Fr. Anthony R. Curley
Proclaiming the Word of God, preaching, has been a matter of importance for me for several years. It was through preaching that I was first introduced to message of Jesus Christ, when I was a child living in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In those days, my parents lived on Anthony Street in the suburbs of Fort Wayne, the place of my birth. I suppose the name of "Anthony" became imbedded upon my psyche in those early years, finally, to become a person that I would try to understand more deeply when I got older.
Traditionally, Saint Anthony was known as the Restorer of Speech to
the Mute. We often offer a prayer for the saint's intercession --
Dear St. Anthony, how tongue-tied I can be when I should be praising
and defending the oppressed. My cowardice often strikes me dumb;
I am afraid to open my mouth.
St. Anthony, Restorer of Speech to the Mute, release me from my fears.
Teach me to praise God and to champion the rights of those unjustly treated.
This prayer to Saint Anthony of Padua has as its basis the reputation
of the Saint as a proclaimer of God's message under every set of circumstances.
The prayer has also been one that has renewed my interest in preaching.
For a number of years I preached in the context of pastoral ministry.
Saint Anthony was an acclaimed preacher.
I. Background of Anthony.
There is little authentic written record I was able to find of the historical St. Anthony of Padua. Yet, there is much Tradition that obviously stems from the facts that surrounded the life of this preacher of Christ. Most of my sources held a bias toward the Traditions that surrounded the life of this saint.
Proclaiming the message of God has never been that popular, especially if preachers were taking the message to where many actively hated it. During Anthony's early years, Franciscan missionaries had died at the hands of the Islamic people. At the age of 26, Anthony had given up a peaceful life of prayer and study as an Augustinian to become a Franciscan missionary to the Moslems in Morocco. He had come to the psychological - spiritual conclusion that he had failed God by not being allowed to give up his life as a martyr at the hands of the Moslems. Somehow, though, Anthony had reached the point in his life where his fellow Franciscans would not even give him a job of washing dishes or sweeping the floors. Early in his life, Anthony had been so sure of what God wanted him to do.
Early Life -- Fernando de Bouillon was the son of Martino de Bouillon and Teresa Taverna. He was born August 15, 1195 in Portugal, a legitimate heir to a noble title and lands. His future seemed to secure and planned. Don Martino and Dona Teresa occupied a sumptuous palace near the cathedral in Lisbon. Still, Fernando's restless quest for God's call came early and he gave up his inheritance to enter a monastery at age 15, seeking a life of solitude and devotion to God. His new name would be Anthony. His friends, however, missed him and knowing he was close by, would stop to visit so much that this became a distraction for him away from his devotions. Two years later he decided he would have to move on to find the kind of life he wanted. At the Abbey of Santa Cruz, his new home, Anthony devoted the next eight years to studying theology and Scripture. He exhibited a remarkable memory and facility for knowledge and it was obvious to everyone that this was the life he was meant to lead.
During his stay at Abbey Santa Cruz, five Franciscan missionaries showed up at the monastery. Anthony listened to their story of fellow Franciscans being martyred in Morocco. So, Anthony began to believe that he was wasting his life on study and books and made this clear to his superior. His superior was not supportive of Anthony's view. However, the superior finally gave Anthony permission to leave, and Tradition reports to us that his superior said with some sarcasm, "Go on your way. You will surely become a saint." The young Anthony intended to become a martyr for Christ. He would go directly to Morocco as a Franciscan and die for the faith. The Franciscans accepted Anthony into their order knowing he intended to become a martyr when possible.
Crises of life -- When he landed in Morocco it seemed like everything was finally going as he planned it. However, he no sooner got out into the desert than he became so physically ill that he wasn't even able to get out of bed, let alone walk the street preaching Christ's message to others. His attempt at missionary work was such a complete failure that the Franciscans ordered him back to Portugal after only four months. Yet Anthony ran into problems there as well. The ship taking him back to Portugal was forced to land in Sicily after a storm. As Anthony recovered his health in Italy, he conceived a new plan. He would go to the fourth general chapter meeting of the Franciscans and see St. Francis of Assisi. Surely St. Francis would know what he was supposed to do with the rest of his life. Yet Francis, close to death, did not notice Anthony among all the three thousand friars who had come to the chapter. In fact, everyone ignored Anthony -- which apparently was not difficult to do because Anthony liked to stick to the background.
