Saturday, June 13, 2020

Doctor Evangelicus

Today is the feast of St. Anthony of Padua, Doctor of the Church. Born Fernando Martins de Bulhões in Lisbon in the 1190s, he joined the Franciscans and became renowned as a preacher.

St. Anthony Preaching to the Fishes (c. 1630) - attributed to Francisco de Herrera the Elder (Detroit Institute of Arts)

The above painting, attributed to Francisco de Herrera the Elder, depicts St. Anthony and the Fish, one of the most famous stories about him. According to the legend, St. Anthony went to Rimini to preach, and the people there treated him very, very poorly, so he went to where the Marecchia River meets the sea and started preaching. As he preached, a large number of fish began to gather around, lifting their heads out of the water until he blessed and dismissed them. As the Little Flowers puts it,

St Anthony, seeing the reverence of the fish towards their Creator, rejoiced greatly in spirit, and said with a loud voice: "Blessed be the eternal God; for the fishes of the sea honour him more than men without faith, and animals without reason listen to his word with greater attention than sinful heretics."

And whilst St Anthony was preaching, the number of fishes increased, and none of them left the place that he had chosen. And the people of the city hearing of the miracle, made haste to go and witness it.

The story is the inspiration for a very important early South American sermon, Fr. António Vieira's Sermão de Santo António aos Peixes, preached in São Luís, Brazil, on the St. Anthony's Day in 1654 -- which in that year was also June 13, since the day has been very stable through different calendar changes. In it Vieira, who had preached before on the importance of treating the indios well, but found his sermons falling on deaf ears, addressed his sermon to various kinds of fish, comparing them to the colonists in their various virtues and vices. (São Luís is on an island, so no doubt his congregation was already quite acquainted with fish.) Among other things, he compares the colonial treatment of the natives to big fish eating little fish alive. It's quite a tour de force; Vieira was perhaps the greatest Portuguese preacher of his day, and it shows. Shortly after the sermon, Vieira sailed back to Portugal and convinced King John IV to issue several decrees in the attempt to shield the natives from mistreatment. He made a lot of enemies over it, probably not helped by the fact that he was, for all of his good qualities, a rather arrogant and self-aggrandizing man. But flawed vessels sometimes hold good wine, and his St. Anthony sermon is a gem in the tradition of St. Anthony himself, both in style and in content.