Saint Anthony: The wonder worker | Sunday Observer

Saint Anthony: The wonder worker

7 June, 2020

One of Sri Lanka’s great marvels is its spiritual magnitude due to a multi-denominational society in which all four major religions intermingle. The foremost holy shrine that manifests this intensity is the St. Anthony’s Catholic Shrine in Colombo, a National Shrine and Minor Basilica. The Shrine at Kochchikade, stands amidst the hustle and bustle of the city, very close to the Port of Colombo.

For generations, Sri Lankans of all walks of life, from all corners of the country have thronged here to invoke blessings. St. Anthony is truly a universal Saint, respected and glorified. In 1995, the shrine miraculously attracted Pope John Paul II. In 2010, the shrine was blessed with holy relics of the Saint from the Basilica of Padua to mark its 175th anniversary.

In the liturgical calendar, the feast of St. Anthony is celebrated on June 13. Among the many saints of the church there is scarcely anyone so honoured and so popular. As his great client, Pope Leo XIII acclaimed: “St. Anthony is not only the Saint of Padua but in truth the Saint of the Whole World”. One has to only visit the hallowed shrine on any Tuesday of the year, and see the thousands who flock to pray, to ask for his help in some anxiety, to ask him to fulfill promises or to thank him for the favours granted for their requests and to show their love and respect.

St. Anthony has fascinated people all over the world for many reasons. St. Anthony’s life was a kaleidoscope of unexpected about-turns -from knight to monk; from a quiet life of study to the expedition to the lands; from the hermit’s secluded lifestyle to that of the demanding career of popular preacher.  His earthly voyage was thus, not always a triumphal procession. And when he achieved success, he paid for it. Good cannot be done without suffering for it; sin and sinners cannot be challenged without reprisal of any kind.

Martyrdom on Easter Sunday

St. Anthony’s Shrine is so much more than a place of worship. It is a symbol of Sri Lanka’s plurality and tolerance. A reminder that in a country, still bruised by the memories of a brutal civil war and inter-religious violence, its diverse communities have traditionally lived together peacefully and embraced each other’s beliefs and differences. In its darkest hour, the church continued to be a symbol of hope – with many Sri Lankans expressing sadness and horror and others choosing to stand together despite the hatred that had unfolded among them. 

St. Anthony is the Patron Saint of sailors, fishermen, travellers, the elderly, the oppressed, pregnant women, harvests, horses, and swineherds; but most importantly seekers of things lost. All through his life, he restored to people things they had lost: for some it was their health, for others their hope, for still others, their virtue and for many, their faith. His goodness and the power of his intercession have made people from many different religions turn to him seeking help, comfort and encouragement to face the vicissitudes of life.

The 56 victims of the massacre on April 21, 2019, within St. Anthony’s Shrine included Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims from across Sri Lanka. They gathered to the dear and near church for the Easter Sunday Holy Mass.  Though, without intentionally seeking death, they gave their lives, bearing witness with extraordinary fortitude in testimony of Jesus Christ to enter the Martyrdom – the Supreme witness given to the truth of the faith. Their names are etched in a Special Monument at the shrine as enduring and notable evidence in their memory. 

The birth and growth of the Sri Lanka Navy took place in the land behind the shrine since 1938. The bond between the Navy and the Saint was so strong that for 80 long years, the sailors coordinated the ‘Procession of the Miraculous Statue’ with great devotion. It so happened that Catholics in the Navy always found time to offer a prayer, light a candle and grace holy masses at St. Anthony’s. These rich customs and traditions inspired a young Naval Officer to seek special approval from his Commanding Officer to fulfill his Easter Sunday obligations whilst his ship, SLCG ‘Suraksha’ awaited under sailing orders in the Port of Colombo. Amongst those who laid down their lives to God was Lieutenant Commander (S) Sugath Silva, perhaps the first Naval Officer to earn Martyrdom!   

Aftermath of the tragedy

Sri Lankans were in a state of shock and confusion, after the Easter Sunday carnage that unleashed a wave of coordinated suicide bombings on three churches in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa and three hotels in Colombo that left over 250 dead and about 500 injured – the worst since the end of the humanitarian operations in 2009 and the ruthlessness of the atrocities stunned the nation anew.

The heroic leadership of the Cardinal Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith at this decisive moment set an example to the whole world. His determined efforts to spiritually strengthen the affected families utilising hundreds of the religious to attend to their needs enabled the faithful to respond positively and bounce back to normalcy. The courageous contributions made by the Administrator, Rev. Fr. Jude Raj Fernando to address the needs of the pilgrims were remarkable. The commitment made by the Sri Lanka Navy to restore the Shrine back to its renaissance architectural grandeur was commendable. 