Dejected and discouraged, Anthony did not want to return to Portugal that was just a reminder of how wrong all his hopes had gone. Surely there was a place for him in Italy. Still, no one in Italy knew of Anthony's background in theology and Scripture. That, like Portugal, belonged to Anthony's past. All they saw was a sick invalid with barely enough strength to get out of bed. So when he volunteered as a kitchen assistant, they turned him down; no one thought he could do the work! What could Anthony do? He felt that he was a failure as a missionary, as a martyr, and now even as a dishwasher.
New hope -- He had found one friend however in Father Gratian, the provincial of Bologna. When Anthony begged him for work, Fr. Gratian sent him to a small retreat house in the mountains. Anthony loved the quiet contemplative life there that gave him time to spend with God and his beloved Scripture. Anthony made one trip down the mountain in 1222 to Forli. They were ordaining a large group of priests. Again Anthony was hidden in the crowd. As was customary, there was to be a talk at the ordination meal on being a priest. The time came for the talk and no one stood up to provide for the homily. No one had prepared a talk and no one wanted to talk spontaneously in front of the toughest audience of all -- their fellow-priests. Suddenly, as the Tradition goes, Father Gratian turned to Anthony and asked him to speak. Why Anthony? Maybe he guessed there was more to Anthony than the others knew. Maybe Anthony was just handy. Of course Anthony tried to decline the offer; he had no experience or ability. Gratian ordered him to speak out of obedience.
The preacher comes alive -- Unable to refuse the direct order Anthony stood up. Nevertheless, as he opened his mouth to stammer out a few words, the Holy Spirit suddenly overwhelmed the frightened priest. The voice that trembled in fear, now trembled with passion. The words that had stumbled now flowed beautifully. All who heard his speech knew they had not only witnessed a miracle but heard a miracle-worker. In that moment his life changed forever. Everyone who had ignored him knew him now as Anthony the Preacher. Saint Francis who hadn't even noticed his existence before, now, appointed him to preach anywhere and everywhere. Expectant crowds replaced his quiet solitude hanging on his words.
Suddenly what had looked like failures or misdirections in his life all made sense. His study in the monastery was not a waste of time, but a foundation to preach on the Scripture. His travel to Morocco and Italy was not a disaster but experiences in real life from which to teach. His assignment to the retreat house was not a rejection but a grounding of his spirit in prayer and meditation to sustain him in the Holy Spirit.
Padua was the place that Anthony had chosen as his home base after he started preaching. That is where he went after he fell ill in 1231. To find a little solitude in the midst of the clamor for his attention, he built a sort of treehouse where he lived until he became too weak. He asked to be taken back to his monastery to die but he did not make it. At a stop at a convent of Poor Clares, he said, "I behold my God," and died. It was June 13, 1231 and he was only 35 years old.
During those later years, however, Anthony was to gain such popular recognition for his charismatic preaching that his legend would remian firmly etched into the Tradition of the Church to this day.
II. Why preaching?
Jesus established the Church on preaching. The very word for Church
(ecclesia) expresses the idea of a people being "called out" as the
people of God by the effects of the Holy Spirit through the ministry of
preaching. The verb from the Koine Greek (prophetes), means,
"I prophesy, I proclaim (God's message), I speak before, I speak forth."
This word has its root in the Septuagint (LXX), where prophets of God were
"forth tellers," as well as, "fortellers."
Another verb, more directly defining preaching is (kerusso), meaning, "I proclaim, I make known, I preach." Preaching is the manner in which the Gospel was propigated, common to the New Testament. St. Paul says in 1 Cor. 1:21. "Which. . . by wisdom knew not. . . it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe."
St. Paul's pastoral epistle sheds some light on, and establishes a theological basis for, the primacy of preaching. "Make known the word! Be ready -- good times (&) not times! Convince (them), rebuke (them), call (to) beside (them), in all longsuffering and teaching." (II Timothy 4:2, my awkward translation).
Preaching, therefore, must be the primary function and focus of the one called to such a labor of love. This was the task of Anthony.
III. What did Anthony preach?
He preached the Scripture.
It was said of him (Traditionally) that he knew the Bible so well, that if some disaster destroyed all copies of it, they could still recover the Scriptures from what he knew. This idea has always been a strong pre-requisite for preaching in my own cultural / traditional mileau. The ministry of preaching must be approached from a scriptural basis, otherwise, nothing substantial is imparted. The Tradition of the Church claims this trait for Anthony.
Anthony preached to his culture.
