would best wish to be remembered.