Today, the Church celebrates one of the most beloved of the Saints. He is beloved because he always managed to find a way to stay close to the people he served. His heart was always open and he was constantly looking for ways to help simple ordinary people understand a very simple truth: God loves us!
Fernando Martins started out in life just like all the rest of us. He had a mother and a father who loved him, and because they were relatively wealthy, he could have had anything he desired. Yet, at the age of fifteen years, he asked to be sent to the Abbey of Santa Cruz in Coimbra (which was the capital of Portugal at the time). There he studied theology and Latin with the Canons Regular of the Holy Cross of Coimbra, an Order of priests who followed the Rule of Saint Augustine.
Fernando was eventually Ordained a priest as one of the Canons Regular and served as guest master for some time until he was introduced to Franciscan friars who settled in a small hermitage outside Coimbra. His ongoing conversations with the Franciscans allowed him to draw close to them and eventually he felt a calling to leave the Canons Regular and to become a Franciscan, taking the religious name of Anthony, after Saint Anthony of Egypt, a third-century religious hermit.
Saint Anthony’s constant curiosity inspires us to be like Elijah. In the first reading for today’s Mass, the Lord tells him: Go out and stand on the mountain
(1 Kings 19:11). Standing there, Elijah made himself vulnerable, but he had to do that in order to experience the gift that God had prepared for him. We too are standing and making ourselves vulnerable. We have come to celebrate the Eucharist. In this place, we hope to meet the Lord and to discover the gifts that he has prepared for us today. It was his ability to make himself vulnerable that allowed Saint Anthony to constantly go out and to follow the path that the Lord was pointing out.
Inspired by the zeal of his Franciscan brothers, he travelled with them to Morocco where he began to spread God’s word. However, he became extremely ill and was sent back to Portugal. As Providence would have it, his ship was blown off course and he ended up in Sicily instead of in Portugal, and from there, he travelled to Tuscany. He continued to pray and to study as he recovered there from his illness.
Anthony earned a reputation as a beloved preacher because he was very learned, but he also had a gift for explaining the mysteries of God with language that could be understood by everyone. If he were here with us today, I wonder what he would say about the gospel passage that we have heard (Mt 5:27-32)?
The sin of adultery is one that few people will admit to, but we live in a society that has become extremely promiscuous, so I am sure that if he were here, Saint Anthony would not shy away from the subject. Perhaps he would use this occasion to say to us that sometimes people need to be shocked into realizing the great treasure that has been entrusted to us: the treasure of our faith. Many people, perhaps even some who you and I know personally, seem to find all kinds of excuses to deny the fact that they need God in their lives, or they prefer to speak with Him one on one rather than participating in the life of a local parish.
The problem with this individualistic way of thinking is that we become increasingly concerned with our own interests and content ourselves with that which is pleasing to us. In the meanwhile, we run the risk of cutting ourselves off from other people and we become deaf to their cries for help. It is at such times that we need to be shocked into realizing that we need one another in order to make it through this life.
Jesus used some very graphic images to make his point. He spoke about tearing out an eye
(Mt 5:29), and cutting off a hand
(Mt 5:30) if they should cause us to sin. Perhaps we don’t need such drastic measures, but maybe we need to ask Saint Anthony to pray with us today, to help us understand with our minds and our hearts how much our God loves us.
If we can begin to experience God’s love in our lives, if we can begin to experience the tender and loving way that our God listens to us when we speak with him, if we can begin to experience the way that our God is always present to us, inviting us to come close to him and always ready to help us ... maybe we in turn will also be inspired to listen compassionately to others. Perhaps we will want to tell others how important it is that we spend time together, sitting around a table and enjoying good food, talking with one another about the everyday joys and worries of life. If we can learn to trust one another with our stories, we can also learn to trust in God.
Let us ask Saint Anthony to pray for us today, so that the Lord will soften our hearts and make it possible for us to learn how to trust in Him, how to trust in others, and most of all to believe with all our hearts that God loves us.