Fernando Martins was born in Lisbon, Portugal. While fifteenth century writers state that his parents were Vicente Martins and Teresa Pais Taveira, and that his father was the brother of Pedro Martins de Bulhões, the ancestor of the Bulhão or Bulhões family, Niccolò Dal-Gal views this as less certain. His wealthy and noble family arranged for him to be instructed at the local cathedral school. At the age of fifteen, he entered the community of Canons Regular at the Augustinian Abbey of Saint Vincent on the outskirts of Lisbon.
In 1212, distracted by frequent visits from family and friends, he asked to be transferred to the motherhouse of the congregation, the Abbey of Santa Cruz in Coimbra, then the capital of Portugal. There the young Fernando studied theology and Latin.
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After his ordination to the priesthood, Fernando was named guestmaster and placed in charge of hospitality for the abbey. While he was in Coimbra, some Franciscan friars arrived and settled at a small hermitage outside Coimbra dedicated to Saint Anthony of Egypt. Fernando was strongly attracted to the simple, evangelical lifestyle of the friars, whose order had been founded only eleven years prior. News arrived that five Franciscans had been beheaded in Morocco, the first of their order to be killed. King Afonso ransomed their bodies to be returned and buried as martyrs in the Abbey of Santa Cruz. Inspired by their example, Fernando obtained permission from church authorities to leave the Canons Regular to join the new Franciscan Order. Upon his admission to the life of the friars, he joined the small hermitage in Olivais, adopting the name Anthony (from the name of the chapel located there, dedicated to Saint Anthony the Great), by which he was to be known.
Anthony then set out for Morocco, in fulfillment of his new vocation. However, he fell seriously ill in Morocco and set sail back for Portugal in hope of regaining his health. On the return voyage the ship was blown off course and landed in Sicily.
From Sicily he made his way to Tuscany where he was assigned to a convent of the order, but he met with difficulty on account of his sickly appearance. He was finally assigned to the rural hermitage of San Paolo near Forlì, Romagna, a choice made after considering his poor health. There he had recourse to a cell one of the friars had made in a nearby cave, spending time in private prayer and study.
One day, in 1222, in the town of Forli, on the occasion of an ordination, a number of visiting Dominican friars were present, and there was some misunderstanding over who should preach. The Franciscans naturally expected that one of the Dominicans would occupy the pulpit, for they were renowned for their preaching; the Dominicans, on the other hand, had come unprepared, thinking that a Franciscan would be the homilist. In this quandary, the head of the hermitage, who had no one among his own humble friars suitable for the occasion, called upon Anthony, whom he suspected was most qualified, and entreated him to speak whatever the Holy Spirit should put into his mouth. Anthony objected but was overruled, and his sermon created a deep impression. Not only his rich voice and arresting manner, but the entire theme and substance of his discourse and his moving eloquence, held the attention of his hearers. Everyone was impressed with his knowledge of Scripture, acquired during his years as an Augustinian friar.
At that point, Anthony was sent by Brother Gratian, the local Minister Provincial, to the Franciscan province of Romagna, based in Bologna. He soon came to the attention of the founder of the order, Francis of Assisi. Francis had held a strong distrust of the place of theological studies in the life of his brotherhood, fearing that it might lead to an abandonment of their commitment to a life of real poverty. In Anthony, however, he found a kindred spirit for his vision, who was also able to provide the teaching needed by young members of the order who might seek ordination. In 1224 he entrusted the pursuit of studies for any of his friars to the care of Anthony.
The reason St. Anthony's help is invoked for finding things lost or stolen is traced to an incident that occurred in Bologna. According to the story, Anthony had a book of psalms that was of some importance to him as it contained the notes and comments he had made to use in teaching his students. A novice who had decided to leave took the psalter with him. Prior to the invention of the printing press, any book was an item of value. Upon noticing it was missing, Anthony prayed it would be found or returned. The thief was moved to restore the book to Anthony and return to the Order. The stolen book is said to be preserved in the Franciscan friary in Bologna.
Occasionally he took another post, as a teacher, for instance, at the universities of Montpellier and Toulouse in southern France, but it was as a preacher that Anthony revealed his supreme gift. According to historian Sophronius Clasen, Anthony preached the grandeur of Christianity. His method included allegory and symbolical explanation of Scripture. In 1226, after attending the General Chapter of his order held at Arles, France, and preaching in the French region of Provence, Anthony returned to Italy and was appointed provincial superior of northern Italy. He chose the city of Padua as his location.
In 1228 he served as envoy from the general chapter to Pope Gregory IX. At the Papal court, his preaching was hailed as a "jewel case of the Bible" and he was commissioned to produce his collection of sermons, Sermons for Feast Days (Sermones in Festivitates). Gregory IX himself described him as the "Ark of the Testament" (Doctor Arca testamenti).
Anthony became sick with ergotism, a disease which is now known also under the name "Saint Anthony's Fire", and, in 1231, went to the woodland retreat at Camposampiero with two other friars for a respite. There he lived in a cell built for him under the branches of a walnut tree. Anthony died on the way back to Padua on 13 June 1231 at the Poor Clare monastery at Arcella (now part of Padua), aged 35.
According to the request of Anthony, he was buried in the small church of Santa Maria Mater Domini, probably dating from the late 12th century and near a convent which had been founded by him in 1229. Nevertheless, due to his increased notability, construction of a large Basilica began around 1232 - although it was not completed until 1301. The smaller church was incorporated into structure as the Cappella della Madonna Mora (Chapel of the Dark Madonna). The basilica is commonly known today as "Il Santo".Various legends surround the death of Anthony. One holds that when he died, the children cried in the streets and that all the bells of the churches rang of their own accord. Another legend regards his tongue. Anthony is buried in a chapel within the large basilica built to honor him, where his tongue is displayed for veneration in a large reliquary along with his jaw and his vocal cords. When his body was exhumed thirty years after his death, it was found turned to dust, but the tongue was claimed to have glistened and looked as if it was still alive and moist; apparently a further claim was made that this was a sign of his gift of preaching. On 1 January 1981 Pope John Paul II authorized a scientific team to study the saint's remains and the tomb was opened on 6 January.[