There is a tendency nowadays to depict saints as people who bypass the realities of life and somehow attain sanctity with little effort. Here we have two pictures of Saint Anthony of Padua.
The first is a fresco in the basilica dedicated to the saint in Padua, Italy, and it is the oldest known depiction of the great thirteenth century apostle and miracle worker.
In this picture, we see a powerfully built Franciscan, his expression young though mature, serious and determined.
The second is a holy card bought in the souvenir shop of the same basilica. This depiction is obviously not inspired by the fresco. Here we see a delicate, rosy cheeked young man, his face devoid of the natural masculinity necessarily brought on by the preacher’s arduous life.
His is sentimental, of soft countenance, devoid of the personality and strength of character necessary for climbing the mountain of perfection.
Anthony was born Ferdinand of Bouillon of a Portuguese noble family.
Early in life he engaged in the pursuit of virtue and suffered vicious attacks from the devil in an attempt to break his resolve.
At fifteen he joined the Augustinians, and applied himself to prayer and intense study. Since childhood, Ferdinand harbored the ardent desire to lay down his life for his Lord and his Faith. Hearing of the martyrdom in Africa of five Franciscan missionaries he knew, he joined the Franciscans hoping for the same fate, and took the name Anthony.
Soon after, he was sent with a companion to Africa but Providence had other designs. On landing, Anthony fell ill and returned to Portugal. A violent storm re-routed his ship to Italy where, making use of his brilliant eloquence, he defended his order against evil machinations.
After a life of intense apostolate, astounding miracles and constant preaching against the enemies of the Church, for which he was named “Hammer of Heretics,” the saint died exhausted by his labors at only 36. He was canonized shortly after his death in view of the irrefutable miracles he performed in life and in death.
Although meant to be pious, the second holy card pictured here fails to give us a realistic idea of holiness. Saints Paul and John of the Cross speak of the journey of salvation as a “race” and an “ascent,” respectively, which require commitment, determination and fortitude.
According to Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, “The honors of the altar are not granted to hypersensitive and weak souls that flee from profound thought, bitter suffering and the battle ground — that is, the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Although God’s constant grace accompanies the willing on the road to sanctity, it does not cancel the human struggle against the pull of our fallen natures. The marks of the effort are to the saint what the scars are to the soldier — their true glory.
Hence far from glossing over these realities, we should seek to depict them realistically as the earned halo and medal.