St. Anthony and Theology

One of my goals when teaching the lives and writings of the saints to an undergraduate audience is to take these figures “out of stained glass.” That is to say, I endeavor to teach this material in such a way that brings these authors to life. An image of a saint piously kneeling before the Virgin and Child can leave a somewhat one-dimensional impression upon the viewer. This impression is then reinforced as one becomes accustomed to it and does not probe its theological meaning.

Today the Church celebrates the memorial of St. Anthony of Padua, O.F.M. (1195-1231). St. Anthony’s feast day is particularly special to me as it is my onomastico or “name day,” and the imagery of St. Anthony with which we are most familiar has him holding the Child Jesus. This artistic motif is derived from an apparition that St. Anthony received of the Child Jesus, and it became part of his standard artistic depiction during the 17th century. Prior to that time, he was often portrayed with a lily (a symbol of purity) and a book (a symbol of the preaching for which he was renowned even in his own lifetime).

Alvise Vivarini, Sacra Conversazione (1480) (l-r, Ss. Louis, Anthony, Anna, the Virgin and Child, Joachim, Francis and Bernardino)

Alvise Vivarini, Sacra Conversazione (1480)
(l-r, Ss. Louis, Anthony, Anna, the Virgin and Child, Joachim, Francis and Bernardino)Further, though we may think of St. Anthony as the “finder of lost things” or identify his popularity with Italian and Portuguese Catholics, St. Anthony reminds me most of the goal of theology.


Further, though we may think of St. Anthony as the “finder of lost things” or identify his popularity with Italian and Portuguese Catholics, St. Anthony reminds me most of the goal of theology.

While theology is the diligent study of sacred realities, we can often stress the activity (diligent study) over the object (sacred realities). As a mentor of mine is fond of saying: theology is about transformation, not information. Few religious orders have incorporated this belief into their spiritual legacy as profoundly as the Franciscans and, in particular, St. Anthony was acutely aware that the goal of theology is eternal beatitude – not the accumulation of facts and certainly not an academic degree.

St. Anthony joined the Franciscans, after first becoming an Augustinian, while they were still in their infancy. He was the Order’s first reader of theology, or “official theology teacher,” and yet no manuals or scholastic disputations have survived from his work. What we possess from St. Anthony’s writings are a collection of sermons. Like many Patristic Fathers before him, St. Anthony was most concerned with living the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and his homilies are rich examples of a probative explication of Scripture at the service of the conversion of souls.

Rather than provide a quotation from one of his homilies which demonstrates this point, I would instead like to share a letter which was written to St. Anthony by St. Francis. The occasion for this correspondence was the instillation of St. Anthony as the Order’s first reader of theology. The entire letter is the following:

“Brother Francis [sends his] wishes of health to Brother Anthony, my overseer. It pleases me that you teach sacred theology to the brothers, as long as – in the words of the [Franciscan] Rule – you ‘do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion’ with study of this kind.”

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El Greco, St. Anthony of Padua (1577)

St. Anthony reminds us that theology is an activity which serves the Church, seeks the conversion of souls, and aims at our eternal communion with God. Without these goals, theology is just another collection of facts and figures like any other academic discipline. And if theology remains the latter, it can more easily “‘extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion’” than inspire it.

A painting of St. Anthony which communicates this well is by the artist known as El Greco (a.k.a., Domenikos Theotokopoulos). El Greco combines the more traditional imagery of St. Anthony with that which will soon become standard. In doing so the artist reminds us that, for St. Anthony, theology is a lived activity; an activity of mind (book), heart (Child Jesus), and body (lily). The integration of these elements can be seen in St. Anthony’s posture, as he looks serenely upon a book which upholds the Child Jesus and holds a lily as if it were a pen. The senses gaze upon the sacred mysteries, which are then communicated through intellectual and physical acts. St. Anthony reminds us that the goal of theology is a living relationship with Christ which embraces every dimension of the human person, not simply an intellectual activity.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program. This post originally appeared on June 14, 2015.

Tradition and Communion

In last month’s post, I began by looking at a single word. I thought that I would begin this month’s post in the same vein. Vaguely recalling a line from Sesame Street, therefore, “today’s posting is brought to you by the word”…tradition. ‘Tradition’ comes from the Latin word traditio, which means ‘handing over.’ The word ‘traitor’ also comes from this word; as in someone who ‘hands over’ things he shouldn’t.

In today’s gospel proclamation (Jn 17:20-26), we get a sense of what has been ‘handed over’ to us. This passage comes from a portion of St. John’s Gospel known as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer (Jn 17). This is the prayer that Jesus offers to the Father during the Last Supper and, as Fr. Raymond Brown has noted, Jesus adopts the tone of “one who stands before the throne of God making intercession for us.” According to St. John’s Gospel, these are the very last words Jesus utters prior to his arrest.

At this crucial moment of Jesus’ life and ministry, he prays for us. We are the ones not present at the Last Supper, who will come to believe in him through the words of others (Jn 17:20). These words, handed down generation after generation, have come to animate – literally, to ‘give life to’ – our faith. And this handing on, this tradition, is of irreplaceable importance; because faith comes from hearing and believing. As St. Paul famously asked: “[H]ow can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach?” (Rom 10:14). Christians are not formed by nature. Perhaps living in a predominantly Christian culture can help formation, but it certainly does not guarantee it; nor can it replace the personal act of faith. The early Christian theologian Tertullian once wrote that “Christians are made, not born” (Apol. 18). And this ‘making’ begins with faith.

At some point in our lives, we heard the proclamation “Christ is risen” and we believed. The vast majority of Christians were not like Ss. Mary of Magdala or Peter or Thomas – he actually got to poke his finger into Jesus’ side! Rather, most Christians have believed because the good news of Christ’s resurrection had been handed on to them. Our faith, therefore, has a mediator. It comes to us through the mediation of the Church. She has handed on the faith – first in preaching, then also in Scripture – since the day of Pentecost, and does so throughout the ages.

Caravaggio ThomasIt is for us, therefore, that Jesus prays. And the content of his prayer is for our communion. He prays that his future disciples “may be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, […] that they may be one, as we are one” (Jn 17:21, 22). He prays that his entire Church, spread across lands and languages, time and eternity, might be one – one as God himself is one! Jesus’ prayer for our communion, therefore, is a prayer that we might participate in God’s own Trinitarian life.

What has been handed over to us is not some sentimental nicety or material benefit, like the recipe for Mama’s sauce or the deed to a house. The tradition we have inherited is that through which we have been joined to Christ by faith. It has formed us into a new people, where “[t]here is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). It calls us into communion with one another, and into that loving communion which is our Triune God. Jesus himself has prayed for this to the Father; i.e., “that the love with which you loved me may be in them” (Jn 17:26).

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.