Perhaps the three most well-known Franciscan saints are Francis, of course, Clare of Assisi, and Anthony of Padua. I would like to take this opportunity to highlight the similarities between Francis and his early follower, Anthony.
Both saints are sometimes seen with the baby Jesus in their arms. Francis once celebrated the feast of Christmas in a cave near the town of Greccio. Legend tells us that during Midnight Mass, the baby Jesus appeared in the straw-filled manger set up nearby and that Saint Francis held the infant in his arms.
Similarly, we often see statues of Anthony with the child Jesus in his arms. According to one legend, Anthony was praying in a little hermitage one night and a passerby saw the little cell where Anthony prayed fill up with light. And he saw Anthony holding the little child and talking to him.
The basic message of the child held in the arms of Francis and Anthony is that our loving God, through the mystery of the Incarnation, has come to serve us as a humble human child.
Both saints display great humility. We can think of many times in Francis’ life when he exhibited humility—for example, when he embraced the leper or when he shared his cloak with a beggar. Anthony’s humble spirit, on the other hand, was revealed by the fact that he never boasted about the sublime level of education he had imbibed as an Augustinian friar in Portugal. He kept that hidden. In fact, most of the friars in Italy were not even aware of Anthony’s great knowledge of Scripture.
Anthony’s example helps us remember the instructive gospel passage: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Lk 14:11).
Both saints preached to God's creatures. We are very familiar with the story of Francis preaching to the birds as well as the story of how he preached to and tamed the wolf of Gubbio. There are other stories of Francis talking to creatures. We remember, too, his wonderful canticle to “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.”
There is a famous story that occurred in the town of Rimininear the sea. On that occasion, Anthony stood on a pier and preached to a large school of fish because the people of the town refused to pay attention to his sermon. Thanks to the profound respect that great friars like Francis and Anthony have shown to God’s creatures, we are also inspired to do the same.
Both saints felt called to preach the Gospel to Muslims. In the year 1219, Saint Francis traveled to Damietta, Egypt, where he met with Muslim Sultan Malik al-Kamil. He tried to engage in peaceful dialogue with the sultan. He fearlessly sought to persuade his Muslim brother that Christ was the true way to salvation. Though Francis failed in this attempt, the sultan became his friend.
It was not long after 1219 that Anthony left the Augustinians in Portugalto become a Franciscan friar and expressed his desire to preach the gospel to the Muslims in Morocco. In Francis and Anthony’s desire to go among the Muslims, we see the beginning of the Franciscan charism of seeking to build bridges—rather than walls—between differing nations, races, and religions.