Today the Church celebrates the feast of Anthony of Padua, Priest and Doctor of the Church (1195-1231). St. Anthony has achieved somewhat of a surreal status in the communion of saints; he’s someone that people pray to automatically and almost superstitiously whenever the car keys or the wallet or even the remote control go inexplicably missing. How many of us are familiar with the little prayer: “Tony, Tony, look around—something’s lost that must be found”? It stands to reason, given this patronage, that St. Anthony is as popular as he is. If the rest of the world’s population is anything like I am, then people as a general rule lose things. A lot. (In fact, as I was writing that sentence, my mother called saying that she has lost a pair of glasses. I told her to pray to St. Anthony.) What’s saddening and even a little distressing is that St. Anthony is often perceived as a magician, a sorcerer, conjuring up our lost articles from thin air when it seems that all hope of finding them on our own is, well, lost.
It’s easy to fall into a reductionist view of the communion of saints: thinking of these men and women outstanding in holiness merely in terms of what they can do for us, as though we are calling out “Expecto Patronum” in quasi-Harry Potter fashion, and all we need do is wait for the patron saint to “show up” and do his or her job, whether that job is protecting us from harm (St. Michael the Archangel), enabling us to perform a recital well (St. Cecilia), or even helping us on an exam (St. Joseph Cupertino, I’m looking at you). Don’t get me wrong—I pray to my favorite saints daily, asking for their intercession in general as well as in specific situations. But at a certain point, I have to remind myself that the communion of saints is not collection of people who are at my disposal as various prescriptions for all of life’s maladies and problems. When we view the saints exclusively in this way, they become commodities and we become consumers, taking the saints off of the proverbial shelf whenever we have need of their specific patronage. And in so doing, we miss the entire point of the communion of saints.
The communion of saints shows us vibrant, unique examples of individual lives transformed as they are conformed to the example of Christ. In the saints, our brothers and sisters in Christ, we have an array of witnesses—a veritable constellation of persons whose lives of holiness provide models for us to emulate, and whose companionship and intercession strengthen us throughout our own earthly pilgrimage. To view St. Anthony as Director of the Universal Lost & Found is to miss the story of God’s grace active in his everyday life and, perhaps more importantly, the story of his faithful response to that grace. For it is through knowing the story of his life, of his sanctity, that we are able to find commonalities with our own stories; by observing the pattern of grace present in the life of St. Anthony, we become more capacitated to observe unique patterns of that same grace emerging in our own lives.
By the time he died at the age of 35, St. Anthony was most famous not for helping people find lost articles, but for his preaching. His thoroughly profound knowledge of Scripture and his eloquence drew crowds of thousands who listened with rapt attention as he shared with them the Good News of the Gospel. By opening the mysteries of the Scriptures, St. Anthony became a seeker and finder of lost souls; by demonstrating the love and grace of God in his life of faith, he inspired conversion in the hearts of those who came to hear him preach.
As a child I was fascinated by the lives of the saints, voraciously reading accounts of miracle-workers, martyrs, missionaries, and the like. The stories made me want to be a saint simply so that I could imitate their spectacular feats—who wouldn’t want to levitate? Or bilocate? Or experience ecstatic visions? Looking back, though, I realize that my childhood understanding of the saints was very much relegated to the surface, and while I understood that they lived holy lives, I thought that their abilities to perform miracles were what made them holy. As an adult, I realize that sanctity is found in daily fidelity to Christ, and sometimes, that fidelity has to be pledged anew even on an hourly basis. The saints are saints because their lives were grafted like branches onto the vine of Christ; their hearts beat in unison with His Sacred Heart; their desires and their prayers and their sufferings were all united with His. And because of this, the grace of God at work in their hearts became manifest through their very lives in signs and miracles so that others might believe. I will definitely continue to pray to St. Anthony whenever something goes missing, but more importantly, I hope to continue to discover the wisdom of his preaching. Dubbed the “Evangelical Doctor” by Pope Pius XII, St. Anthony continues to speak to all of us even today in the sermons that have long outlived him, providing a way for us to grow in our own relationship with Christ, helping us find the way along our journey of faith when we ourselves become lost, inspiring a greater fidelity to the Gospel in the decisions we make in the everyday moments of our lives. And it is this, perhaps, that is his greatest legacy, his most spectacular miracle.
(By the way, my mom found her glasses. Thanks, St. Anthony.)