Name Fernando  at baptism

St. Anthony was born in Lisbon, Portugal on August 15, the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady possibly in 1195. The child was given the name Fernando at baptism, a name of Visigoth origin, common in the Iberian Peninsula. And with his mother’s milk, Fernando imbibed the first elements of the Christian creed, learning the names of Jesus and Mary in prayer with his mother and father. It seems likely that Fernando, heir to an illustrious name, would have been encouraged by his father to join other young men of his class and train in the skills of warfare in a ‘military academy’ to become a knight and commander of men.

The Saint clung to this name, which translates roughly as ‘bold in peace’ for the rest of his life. His father, Martin De Bouillon and his mother, Teresa De Tavera were well known for their piety and generosity. When baby Fernando’s cries first resounded through the house, they were in the prime of their youth and the little pink and white bundle was their first child. He was educated by the clergy at the Bishops’ School in the Lisbon Cathedral and joined the Augustinians at the age of 15. He moved to the Priory of the Holy Cross at Coimbra, and spent eight years studying and meditating, acquiring a deep knowledge of the Bible.

Saint and life at sea

The course of his life was changed when the king of Portugal brought relics of Franciscan missionaries martyred in Morocco. Anthony longed to be a missionary and perhaps a martyr but the Augustinians were not a missionary order, and he asked to be released from his vows to them so that he could join the Franciscans. This was arranged, and he sailed for Morocco to preach, but he soon became seriously ill. And so Anthony said farewell to Africa and set sail to Portugal. His ship encountered a terrible storm which blew it off course and forced it ashore  at Sicily.

He made contact with the Franciscans in Messina, who told him that a general chapter of the Order, open to all its members, was about to be held in Assisi. Here he met St. Francis of Assisi, who impressed him deeply with his humility, and was then sent to a hermitage, where he carried out menial tasks and devoted himself to prayer. No one seems to have appreciated his learning and preaching powers, perhaps he was too humble to demonstrate them, or the early Franciscans tended not to value erudition. The Provincial of Bologna sent him to a small hermitage in Montepaolo where at last he found the peace which he had sought for so long.

Flood of divine eloquence

An ordination service for both Franciscans and Dominicans was held in the city of Forli. The Dominicans expected a Franciscan to preach, as they were the hosts; the Franciscans assumed a Dominican would, as they were the Order of Preachers. Anthony was asked to preach and he delivered a sermon that became ‘a flood of divine eloquence’ and astonished all who heard it. He was removed from his retreat and sent to preach all over Lombardy. He drew such crowds that the churches were not big enough, and he preached to thousands gathered in town squares, moving sinners and criminals to repentance with his charisma and the power of his words.

Light in the darkness

Once, Anthony had travelled to the city of Rimini because it was a hotbed of heresy. The leaders had ordered everyone to ignore him, so no one turned up for his homilies. Anthony walked along praying and reflecting upon what had happened. As he came to the Marecchia River where it flows into the Adriatic, he called out, “You, fish of the river and the sea, listen to the Word of God because the heretics do not wish to hear it.” Suddenly, there were thousands of fish neatly arranged in rows, all pushing their heads through the surface of the water as if they were straining to listen to every one of Anthony’s words. The people, seeing this miracle, gathered to listen to him, abandoning their hardened positions and returned to the Church.

Defender of the oppressed

Anthony always defended those who were powerless and incapable of defending themselves. He proclaimed the dignity of every person. He did this not only while he was preaching to the crowds, but also when he stood before those who were known to be cruel tyrants. One of his contemporaries wrote, “Anthony, who had so avidly desired to die a martyr, did not give in to anyone, even if it might cost him his life; with enormous courage he resisted the tyranny of the mighty. He stood up to certain powerful figures so firmly that other preachers, even the most famous, trembled before his resolution and were smitten with fear.”

Far from closing himself behind the safe and tranquil walls of an abbey library as he had in his earlier years, Anthony now bore witness to the truth in the corridors of power and in all places of his world. He proved that the Gospel was alive and relevant to the men and women of his times. The most famous story concerning his courage involves Ezzelino da Romano who belonged to the political party known as the Ghibellines. Both had their opponents. The Guelphs, were famous for their conniving and blood-thirstiness, and Ezzelino was considered a master in the art of treachery and he was holding certain Guelphs, threatening to execute. Anthony courageously stood before him and called him to conversion.

Peace and Good

‘Peace and Good’, was a greeting often heard from the Franciscans. But sadly, peace and goodness were too often lacking in the society. The Emperors opposed Popes and the nobility the prerogatives of the merchant class and they both despised the poor. There was a sense of chaos, and people did not know where to turn. These divisions extended down to the very foundation of society. Anthony fought the evils of hate and division. His simple Gospel message proclaimed that time was short, and that we must create the Kingdom of God while we have the opportunity. His example of love and acceptance itself became a powerful call to conversion.

