Rev. Eutiquio  B. Belizar, Jr., SThD

By the roadside


CATHOLICS think it silly but there are still people who think they are guilty of idolatry because of their devotion to saints and to the Blessed Virgin Mary. During these days of the millennium, with Vatican II reforms that include a more enlightened openness among Catholics to ecumenical relationship with other Christians and believers of other faiths, to say this is sad is an understatement. It is real nonetheless. I find it useful to use distinctions when I meet people who have problems with Catholic devotion to saints and the BVM. Remember from Catholic Catechism the term ‘latria’ which is translated here as ‘worship’ proper to God, one and Triune? This is what Catholics give to God and to God alone.

On the other hand, Catholics certainly also practice ‘dulia’ which we translate here as ‘giving honor or veneration’. Dulia is what Catholics give to saints, heroes of the faith or believers declared by the Church to have attained full union with God in heaven. Because of her special place in the community of Christ’s faithful as the Mother of the Lord and Jesus’ first and foremost disciple, we Catholics extend to Mary ‘hyperdulia’ or a special veneration and honor that is only due to the Mother of God. It’s not too hard to notice how quantitatively and qualitatively devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary in Church practice surpasses that to saints (who themselves extended it to her while they were still on earth and, hence, wouldn’t mind our extending it to her too).

One such saint is St. Anthony of Padua, one of the most popular saints in the Philippines and particularly in my parish. When I consider St. Anthony of Padua’s life, I remember Jesus’ words in the gospel: “Let your light shine before men so that they may see your good works and give praise to your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16).

I see four lights worth pondering in the life of St. Anthony of Padua.

One, God is the greatest treasure to whom all others pale in comparison. He was born and christened ‘Ferdinand’ in 1195 to a wealthy, noble family—which some accounts say as ‘de Bulhoes’. Some writers in the fifteen century link him to Godfrey de Bouillion who was commander of the First Crusade. Yet all the wealth and nobility he inherited he readily renounced when in 1210 he entered, as a fifteen-year-old, the Convent of S?o Vicente to join the Canons Regular of St. Augustine. Later in 1220 he deepened his commitment to God by giving in to his desire to be a martyr to the faith and joining the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor at Olivares, moved by the sight of the relics of the first Franciscan martyrs. He took the name Anthony in honor of St. Anthony Abbot, patriarch of monks and monasteries. All these details enhance even more, rather than blur, his total self-gift to God to whom he subordinated not only his family’s wealth and name but also his own life. To the worldly-wise that is simply foolhardy; to the person of faith Anthony’s choices merely showed his finding ‘the treasure hidden in a field’ and the ‘pearl of great price’ (Mt 13:44-46) for which he was ready to part with his other treasures—family, wealth, a good name—to acquire it.

Two, we must love the truth of faith to the point of being able to defend it when it is challenged. St. Anthony of Padua is also called ‘Hammer of Heretics” or malleus hereticorum. This is due mainly to how he used his gift of powerful preaching to explain and defend the truth of the Catholic faith. One remarkable case in point was how he defended the Catholic teaching of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic Bread which, to Catholics, is Jesus’ Living Body, against the rising challenge in his time of the Albigensian heresy which denied it. In an encounter with an Albigensian named Bonvillo who challenged Anthony to prove his claim by making a hungry mule which did not eat for three days kneel before the Blessed Sacrament while being offered hay. Anthony accepted the challenge. Upon Anthony’s prayer the hungry mule refused to eat the hay until it knelt to acknowledge the Real Presence. Awestruck, Bonvillo couldn’t utter a word and later decided to become Catholic.

At a time when, through television and the internet, the average human being is exposed to countless religious programs from diverse Christian denominations and other religious aggrupations, all of which claim to have the truth, there’s a constant temptation for anyone, even for Catholics, to think that all religions are ultimately equal or as containing the truth taken together. The Holy Father, Benedict XVI, has reminded us of ‘relativism’ in belief and morality as one of the problems of our world today and which we have to meet by turning to the truth of the Catholic faith and holding on to it the way St. Anthony did, using his intellectual and persuasive powers to study, deepen and defend it.

Three, we must love the poor not only with words but also with deeds. I was visiting a Franciscan church to go to confession one June day in 2004 when I noticed the presence of many homeless persons in the premises of the Church. I asked a Franciscan brother what was going on. He told me, “Today we are giving out St. Anthony’s Bread.” All of a sudden I was reminded of a very ancient practice among Franciscans and devotees to St. Anthony to express concretely Christian love by feeding the hungry. St. Anthony’s Bread is a firm reminder to all Christians of what St. James says to them, “If a brother or a sister is in need of food or clothes and one of you says, ‘May things go well for you; be warm and well-fed’, what good is there in that? So it is with faith without works. It is totally dead.” (Jas 2:15-17)

Four, we must use our gifts to proclaim the Gospel. Already learned and well-read even as an Augustinian, St. Anthony did not flaunt his gifts. He chose to live simply when he became a Franciscan, celebrating the Eucharist for his lay brethren and working in the kitchen. His chance came when, during an ordination ceremony at Forli for Franciscans and Dominicans, there was no preacher for the occasion due to a misunderstanding. His superior ordered St. Anthony to speak whatever the Holy Spirit inspired him and the result was the discovery of his eloquence, learning and wisdom in articulating the gospel and the Catholic faith. From then on he used these gifts to preach the gospel in various ways, particularly in defending the poor, the welfare of prisoners, the indebted and the disenfranchised. Crowds flocked to St. Anthony’s talks, homilies and addresses. A story has it that a husband forbade his wife to attend one of his addresses by commanding her to stay at home but when she threw open their window to hear whatever she could from his preaching, her husband heard St. Anthony and was converted. To my mind, St. Anthony was immensely successful as a preacher and proclaimer of the gospel because he was true to the first three lights before the fourth.

“I feel happy to see the growth in number of the Confraternity of St. Anthony in our parish,” I heard myself say on the Feast of St. Anthony of Padua. “But,” I told the confraternity members in front of me, “what matters most is that God is happier with us when we are able to imitate St. Anthony by reflecting his lights.”