There are actually several noted St. Anthonys who represent very different things to people who observe or revere saints. Two stand out particularly: the early St. Anthony the Great lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries and is considered one of the founders of monasticism, though this is not entirely accurate; and Saint Anthony of Padua, who lived during the late 12th and early 13th centuries. The latter is more recognized than the earlier saint, receives more requests for intercessory prayer by numerous Catholics, and will be the subject of this explanation.
Saint Anthony’s description “of Padua” is a little confusing, since Padua is in Italy, and the saint was born to a wealthy family in Portugal. Though much of his spiritual practice took place in Italy, Saint Anthony is usually recognized as one of the famous Portuguese saints. Anthony was highly educated but was early drawn to the Franciscan order and its founder St. Francis. His first intent as a Franciscan was to preach in Morocco, but the sea journey he took went off course due to storms, and instead he landed in Sicily, very sick and weak.
In 1222, Anthony was asked to give a sermon. Although St. Francis was suspicious that Anthony had been hiding his extensive religious education, no one was prepared for the depth and ability of his preaching. His mission became preaching the gospel and to also live in a way that eschewed worldly riches. As a preacher, he became famous for simple and beautiful expressions, and he is estimated to have made upwards of 400 trips through Italy and France to spread the word of Christ.
His emphasis in his sermons to others was not about hellfire and damnation. Instead he spoke of the joy of a life serving Christ. He spoke of the absolute wonder of a Christ-based existence and in doing so, fired up many to recommit to Christianity. Saint Anthony is reported to have spoken with humility and he became a teacher of the Franciscans in addition to drawing huge crowds for his sermons (some accounts say as many as 30,000 people attended some of his sermons in Padua).
The dedication of Saint Anthony, and the amount he was able to accomplish is quite astonishing given his short life. He was only 36 when he died, and most of his sermons and traveling took place during a ten-year span. He is thought of as a saint of the people, since he did give up wealth in preference to living simply.
Saint Anthony is connected with several things. He is often depicted in statues as holding the infant Christ or holding lilies. Lilies connect to purity and innocence, and of course in a symbolic sense, Anthony was of course the bearer of Christ in his joyful sermons. He’s also thought of as the saint of marriage. This may be due to his dedication to hearing confessions from all after his sermons; he may have been particularly good at helping couples be reconciled to each other.
Probably the most familiar association with Saint Anthony is that he is the finder of lost things. In accounts of the saint, no one has a single explanation for this title. Yet Catholics may beg of St. Anthony to help them find things, from a set of car keys to a new job.