I hadn’t been a Catholic too long when I had my first opportunity to implore the intercession of St. Anthony for help in finding something lost. Not that I was totally sold on the idea that I could I ask a saint to help me find a missing item. There was enough Wisconsin Lutheran practicality in me to keep a constant internal voice repeating, “Find your own keys, idiot.” But they weren’t my keys. What I had lost were the keys to a church in which my La Leche League group met. The shame of admitting that I had lost keys to someone else’s church (a Lutheran church) — which had been kind enough to give us space to meet — was too much to bear.
Now that I have worked in my parish for over 10 years, I know how unhappy the powers-that-be would be to hear that someone lost a set of keys to the whole church. We have strict controls on who signs out which keys and for how long. And when quibbles arise, I have no problem at all defending the parish rules. Keys can go astray. Keys get lost. I know whereof I speak.
I prayed fervently to St. Anthony to help me. If not for my sake, for the sake of my group. For the sake of the church that gave them to me. St. Anthony, among his many attributes, is also known as the “Hammer of Heretics,” but I can now attest that hiding keys to a Lutheran church are not part of his plan. There are novenas to St. Anthony for the finding of lost objects, but I didn’t need a novena. The same day I prayed, I found the keys. I will spare you the details that assured me that there was divine intervention. Let me just say that I found them in a place they should not have been and in a place I wouldn’t have thought of looking. But that day, going about my usual mom stuff, I came across my keys. One thing led to another, like “Tinker to Evers to Chance,” and there they were. This is the small, derriere-saving kind of miracle that showed me that St. Anthony could indeed be a holy helper for anyone who begged his intercession.
I cannot begin to tell you how many times St. Anthony’s name is invoked for assistance in my day-to-day life, though those who pray the simple, “Tony, Tony, look around…” prayer lose me at that point. I can’t call a saint, a priest, or anyone in authority by their first name. My mother would come back to haunt me if I did that. There are always my misplaced papers — and my joke that if St. Anthony had an administrative assistant she would be told to hold my calls because I’ve worn out my welcome. On top of our own office dilemmas, we have people call about sunglasses, phones, earrings, and whatever else may be lost in the church or parking lot. We do our best to help reunite people with their items and often end calls with a reminder that St. Anthony may also be of help. But please, people, put your name on your Magnificats, Missals, etc. They all look alike. If you can’t do that much, perhaps St. Jude is the saint for you.
The story of St. Anthony of Padua reads as an adventure in the holy Christian life. There is much more to this saint than help for addle-pated moms, forgetful old ladies, and legions of the careless and overwhelmed people who can’t remember where their things are. He was born in Lisbon, Portugal in 1195 – the Padua in his title owing to the place of his demise some 35 years later. He was a Franciscan who wished to travel to Morocco and find martyrdom while working to convert the Muslims, but travel misfortunes detoured him to Italy. There he was found to be a brilliant preacher and teacher, with a gift for making the Gospel accessible to the common man. The way he is usually depicted, cradling the Infant Jesus in his arms, is a reference to a vision that he shared with very few and asked to be kept secret in his lifetime.
With such an exciting “back-story,” why do we tend to think of this holy man in terms of saintly oversight of the universal Lost and Found? St. Anthony’s affinity for those despairing of missing items is based on a legend involving a novice who left his Franciscan community, taking St. Anthony’s psalter with him. He prayed for its return. And not only did he get his psalter back, but the novice had a change of heart about leaving religious life and asked to be received back into the community.
There is a tender humility in the reputation that St. Anthony has carried with him through the centuries. He didn’t search for greatness. He wasn’t looking for accolades, didn’t aspire to be a Doctor of the Church. He wanted to preach the Gospel and to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the world. We look for his intercession when in search of our tangible goods. And in his help he points to a greater truth: sometimes we need some saintly intercession to help find what is lost. And to find what we are looking for. In those beloved pious images we see the answer; what we are looking for — really looking for — is right there in St. Anthony’s arms. Notice that he’s not holding keys, Ray Bans or a cell phone.