The Saint of the world – AN ANTHONIAN IN PADUA – By Bernard VanCuylenburg
To set the scene for this article I have to commence with a reference to Hypnos, who in Greek and Roman mythology is the God of sleep. His son Morpheus is the God of dreams, but Hypnos and I have never been on amicable terms. For years my patterns of sleep have been fragmented, and many are the nights I have laid awake when sleep evaded me, waiting for dawn’s golden light. I have often wondered if, as boarders at St. Anthony’s College Kandy, the infernal tolling of the bell at the ungodly hour of 5.30 am. to wake us boarders, is in some way to blame for this condition !! A “Sleep in” beyond the sound of the bell was an impossibility !!
The night of April the 11th 2016 was one when all hope of sleep vanished from the time I laid my head on the pillow, but I do not blame Hypnos for this, because my thoughts were focused on the journey I was to undertake the following day. I was bound for Padova (Padua) in Northern Italy, the city associated with the patron Saint of our Alma Mater, Saint Anthony of Padova. This was a spiritual journey I had planned on my own, and I would spend time in Padova discovering as much as I could about Saint Anthony and the Basilica famous the world over. My travels would take me from Melbourne to Milan via Dubai. From Milan, I travelled by train to the city of Padova, a journey of two hours and fifteen minutes. The heavens must have smiled on me because on perusing my travel itinerary I was pleasantly surprised – and glad – to note that I would be travelling on the Airbus A – 380 on the journey to and from Milan.
It was a journey of a dimension which far excelled many others as I was to discover, except for the three trips which I made to the sacred shrine of Our Blessed Lady in Guadalupe Mexico, a few years ago, and the Marian shrines of Lourdes and Fatima. On a wing and a prayer, the giant airbus glided down the runway at 6.35 pm. and lifted off gracefully, with its four Rolls Royce Trent-900 engines at full throttle, roaring defiantly into the dark night, and the long journey ahead with a complement of 480 passengers on board, as I later found out from a friendly stewardess. After an hour’s stopover in Singapore, I arrived in Dubai at 4.50 am (Dubai time) for a welcome four hour transit stop, and at 9.50 am on the 13th morning took off for Milan. Although Milan’s Malpensa International airport is about 55 kilometres away from the city of Milan, there is a train from the airport every 30 minutes to take travellers to the city, after one clears immigration and customs.
As in most European capitals, the infrastructure regarding getting to and from international airports is excellent, and I took this train called the “Malpensa Express” which takes one direct to the Milan Central railway station, from where my train to Padova was scheduled for departure at 6.15 pm. At 18 hours 15 minutes on the dot, the streamlined sleek super train hummed out of Milan Central station and after a very comfortable journey I arrived in Padova at 8.15 pm from where a very professional and friendly taxi driver took me to my hotel in fifteen minutes. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is the old cliche. Taking this a step further, I did as the Italians do! ! I navigated my way, putting my knowledge of Italian to good use which I found elicited many smiles and made life much easier. I am sure reverend Father Rosati the principal at Saint Anthonys, reverend Father Tonini the Warden, and the late Father Valentine would have been very proud !
The next morning after a healthy and appetising buffet breakfast I headed for the Basilica of Saint Anthony which was about a 35 minute walk from the hotel. My first sight of the basilica simply stunned the senses due to its immense size, and sheer architectural beauty and style, which laid the foundation for builders of the Italian renaissance about three hundred years later.
Construction of the basilica began in 1232 and was completed towards the end of that century. It was dedicated to St.Anthony of Padova who was born in Portugal in 1195 and died in Padova in 1231. He was the only son of wealthy parents, Martin de Bouillon a businessman, and Teresa de Tavera who belonged to the Portuguese nobility. This journey completed the circle for me because when I visited Portugal years ago entering overland from Spain, I passed through the birthplace of Saint Anthony, “Villa Real De Sant Antonio”.
The polyglot style of this colossal structure incorporates rising eastern domes atop a Gothic brick structure crammed with renaissance treasures. It is one of the world’s most important art treasures and one of christianity’s favourite religious attractions. On completion of this masterpiece, the body of the saint was reinterred in a special side altar known as “Il Capello del Santo” (The chapel of the saint). There are crowds waiting to enter this chapel where his tomb is covered with requests, petitions, and also many thanksgivings for favours granted. This chapel is a light filled renaissance confection lined with nine beautiful panels vividly depicting his life in extraordinary relief sculptures executed by the best Venetian sculptors of the day. Like the other altars in the basilica, they are a work of sheer beauty, and were completed around 1510. The other section attracting pilgrims and visitors alike is “Il Caporo Del Tesoro” (The TreasuryChapel) behind the high altar, where the relics of St.Anthony are on display. One is his uncorrupted tongue, and the other, his chin with some of the teeth still visible, and a jaw bone. When Saint Bonaventure had his body exhumed in 1273, the tongue of the saint was found to be still fresh, moist and life-like as in the days when he preached the word of God. In unbridled rapture saint Bonaventure cried out “O blessed tongue that always blessed the Lord ! It is now manifest what great merits thou didst possess in his sight”! The sesamoid bone, a fragment of his skin and some hair from his body are also preserved in a special reliquary. This chapel also houses a habit he wore (fully black), and the original coffin in which his body was placed soon after his death. Saint Anthony died in the nearby town of Arcella and was buried there. After the completion of the basilica his body was exhumed and then reinterred in the “Capello del Santo” chapel where it lies to this day.