He probed deeply into each passage to find the key message for Christians. Apparently, he re-discovered that his role in ministry was with his own people. His mission field was not in Morocco, but, in Padua and the surrounding areas. This is a model for all to follow. We ought to be willing to bloom where we are planted as available people for God's purposes.
It was the culture of the people, following Church Tradition, to hear a message and exhortation with those being ordained to the priesthood. He was available to his culture and simply stepped into it with his gifts at the right moment. His words were simple. The people responded. He preached to the sheep, not giraffes. Effective preaching has never been "too deep" for the people that need to hear it. Interestingly, St. Thomas Aquinas also had a very simple preaching style that Reginald of Piperno captured. Deep theological insights must be made into a "meal" suitable for the culture. One wonders if the later theologian and preacher, Thomas Aquinas, (or Thomas' chronicaler, Reginald) may not have been aware of the preaching style of St. Anthony?
Anthony preached to the experiences of people.
Anthony was said to have preached peace in a time of feuds, vendettas, and wars, saying to the people -- "No more war; no more hatred and bloodshed, but peace. God wills it." His preaching was direct and forceful with a simple message that was practical. Again, a deep understanding and classical theological training in foundational truths, prepared this preacher for the task at hand, a society where ther rich and por were polarized culturally and economically.
Anthony preached a positive message.
In a time when many heretics were teaching things such as that the flesh was evil and only the soul was created by God, Anthony did not indulge in attacks of heretics. He simply, and clearly, spoke of the true beliefs of Christians in such a positive way that he won people back to the Faith, including a powerful man who had turned away from the Church for thirty years.
Anthony apparently believed (according to Tradition) that preaching was useless -- if one did not preach by example.
Anthony said -- "The only ones who preach correctly are those who conform by their actions to what they announce with their mouths." How this speaks to all of us who would proclaim God's Word today.
Anthony preached without consideration for a person's position.
According to Tradition, when an archbishop asked Anthony to preach at a national council, Anthony did as requested and then turned to the archbishop to say, "And now I have something to say to you . . . " He went on to tell the archbishop in front of the council how he should change his life.
His environment for preaching did not constrict Anthony:
Despite the chaos of the times, (feuds and vendettas), Anthony had to start preaching out in the fields, because the churches would no longer hold the crowds coming to hear him. Shops and business were reported to have closed their doors when he came to preach and people often slept overnight in churches to be sure to hear him the next day.
Anthony followed up on his preaching.
Anthony knew hearing the Word was just the first step, so he arranged for his helpers and himself to hear confessions after the sermons. As evidence of the changes the Anthony caused wherever he went, there is a law today in Italy that states that, because of St. Anthony, debtors could no longer be imprisoned if they could not pay their debts. It is always important to follow up on proclamation. The Church understands this through the catechism process, the R.C.I.A. Protestant evangelists, like Dr. Billy Graham also know and employ follow up on their inquirers.
Anthony's model is based on a close relationship with Jesus.
The Tradition of the Church often shows St. Anthony pictured with the Christ Child, because of a legend that took place in a monastery where he stayed overnight. When his host peeked into Anthony's room through a crack in the wall to see the saint at prayer, he saw that Anthony was not alone. The Christ Child stood on a table before Anthony, as the saint held the Christ Child. Without a close personal relationship with Jesus, St. Anthony may not have been remembered today.
Again, all of these principles have been derived from Traditions within the Church concerning St. Anthony. No personal documents were found by St. Anthony. There is a theory, however, that St. Anthony may have been the author of what has been known as Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ. There are also a number of famous miracles associated with his preaching and devotional relationship with Christ. However, these are not within the scope of this paper.
IV. Practical implications for author and personal theological reflections.
Jesus did not tell those sent out as preachers to feed large, towering, creatures that eat from the tops of the trees. Jesus called those with something to give to the task of feeding people with spiritually edible and healthy food that would produce healthy growth in the Church, the Body of Christ.
The preaching is done in a Liturgical setting (the Homily) is always based upon the Holy Scriptures. However, preaching may be done in a much less formal setting. Some of the greatest preaching of history has been accomplished outside the walls of the Church buildings. Much proclaimation may be done one on one with people eager to listen. The, so called, "sermon on the mount," may have been proclaimed by the Lord Jesus only in the presence of the disciples, the Twelve.
The proclamation of the "kerygma," the Gospel story always comes with simplicity and meets people where they live (e.g., experience, culture, their Tradition, their line of reasoning, but, thoroughly based upon Scripture and the Revelation of Jesus Christ). I sense with many that, surrendering these essential qualities, no real effective, quality, preaching happens.