As many held him in great esteem, he was often called upon to reconcile families and cities. He constantly preached love and forgiveness and called people to liberate themselves from their self-imposed imprisonment to selfishness, resentment and jealousy. Here, too, we bear legends which show the Saint creating a spirit of family and social peace. There is the story of how he caused the new-born baby to speak in order to give witness to the innocence of his mother, unjustly accused of adultery by her husband. Another time, he healed a woman mortally wounded by her jealous husband.

World’s greatest Saint

In 1222, St. Francis of Assisi personally appointed him as the first lecturer of the Franciscan Theological School in Bologna, the first person in the order to hold such a post. He was then sent to Southern France to assist the crusade against the Albigensians. He also taught at Montpellier and Toulouse and became known as the ‘hammer of the heretics’. In Padua, a bas-relief shows an ass kneeling in front of the Saint who is holding up the Blessed Sacrament.

His popularity increased in the late 19th century largely through prayer cards. He became ‘Patron of the Poor’, with the collection for the relief of hunger known as St Anthony’s Bread. “St Anthony, St Anthony, where art thou?” was a familiar phrase in Catholic households. He may have been the Provincial in Emilia or Romagna, but he was released by Pope Gregory IX in 1227 to devote himself to preaching, spending the last few years of his life in and around Padua. Anthony was suffering from dropsy and his strength had all but failed him.

All throughout Lent of 1231, he preached to ever increasing crowds in Padua. Around this time he had a premonition of his approaching death. The friars and Count Tiso invited Anthony to go to a hermitage in a town closer so that he might recover his strength and Count Tiso built a small tree house in a walnut tree especially for him. One night, Count Tiso was passing by Anthony’s room and he saw a bright light shining under the door of his room. He first thought that it was a fire and burst into the room and saw Anthony in ecstasy embracing the Infant Jesus.

He loved Padua and was instrumental in reducing crime and reconciling enemies, denouncing usury and freeing debtors from prison. He had travelled thousands of kilometres  in his missions, preached to thousands of the faithful and the  many illnesses he had suffered had taken their toll. The very nearness of the supreme hour seemed to restore his strength a little. He used it to chant his favourite hymn: Oh glorious queen, raised above the stars! His last words of love, concluding a life of sacrifice and purity, were dedicated to Mary. He was only 36, when called by God on June 13, 1231. He was immediately hailed as a Saint and was canonised within a year on May 30, 1232.

Miraculous inspiration

In my life span, St. Anthony’s is the most visited Shrine. My first assignment in Colombo, brought me to SLNS Rangalla, the Naval establishment then located in the adjoining land of the shrine, and the blessings I have received ever since is enormous. As you enter the shrine and as the door closes behind, the sounds of the traffic outside fades and you enter a different world, a sacred oasis, tranquil and silent apart from the odd footfall. You see pilgrims everywhere, some making their way on their knees up the aisle, some patiently walking towards the miraculous statue and some others engrossed in murmured prayer. For long years, I spent quality time in this hallowed shrine.

Every time, I made for the doors, it was difficult to leave the spiritual intensity of this wondrous shrine and step outside. My close affiliation guided me for intimate prayer with the Saint and I experienced his powerful intervention to overcome many storms in life through the mighty power of God. I treasure the miraculous blessings bestowed, especially in the lives of thousands of friends and family, with whom I have shared thanksgiving prayers, chaplets, novenas and masses at the beloved shrine. Surely, St. Anthony lives in the humble and faithful hearts, whom he inspires to great works of goodness, and penetrates with his joyous faith, hope and inextinguishable love.

Saint and the Shrine

In the 17th century when the Dutch ruled the coastal area, Catholicism was proscribed. Friar Antonio of Cochin was sent to Colombo to administer to the needs of the Catholics and he held clandestine services. He was to be arrested but he escaped to a nearby fishing village where he started praying to God to prevent erosion of the beach to enable the drying of  fishing nets. Friar Antonio placed a wooden cross at the spot most threatened by the advancing sea and continued praying. On the third day, the waves miraculously receded and a protective sandbank was revealed.

The Governor gifted a plot of land and the first mud-hut chapel was built and existed till 1806. A statue of St. Anthony was brought from Goa and positioned at the altar of the chapel in 1822.  Meanwhile, enlargement to the edifice started in 1826 and the  blessing of the new church took place in 1834. Incidentally, that same ‘Miraculous Statue’ today stands at the very spot where Friar Antoni placed his cross and the Wonder Worker attracts and consoles millions of pilgrims.

The author possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc; his research interests are numerous; recipient of National and Presidential Accolades for his scholarly pursuits; his byline appears regularly since 1988