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St Anthony’s Eucharistic Miracle

Wednesday, June 13, 2018 13:25
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English-speaking Catholics today perhaps think of Anthony of Padua principally as the Saint to call upon when something is lost, for which there is a well-known rhyme, “St Anthony, St Anthony, please come down: something is lost and cannot be found.” In his own lifetime, however, and for centuries after, he was principally known for his extraordinary learning and skill as a preacher; he was the first Franciscan to study at a university and teach.

Ss Anthony and Francis, depicted by Simone Martini in the Chapel of St Martini in the lower basilica of St Francis in Assisi, 1322-26. Note that in this earlier stage of Franiscan iconography, St Anthony’s charactistic feature is the book of a scholar. (Public domain image from Wikpedia.)

He was also known for a variety of highly spectacular miracles. The 39th chapter of The Little Flowers of St Francis tells the story of how he preached before the Pope and cardinals in consistory, and was understood by them all,

Greeks, Italians, French, Germans, Slavs and English, and other languages… as if he had spoken in their own languages … and it seemed that that ancient miracle of the Apostles at the time of Pentecost was renewed, when they spoke by the power of the Holy Spirit in every tongue. And they said to each other with admiration, “Is this man who preaches not a Spaniard? And how do we all hear our own language as he speaks?”

By an interesting coincidence, his feast day is also the last day on which Pentecost can occur. He was canonized within a year of his death by the Pope in whose presence this miracle took place, Gregory IX (1227-41), who also referred to him publicly as “the ark of the covenant, and the treasure-chest of the Divine Scriptures.” At the ceremony of his canonization, Pope Gregory intoned in his honor the Magnificat antiphon for Doctors of the Church, “O Doctor Optime”, a title which was formally confirmed in 1946 by Pope Pius XII.

The common representation of Anthony as a young man tenderly holding the Christ Child perhaps makes it easy to forget that he was also called “the hammer of the heretics”, who were many in his time. Like his contemporary St Dominic, he preached in a wide field in northern Italy and southern France against the bizarre heresy of the Cathars. When he was still a young canon regular in Coimbra, Portugal, Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) had called the Fourth Council of the Lateran, which also had a good deal to say on the subject of heresy. This was famously the first ecumenical council to enshrine the use of the term “transubstantiation” as a way of describing the change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ in the Mass, a response to a variety of erroneous teachings on the Eucharist.

“There is indeed one universal church of the faithful, outside of which nobody at all is saved, in which Jesus Christ Himself is both priest and sacrifice. His body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread and wine having been changed (transsubstantiatis) in substance, by God’s power, into his body and blood, … And indeed, nobody can confect this sacrament except a priest who has been properly ordained according to the (power of the) Church’s keys, which Jesus Christ himself gave to the Apostles and their successors.” (Canon 1 ‘on the Catholic Faith’)

The Miracle of the Mule, by Joseph Heintz the Younger (1600-78), from the Chapel of St Pius V in the Domincan Order’s basilica of Ss John and Paul in Venice.

When St Anthony was in Rimini in the year 1223, a heretic named Bonovillo challenged him to prove the doctrine of the Real Presence in the following manner. The man would lock his mule in its stall for three days without giving it any food, then bring it into a public square where there would plenty of hay be ready for it. At the same time, St Anthony would show the consecrated Host to the mule; if it would then ignore the hay and kneel, its owner would convert to the Catholic Faith. On the appointed day, St Anthony celebrated Mass, then brought the Host in procession to the piazza. On arriving, he said to the mule “By the power and in the name of the Creator, Whom I, for all that I am unworthy, truly hold in my hands, I say to thee, animal, and order thee to come near at once in humility, and show Him proper veneration.” At this, the mule immediately left the hay, approached and knelt, for the sake of which miracle the heretic Bonovillo did indeed convert.
In the city of Rimini, in the Piazza of the Three Martyrs, there is a small chapel known as the “Tempietto – little temple”, which marks the place where this miracle took place.

The event has also been represented in art many times, such as the painting above. From 1446-53, the sculptor Donatello was in Padua to do a new high altar for the great basilica which houses St Anthony’s relics, with four relief panels of his miracles, and seven free-standing bronze sculpture of Saints. The miracle of the mule is one of the four. (Click to enlarge.)


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