Once a year, the Atlanta men take a fraternity weekend away from Rome. This year we traveled to Padua in the northern part of the country.
Padua is famous for three things:
1)It is the burial place of St. Anthony of Padua;
2) It is the burial place of St. Luke the Evangelist; and
3)The Scrovegni Chapel, one of Giotto’s masterpieces, is found there
Frankly, there is not a lot in the town with which to keep oneself busy for a whole weekend, but since the purpose of a fraternity weekend surpasses tourism, it seemed like the perfect place. I had visited Padua a few times before, but the other men had never been there. During that particular weekend, the Church celebrated the Solemnity of All Saints which made visiting a place so rich in the corporeal reality of the saints perfect.
Perhaps your experience has been different, but as I resumed the practice of my faith years ago and began to educate myself on the tenets of Catholicism, I found myself repeatedly stumbling over the idea of devotions to persons other than Jesus himself: namely, those to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to the Saints. Though I never really had a violently anti-devotional sentiment, I perceived a certain superfluity in intercessory prayer and therefore could never enter into it with my whole heart. If I could speak with Jesus himself, why did I need to ask a saint to help me do that which was already within my potency?
I overcame this mental position in time, but because I did not grow up in an environment steeped in devotions to saints, I never have really developed many of them. There are a few saints I regularly invoke—St. John the Baptist, Saint Clare of Assisi, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas for example—but I don’t have the rich saintly devotion that many of my seminarian friends have.
Furthermore, I have always found relic devotions troubling. Again—I never have really had a violently anti-relic sentiment, but the cult of relics has never really become ingrained in my own spiritual life. In Italy, the opportunity to visit the burial places, or to even see relics of the bodies of saints, are manifold, and one is confronted with a relic cultic tradition that expresses the sentiment of hundreds of years of Church devotion. They are a reality with which one must grapple.
All this brings us back to Padua—specifically the Basilica of St. Anthony. St. Anthony’s body is in a marble sarcophagus on pillars in a chapel on the right side of the basilica. Surrounding it are aged wooden choir stalls where the friars have prayed in the presence of this great saint for centuries.
As one of the most popular saints in the world, St. Anthony’s tomb is frequently quite crowded. The first time I visited Padua, I found myself, with another seminarian, in a mob-like quasi-line trying to get to the tomb. I was pushed and shoved and barked at in various languages, and I realized at one point that the line was moving but I was remaining in place. (A peculiar feature of the Italian line is that one must use his elbows to claw his way forward or he will simply be passed by.)
By the time I finally made it to St. Anthony, I was so disgusted with the spectacle of people who for “love” of this saint had exhibited such inconsideration that I simply passed by the tomb with nary a cursory thought of the saint himself. Now, Italians do not generally consider the “Italian line” rude, but Americans often experience it as a penetrating affront to their personal space. For whatever reason that day, my reaction was more rash than understanding. I was prepared to leave, quite disgusted with the fact that I had even thought to come, when I repented of this plan and decided to muscle my way back into the chapel to speak with Anthony. I found a corner in the chapel and began to pray—to the extent that it is possible while one is being physically assaulted by the passing mobs of devotees. Somewhat reconciled with St. Anthony after I scolded him for allowing such devotional madness, I departed.
The second time I visited Padua, I was there for the Feast of St. Anthony. If it was mob-like on a normal weekend, Anthony’s feast day was like the great spectacle of wailing and gnashing of teeth. The entire basilica was a battleground; to have the smallest possible space was a miracle. We decided to return late in the evening to see if the riotous devotees would be calmer once they were no longer able to feed on the sustaining power of Brother Sun. Surprisingly, it was much calmer. And with only one elbow to the stomach from a pleasant-enough nun, I made it to the tomb. This time, without even realizing it, I wanted to touch it—I wanted to touch his tomb very badly. I don’t know why—after all, I have never had a particular affection for relics or a great breadth of saintly devotion. I sat in the choir stalls and prayed as so many friars have done in the past, and I remember telling St. Anthony that I wouldn’t mind seeing him again.
On the fraternity weekend with the Atlanta men, for the first time perhaps in its history, the Basilica was not filled with mobs of ex-ultimate fighting championship pilgrims. I was filled with an incredible sense of peace as I entered the church. The chapel of St. Anthony was almost empty. I sat in the choir stalls again and just stared at the tomb. To the right of his body is a display of photographs which changes regularly—they are pictures of the people for whom he has interceded. There are thousands of them—perhaps millions. There is a museum outside of the church dedicated to gifts people have sent in thanksgiving for St. Anthony’s intercession. I sat in the choir stalls, now with St. Anthony for the third time, and I wept a bit. I don’t know why.
When I walked to his tomb, I did more than touch it—I kissed and embraced it. And I stayed with it for a long time. He was so very real to me for just a moment.
Since that weekend, I think about him every day. I would say I am developing quite an affection for St. Anthony. I know almost nothing about him; I don’t frequently lose things, and I don’t even like the way he is presented in statues. But I can’t help but think about him, and I find myself speaking to him in prayer. St. Anthony has inspired a devotion in me, and I am certain it will reveal something to me about Jesus that I otherwise would not have discovered, and I will be a better Christian for it.