A feast of faith: Finding what matters most when celebrating St. Anthony

Hundreds gather through the streets of Boston’s North End to celebrate the 100th year anniversary of The Feast of St. Anthony, one of the biggest annual Italian Street Festivals of the year, on Aug. 24, 2019. (ERIN CLARK/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

For many Americans, summer is for barbeques, camping and vacations (even despite our ongoing pandemic woes). But for me, and hundreds of thousands of others, it’s about the celebration of a saint born on Aug. 15. The feast of St. Anthony of Padua is traditionally observed in August or June, depending on where you live. Known to Italian immigrants and their families as la festa di Sant’Antonio, it’s a magical event I experienced annually on Arthur Ave. in the Bronx, which will be celebrated later this month in Boston’s North End.

Food stands will sell zeppole, heaping plates of pork braciole, and sausage-and-pepper heroes. Carnival rides will glow against the sky. As a kid, my friend’s grandmother doled out pane di Sant’Antonio — bread of St. Anthony — to anyone who walked past her front stoop, a tradition reminding us that St. Anthony made it his business to feed the hungry.

The image of St. Anthony — a Franciscan monk holding a white lily in his right hand while cradling the baby Jesus in his left arm — was ubiquitous. It could be found in storefronts or plaster statues on windowsills and fire escapes. Its most revered use was adorning the giglio, a wooden structure like a parade float that stood nearly fifty feet tall and weighed several tons. It was carried on the shoulders of over a hundred men. Behind it, people gathered to form a procession that wound through the streets like a river.

Those in need of miraculous intervention wept loudly while others tossed dollar bills into the air, thankful for answered prayers. Along the way, in a makeshift shrine in the vestibule of an apartment building, those in search of love — or hoping to reconcile broken marriages — petitioned St. Anthony by arranging white lilies around flickering votive candles.

People’s devotion to him is no mystery: Anthony of Padua is the patron of the lost — lost items, lost pets, and especially lost people and relationships. Is there anyone who hasn’t felt regret or frustration because of what’s gone missing? The foibles, fears and yearnings that muddle our daily routines are the very matters to which St. Anthony so readily attends.

That’s what makes him so accessible. Whether misplaced house keys or a missed opportunity, a short prayer solves the problem: “St. Anthony, St. Anthony, please come down. Something is lost and can’t be found!” By most accounts, he delivers quickly, emblematic of a life of service.

Born Fernando Martins de Bulhoes in 1195 to a Portuguese noble family, the man who would become St. Anthony had a religious education before being ordained a priest. He took the name Anthony to honor an Egyptian martyr and sought to evangelize in Morocco. Illness prevented that and he ended up in Sicily. Later he lived throughout Italy and France, first as a hermit and later as a celebrated preacher of the Gospel. His homilies drew great crowds and inspired heretics to convert. According to one popular legend, when Anthony found himself preaching to a disinterested group, he instead walked down to the river to speak to the fish, and schools quickly rose to the surface to hang on his every word.

In addition to this, he clothed the poor and comforted the afflicted. Sadly, his life was cut short en route to Padua when he was 35 years old. Less than a year later, he was canonized. In his brief time on earth, he provided an example of how simple acts can have miraculous effects. In short, he understood what really mattered. Perhaps that is the secret behind his enduring popularity, even beyond practicing Catholics.

What St. Anthony offers every one of us is the chance to get unstuck, to reveal what’s holding us back, to unearth the priceless treasure of relief. It might be something minor, like a missing wallet, but it also might be the courage to admit that we’re adrift in the midst of so much uncertainty. As the delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 threatens our steps toward reentry, as we confront a society continually transformed by death and division, who among us can deny feeling misplaced?

In petitioning St. Anthony, we’re reminded to acknowledge the snippets of life that make our days worthwhile, of who and what matters most. Above all, we’re reminded that the greatest prayer is not about finding what’s lost, but finding our way back to our shared humanity, to the common good, and, in that, a better version of ourselves.