Anna Abbott is a graduate of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has written for Catholic World Report and Canticle. She had a weekly column on religion for four years at the Napa Valley Register, the Weekly Calistogan, the St. Helena Star and the American Canyon Eagle. She is aunt and godmother to two boys, as well as a newborn girl. She currently resides in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
“Anthony! Anthony! Come around! There’s something lost that can’t be found!” was once a common invocation among Catholics looking for lost objects. St. Anthony of Padua helps not only those seeking lost items in the English-speaking world, but also for those seeking a spouse, especially among Portuguese and Italians. On Aug. 26, the roles reversed and Catholics found the saint in person at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in East Falmouth, Massachusetts. His first-class relics — a piece of his ribcage, along with his scalp that miraculously still has hair — have been touring the United States and Canada.
In a culture that has a fraught relationship with death, relics seem to have fallen by the wayside in Catholic devotion, and reverence for saints’ relics no longer seems to be part of Catholic identity.
Tom Muscatello, the North American representative for the Chicago-based Anthonians, said that he didn’t learn about relics when he attended Catholic school. The Anthonian Association of the Friends of St. Anthony of Padua are connected with the Friars Minor Conventual at the Basilica of the saint; they are responsible for the tour. Muscatello explained the significance of St. Anthony’s relics, saying, “From a Catholic perspective, he’s alive in Christ. It’s about resurrection and life after death. The veneration of a saint confirms resurrection and life everlasting. Only God does the miracle work, they (saints) intercede.”
The first-class relics went on their first tour in Europe in 1995, to celebrate the 800th anniversary of St. Anthony of Padua’s birth. Notably, they stopped in Portugal, where Sr. Lucia of Fatima venerated them. At St. Anthony’s in East Falmouth, a banner showing Sr. Lucia with the relics was beneath the altar painting of Our Lady of Fatima.
In 2013, the 750th anniversary of the discovery of St. Anthony’s intact tongue by St. Bonaventure, the first-class relics began to tour North America consistently. There is an average of four to five tours annually. Muscatello said, “The tours are a blessing in my life. It is about the communion of saints.” This coming year, the relics will be touring Dallas/Ft. Worth in March, Chicago in June, North Carolina in October, and Houston in December. This past spring and summer, the relics traveled to Georgia, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Manhattan and Boston.
Bearing priceless relics takes faith. The relics themselves travel in carry-on luggage. He said, “The relics are housed in a pontifical basilica; only a friar can sign them out. We bring the relics in luggage that’s inconspicuous. We don’t use Vuitton. The relics are carefully wrapped and brought on board.”
The Lord allowed St. Anthony’s tongue to remain intact to give his own imprimatur to Anthony’s preaching. Muscatello reflected on the saint’s life, saying, “St. Anthony stood up for the poor, women and children. He fought debtors’ prisons… St. Anthony had the privilege of holding the baby Jesus in his arms. He’s a friend to so many families. People feel his compassionate love. He finds anything that can be found.”
In this regard, one could say St. Anthony was a discoverer of faith, and this aspect is his most important contribution to the Church. He was one of the earliest proponents of the Immaculate Conception, saying, “The Glorious Virgin did not have a stain in her birth because she was sanctified in her mother’s womb and safeguarded there by angels.”
St. Anthony is known for miracles like preaching to the fish, and the appearance of the Baby Jesus. In a lesser-known miracle, a heretic challenged St. Anthony on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This is a timely story, considering how many practicing Catholics understand the Eucharist as merely symbolic. The heretic used a mule to prove his point, starving it for three days. When St. Anthony and the heretic stood before the hungry mule — the heretic with fodder and St. Anthony with the Blessed Sacrament — the mule knelt in adoration before the Eucharist.
St. Anthony is also a powerful intercessor for families. When a Tuscan knight killed his wife in a rage, he ran to St. Anthony repentant, and his wife was restored to life. In another miracle, a jealous nobleman refused to recognize his newborn son as his own, claiming his wife was adulterous. St. Anthony implored the baby to speak. The baby pointed to the nobleman, saying he was his father. St. Anthony is often called a saint of miracles; indeed, he was canonized only a year after his death, the briefest time for a saint. He was renowned for his preaching, though he himself said, “Actions speak louder than words; let your words teach and your actions speak.”
St. Anthony’s influence spread to the Americas. The first shrines to him with relics are in Baltimore and Boston. San Antonio, Texas, famous for the Alamo, bears his name. Mission San Antonio de Padua in Monterey County, California, was the third founded by St. Junipero Serra. According to some, it is St. Anthony of Padua, not his spiritual father St. Francis of Assisi, who is the most popular Franciscan saint.
St. Anthony’s relics are an opportunity to see the saint firsthand — in thanksgiving, praise, concern and love. Muscatello commented on the lack of appreciation for relics among Catholics. He said, “By coming out and experiencing it, it’s different for every saint. We let people touch reliquaries. If people come out to see simple human remains, they show we are capable of becoming saints. We have to see it. It’s about the communion of saints and their intercession. There’s the physical aspect of veneration… The veneration experience becomes relatable.”
By seeing the relics, the concept is no longer abstract, or something of the past. The physical aspect of veneration, being able to touch the relics, pray with them, shows the incarnational nature of Catholic spirituality. To quote St. John, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Veneration engages the senses. One remembers the encounter, the moment one’s faith is reinvigorated with joy and praise.
In his lifetime, St. Anthony was famous for his miracles. To see his first-class relics is, in itself, like a miracle. It is awe-inspiring to see St. Anthony, usually invoked to find lost objects, in the flesh. In his miraculous presence, one stands mute before the kindly saint of Padua himself. As Job said during his tribulations (Job 19:25-26), “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God.” Relics are not only reminders of mortality, but the hope and promise of the Resurrection.
St. Anthony himself commented, “The saints are like the stars, who, in his providence, Christ hides under a seal, lest they appear whenever they wish. Instead, they are always ready to disembark from the quiet of contemplation into the works of mercy at the time decided upon by God, whenever their heart should hear the word of command.” In his relics, St. Anthony shines like a star in the Church Triumphant; dead to the world, yet very much alive in Christ, a lodestar to the Pilgrim Church on earth.