Preaching must always remain practical. Early in my own proclaiming ministry, as a Southern Baptist pastor and preacher, another pastor gave me an illustration of the importance of practical preaching. I was asked, 'What does "G-o-s-p-e-l" spell?' It spells "GO - spel." If you take the "GO" out of the Gospel of Christ, meaning not being a doer of the word, you have nothing left but a "spel!"
Mark 16:15 states Jesus' command to his disciples toward the primacy of preaching, carrying with it the need for teaching and other ministry in the full context of the Holy Scriptures.
For the author, preaching by the model shown by St. Anthony, has been a way of life only in part. The devotional element was missing for several years through a personal process too lengthily to describe in this document. Nevertheless, we also know St. Anthony as the patron saint of hopeless cases. The author longs to come into such a relationship with Jesus that St. Anthony had, the Christ Child in his arms upon the Scriptures. The encounter is entirely with and in God, such as that degree of Love described by St. Bernard (in the century just before St. Anthony's) in On Loving God :
"How blessed is he who reaches the fourth degree of love, wherein one
loves himself only in God! Thy righteousness standeth like the strong mountains,
O God. Such love as this is God's hill, in the which it pleaseth Him to
dwell. 'Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?' 'O that I had wings
like a dove; for then would I flee away and be at rest.' 'At Salem is His
tabernacle; and His dwelling in Sion.' 'Woe is me, that I am constrained
to dwell with Mesech!' (Ps. 24:3; 55:6; 76:2; 120:5). When shall this flesh
and blood, this earthen vessel which is my soul's tabernacle, attain thereto?
When shall my soul, rapt with divine love and altogether self-forgetting,
yea, become like a broken vessel, yearn wholly for God, and, joined unto
the Lord, be one spirit with Him? When shall she exclaim, 'My flesh and
my heart faileth; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for
ever' (Ps. 73:26). I would count him blessed and holy to whom such rapture
has been vouchsafed in this mortal life, for even an instant to lose thyself,
as if thou wert emptied and lost and swallowed up in God, is no human love;
it is celestial. But if sometimes a poor mortal feels that heavenly joy
for a rapturous moment, then this wretched life envies his happiness, the
malice of daily trifles disturbs him, this body of death weighs him down,
the needs of the flesh are imperative, the weakness of corruption fails
him, and above all brotherly love calls him back to duty. Alas! that voice
summons him to re-enter his own round of existence; and he must ever cry
out lamentably, 'O Lord, I am oppressed: undertake for me' (Isa. 38:14);
and again, 'O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body
of this death?' (Rom. 7:24)."
This preacher, Ron Curley, has not arrived at this dynamic, nor am I likely to until death and the renewal associated with that dynamic. There are others that have spoken of this issue of Love, but, there is little space or time to discuss this most important aspect of preaching -- Loving God supremely. Without Love, the preacher is a mere gong that clangs its noise and fades into the obscurity of silence. Preaching's primacy must have as its driving force -- Love imbued within the innermost being of the preacher by the Holy Spirit, as St. Anthony experienced when in faith he stood and spoke from a heart filled with the practicalized reality of the Holy Scriptures. The author has sought to practically acquaint himself with Holy Scriptures. This remains the ever dynamic process.
One must continue to have the dynamic relationship with God and there must be a cultural identity with the people ministered to in their life experiences. We cannot proclaim academic obscurities to simple folks that have simple needs. We practically base preaching toward the many faceted needs of the people. We focus upon the essence of the Gospel "kerygma" (preaching) upon the lowly Man, Jesus, who laid aside the Divine prerogatives through the Kenosis.
To understand the poor, one must become poor, as Christ became poor -- an emptying of self. To understand hunger, one must experience hunger, as Christ did -- an emptying of self. To speak to sin, one must know the intimate issues from which Christ has delivered him or her. There must be empathy with those we encounter, if the preaching to be meaningful for those that hear the preaching.
The word of God is alive and powerful, not lame and academic.
This is not to say that there is no place for academic study of the Scriptures
and the Tradition of the Church. There must be Revelation and a reasoned
approach to the Holy Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church.
However, such preaching, as with Anthony, thoroughly based in theological
contemplation, does not end there. It goes forth to a lost and dying
humanity with a tangible message of God's Loving Care and shows it in all
manners of works.