13 june is the feast of St. Anthony, and greatly celebrated in Lisbon whose patron saint he is regarded as, being a public holiday.
St. Anthony is one of the most popular saints in Portugal. He was born on the castle hill, in 1195, and a church dedicated to him was built on the place where – according to tradition – stood the house where he was born, the son of a well off merchant of the city of Lisbon.
St. Anthony’s Eve
Every year on the evening of 12 june (St. Anthony’s Eve) there are major celebrations all over the city and huge crowds go up to the castle and the castle hill, or just gather downtown and celebrate the Saint’s anniversary with sardines,wine and music. Down Avenida da Liberdade (one of Lisbon’s main avenues) there is a parade of the “marchas populares” (literally “popular marches”), popular folk dancing with elaborate and colourful clothes where the traditional city’s quarters compete with each other for the 1st prize of the best march.
During that evening and all through the night it’s time for fun, and on the following day it’s time for devotion – people go to St. Anthony’s church to hear mass and pray to St. Anthony, with their requests, or thanks – or both.
St. Anthony’s Day
So there I went yesterday with my friend Mimi. I took the car downtown and left it in a car park at Restauradores square (the square where the Portuguese began the revolt that overthrew the Spanish government back in 1640) and from there we walked to the church.
It was a grey but fairly warm day and quite nice for walking on the streets, that were full of people, mostly tourists, as Lisbon is now one of the top European cities for tourism, I am told. And for a reason, as it is a lovely city!
As we approached the church there were two huge queues: one for St. Anthony’s bread ( bread said to have special qualities) and the other to enter the church. We patiently waited but it was not too long: after a few minutes we could see the 11 o’clock mass had ended and we managed to get in.
Inside – as I remembered from previous years – most of the chairs had been removed, so that more people might get in. The church was beautifully decorated with many flowers and the image of the Saint looked at us benevolently from the altar. On the right side, another image was waiting on the litter that would go on a procession later that day. Suddenly, I heard someone calling my name and there was a former colleague from a company where I worked several years before, waving and smiling. As a coincidence, his name is António (Anthony, in Portuguese). I smiled back.
As a surprise, we were informed the 12 o’clock mass would be celebrated by the Cardinal of Lisbon himself. I had never seen him so close but found him still fairly young – for a cardinal – and very nice and close to the people.
St. Anthony’s story
And the Cardinal told us, in a very simple way, the amazing story of St. Anthony: that he was born in Lisbon, on that very spot; that soon he had decided on a religious vocation; that he had first joined a monastery in Lisbon, and then in Coimbra, where he had studied for several years, learning everything he could and becoming a true scholar; how one day the arrival of the bodies of Franciscan monks that had been martyred in Morocco had impressed him so much that he had decided to join the Franciscan order and become a missionary; that, upon his arrival in Morocco he had fallen so ill that it was necessary for him to return to Portugal for treatment; however, the winds had not been favourable and his ship had been diverted to Sicily, from where he had travelled to Assisi in Italy, where he met St. Francis. He eventually recovered from his affliction. And, finally, how he had settled in Padua. The Cardinal also told us that Anthony (whose real name was Fernando Martins) was shy and did not talk too much, but that one day St. Francis had asked him to preach and he had been so eloquent that, from then on, people flocked to hear him preach. And it is a fact that his sermons became famous for their wisdom and their messages, such as the very well know “Sermon of St. Anthony to the fish” – the story has it that, as he preached to the fish of a nearby river, they flocked around him so that they might listen to him, such was his eloquence.
Soon he was famous for the many miracles he performed, until the day of his death in Padua, his adopted city.
At this point the Cardinal smiled and said: “Saint Anthony was born in Lisbon but he also belongs to Padua. In fact, he belongs to the world, but we can say ‘Saint Anthony from Lisbon and of Padua’ – that way everyone will be happy”.
The crowd in the church listened to him enthralled. Even if most of us have heard this story many times, at least in my case it’s always a pleasure to hear it, and particularly told in this very simple, but very inspiring way. Exactly like our Saint: he was a very knowledgeable and inspiring man, yet he never lost his simplicity.
St. Anthony in my life
When I was young I had no particular devotion for St. Anthony: as a saint, he is the patron of marriage and also of lost items (there is a special prayer for when you want to find something you have lost). But he is also associated to many miracles, during his life and after.
However, one day, St. Anthony came into my life to stay. I remember it very clearly: we (I, my then husband Miguel, and our sons Afonso and Pedro) had just come out of a doctor’s appointment, where we had been bluntly told that Afonso, then ten years old, had a torn ligament in his knee and would never play rugby again. The word “never” was too final for a boy who was already passionate about rugby, but this was a very good doctor who in fact specialised in rugby injuries and had been on the field the day Afonso had injured himself. We were devastated and I was mad at the doctor for having said this in front of the boy, who now looked miserable in the back seat of the car. Miguel was driving through the city with no particular sense of direction and suddenly we found ourselves near the castle of St. George. I was desperate for some idea, some clue of what to do next, because I knew I would not abide by this doctor’s opinion – I would have to try other options so that our boy might continue to play rugby (as of course at ten an operation was out of the question). And I was praying “My God, please, give me a sign so that I may believe he is going to recover, so that I may see there will be a way out of this”. And as I was immersed in my thoughts I raised my face and I suddenly saw the name of the street we were in – it was called “Street of the Miracle of St. Anthony”! For me, on that moment, it was a very clear message, and there and then I solemnly promised “If my son recovers and plays rugby again, from this day onwards I will be a devotee of Saint Anthony”.
As it was, we found another doctor, one who looked at our son and said “I’ll put you back in the field in no time”; we found an amazing physiotherapist – today a great friend – who worked every day on Afonso, and we witnessed the incredible strength and determination of our son to get well. And, in five months, there we were, back on the rugby field, to watch his first game, in a turmoil of emotions – fear but happiness, and gratitude as well. And, as an incredible coincidence, there too was the doctor who had foretold he would never play rugby again…
Ever since I have fulfilled my promise. I am so grateful to St. Anthony for what I consider “our own” miracle. I have been to his tomb in Padua where I again thanked him for the grace received, and I cannot describe the huge emotion that beset me as I touched the cold marble of his grave. And I have shared this story many times, because it is a story of faith, and faith is what sustains us in moments of need, but also what makes us grateful in moments of joy.
Mimi and I came out of the church and burned some candles by the statue of St. Anthony for our loved ones. Then we came down the hill to the beautiful square Terreiro do Paço, facing the river, and sat down on the terrace of the very traditional café-restaurant “Martinho da Arcada”, that was founded in 1762. After eating the unavoidable sardines and as we sipped our coffee, we felt serenely happy, and told each other that, this time next year, again we will celebrate the memory of St. Anthony, in this beautiful city of Lisbon where he was born, more than eight hundred years ago.