With the permission of Pope John Paul 2nd, a scientific examination of the body of the saint was conducted in1981, seven hundred and fifty years after his death. To the surprise of the experts and the medical and scientific community, it was found that his vocal apparatus was still intact. This again complements Saint Bonaventure’s discovery of his uncorrupted tongue during the first examination of the body in 1263. In his lifetime he was referred to as “The honey- mouthed Doctor”, a reputation which still persists 785 years after his death. I make bold to say that the miracles which Saint Anthony performed in his lifetime were as dramatic as the miracles performed by Our Lord Jesus Christ, and on a jarring note it occurred to me that even though our Alma Mater was named after this great saint, we were never given detailed information by the powers that be in college, on the life of our patron, other than celebrating his feast day on the13th June. I recall there was a hymn sung in his honour at Mass on the day, (“If great wonders thou desirest hopeful to Saint Anthony pray….). And that was it, other than the statue of St. Anthony which stood atop the college tower for all the world to see. The saints mortal remains were again displayed for the veneration of the faithful during the last exposition in February 2010.
Consider these miracles which have all been authenticated and recorded:
(1). To confound the heretics and prove to them the presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Eucharist,
he made a a donkey kneel down and adore it !
(2). On another occasion, when men refused to gather around and hear the word of God, he came
to the mouth of the Marecchia river where it flows – into the Adriatic sea in the town of Rimini, and began
preaching to the fish. Eye witness accounts record that within minutes, rows of fish popped their heads
heads through the surface of the water, as if straining to listen to his words.
(3). The classic miracle is the one recorded by witnesses where he caused a baby to speak in order to give
witness to the innocence of his mother who had been unjustly accused of adultery by her jealous husband.
(4). He miraculously reattached the foot of a young man, which had been cut off by an axe.
These are only a few among the many miracles he performed. The miracles already mentioned have been well illustrated by some excellent sculptures on display in the basilica. But what must be mentioned is that in human history, only three persons had the gift of bilocation. One was Jesus Christ, the other was Padre Pio – now Saint Pio, and then there is Saint Anthony. They could be in two different places simultaneously. In the case of Saint Anthony it is well documented that once while preaching in Padova, he was also present in Lisbon to give evidence in a case in which his father stood accused of calumny.
The Basilica of Saint Anthony is a veritable museum full of renaissance art treasures. In the cloisters, there are wall plaques with inscriptions and some tombs dating from the 15th and 16th centuries – and some before that period.There is a special “St. Anthony’s Museum” and one could easily spend a day here going through all the exhibits on display – paintings of the saint depicting how he looked in real life, vestments worn by the priests who served in the basilica from the 15th century down to the present day, church ornaments such as chalices etc. and four display cases housing letters and mementos of thanksgiving for favours granted……most of these letters written in Italian and dating from the 16th century would move the hardest heart to tears. A priceless treasure is preserved in the library of the basilica – a copy of the document of Saint Anthony’s cannonization signed by Pope Gregory the 9th and dated the 30th May 1232.
This beautiful city is only half an hour away from Venice by train. It seems a world away with its medieval marketplaces, fascist-era facades , a vibrant student population and ruins of her Roman past. An extraordinary series of fresco cycles recalls the golden age of Padova. In the Capella della Scrovegni (Chapel of the scriptures) dating from the 13th century which I visited, there are paintings by Giotto, and two classics among others worthy of special attention. One is Menabuoi’s “The Heavenly Gathering” and the other is by Titian called “Santo Anthonio nella Scolleta del santo”( “St.Anthony in the school of saints”). Padova’s Roman past is also evident with some ancient walls, and two bridges over the river which meanders through sections of this city. The walk from my hotel to the basilica took me around 30 – 35 minutes, and it was a very pleasant walk along the banks of the river, charming little cafes, and along some ancient streets through very old traditional residential areas. All this was complemented by the friendliness of the Italian people whose warm smiles are as charming as their Neapolitan airs and the golden sunshine on the waters of the blue Meditteranean. Of course I was happy to return home, but on the day of departure I had an ache in my heart, leaving this city which had enchanted me from my first day, and some friends I made among the hotel staff.
I also visited the university of Padova which still has sections dating from the 14th century. Unfortunately my visit was ill timed because I went there on a Saturday when the archival section was closed, a fact unknown to me. I was thus unable to access the ancient records on display. I knew that at one time Leonardo Da Vinci was a student, of this prestigious seat of learning, and even Saint Anthony may have preached here according to some historians. The basilica of Saint Anthony is the main attraction for visitors to Padova. They come in droves – tour groups, pilgrims, the curious, the believers and non-believers, the broken and the marginalized, the hopeful and the hopeless. They hail from Italy and lands far beyond. I aver that many of them pin their hopes and faith on two lines from one of the hymns to the saint, referred to by Pope Leo the 13th as “The saint of the whole world”……..”If great wonders thou desirerest, hopeful to St.Anthony pray……” This is the hymn which we sang at college during the mass for Saint Anthony on June the13th, the day of his feast.
Homeward bound I occupied seat No.48G in the economy section of the giant airbus from Milan International, drained of energy, physical and emotional. The days I spent in Padova resurrected many memories of my schooldays at Saint Anthony’s College Kandy in sharp focus………warm and nostalgic memories which will never fade. It has been a long journey from my Alma Mater and visits to Saint Anthony’s Church in Kochikade in adult life, and finally two visits to the genesis of it all – the basilica of saint Anthony in the city of Padova. (I also visited Padova in May 2017). It is a structure of sheer scale, exquisite detailing and hidden treasures with endless revelations. On a spiritual level it is a journey which will never end……..
On a hill far away stands a great college. Atop the tower of that college is a statue of Saint Anthony which maintains a lonely vigil and is a landmark for generations of Anthonians who somewhere in time, have entered and departed the portals of this educational institution, and then gone their separate ways down life’s road. Many Anthonians have followed their destinies to the four corners of the globe, but it is the golden memory of our schooldays and life as we experienced it growing up at St. Anthony’s college which is the tie that binds.