Anthony was born in 1195 in Lisbon, Portugal, and given the name of Fernando at Baptism. At the age of 15 he entered the religious order of St. Augustine, giving up a future of wealth and power to be a servant of God. After two years he was sent to Coimbra and began nine years of intense study, learning the Augustinian theology.
The life of the young priest took a crucial turn when he saw the bodies of the first five Franciscan martyrs that were returned from Morocco. Anthony was filled with an intense longing to be one of those closest to Jesus himself: those who die for the Good News. So Anthony entered the Franciscan Order and set out to preach to the Moors in Northern Africa. But an illness prevented him from achieving that goal. Instead, he went to Italy and was stationed in a small hermitage where he humbly spent most of his time praying, reading the Scriptures and doing menial tasks.
Then during an ordination, where no one was prepared to speak, the humble and obedient Anthony hesitantly accepted the task of preaching. The years of searching for Jesus in prayer, of reading sacred Scripture and of serving him in poverty, chastity and obedience had prepared Anthony. His sermon was astounding to those who expected an unprepared speech and his fame as a preacher began to spread.
Anthony’s superior, St. Francis, was cautions about education such as Anthony possessed. He had seen too many theologians taking pride in their sophisticated knowledge. Still, the friars had to preach to all people, so they needed a firm grounding in Scripture and theology. When he heard the glowing report of Anthony’s homilies St. Francis wrote to Anthony in 1224; “It pleases me that you should teach the friars sacred theology, provided that in such studies they do not destroy the spirit of holy prayer and devotedness, as contained in the Rule.”
St. Anthony was a simple and humble friar who preached the Good News lovingly and with fearless courage. The youth whom his fellow friars thought was uneducated became one of the great preachers and theologians of his day. He was a man of great penance and apostolic zeal.