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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

St. Anthony, the Apostle of Conversion

P. Annigoni, The return of the prodigal son, detail, 1985Saint Anthony is the great apostle of conversion. He disseminates the Word of God as an invitation to change life and to hope for the infinite mercy of God. 
Let us not be unclear. Both for the priest and for the penitent, divine grace is the main character in "repentance" and Christian reconciliation. It is that which incites the preacher to speak of sin, of its gravity, of the necessity to renounce it, asking for forgiveness; in the same way, it is not a man who can take us from death to life. 

That which opens the heart to conversion is the omnipotent, merciful and mysterious love of the Father.

Second premise. We would not expect an element of joy from a temperament like that of our Saint nor from his concept of severe an penitential preaching. And yet, it is present. It can be found where the Thaumaturge exhorts the preacher to bear with resignation and bliss (a perfect form of Franciscan joy!) the difficulties he runs into in practising his ministry. But even in other place, smiles the austere Saint: when thinks of the eternal reward, fixing eyes of faith on heaven; when he says that the Church putting a son in the world in praedicatione vel peccatorum compassione (in preaching or in compassion for sins) is in anguish, but forgets the birth pains once it sees a man born in the world, that is, it overflows with joy and embraces the converted sinner.

Repentance (as a virtue and a sacrament) is the dominant topic in the Sermones of the Doctor evangelicus. It is rare to find a page on which no mention of this topic is made. Even when he is stressing to the preachers the sanctity of life, the constant good example, the expertise of the holy science, or the liberty and energy of words, he does it with one main goal in mind: to help the listener make a sincere, full and long-lasting conversion. The moral-penitential concept is the basic, founding idea of Anthony's doctrine.

Preaching has a preserving effect, a therapeutic action of prevention and maintenance. However, the word "convert!" is aimed, above all, at those who live in sin and bad habits. Anthony writes that every type of sinner, including the arrogant, the jealous, the wrathful, the vainglorious, the stingy, the gluttonous, and the lascivious must be roused from spiritual hibernation with pressing urgency and solicitude because every indulgence has its danger. The messenger of God should not even have time to greet or respond to greetings along his way.

The Saint used the net thrown into the water that catches every kind of fish as a metaphor for preaching. It should cause the death of every type of evil in the world, offer the repentant as a living victim to God and readmit him into the community of the Church. The missionary must work harder in those areas where sin rages and ruins. The Saint says, anticipating Alighieri, that the world is a dark wood, cold and infested with wild beasts, the worst of which are gluttony, lasciviousness, stinginess and theft. In any case, faced with hearts of trachyte or basalt, the missionary must not spread tears nor announce the Word: that would be like throwing pearls to swine! The arrogant and the stingy who, being as ruthless as a press, flatten and squeeze the poor and miserable, they eat their flesh, they grind their bones, they are unconvertible and so should be abandoned to themselves.

Since sins come in many forms, evangelical preaching must also take many forms. There are sinners involved in temporal things, those who have broken their pact with the Lord, those who grant favours, those who have done no good deeds… The Word of life must be directed at each of them, in a well-calibrated way. "And if Jesus falls into sin in one of his members, with words and oration we must lift him up." The compunction that will cause an errant soul to break down in tears comes from preaching no less that from paternal correction and fraternal compassion.

There is no reason to be surprised, says Saint Anthony, that the word of God embitters and upsets, seeing as how it announce that all the temporal things of the present are passing, that mortal life is a paltry thing, that death lies in waiting for everyone ("from which no living man can escape"), that the sufferings of Hell are surprisingly harsh. Words that, taken superficially, are unbearable, but which lead one to repentance.

It is well-known that wicked men want to hear no criticism of their vice. They dislike the preacher and accuse him of using outdated abstractions, of being a relic of the past. Preaching renders stingy men and moneylenders ever more bitter when it proclaims that the rich man was buried in Hell and that it is impossible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, in other words, to enter the kingdom of heaven, and that every worldly splendour and glory will disappear.

All of the articles of faith that we recite in the Credo are of interest, but the one most incisive for conversion is that we calls the mind to Jesus' appearance on Judgement Day and the sentencing to Hell of sinners hardened by evil. Anthony seems to be attached to popular catechesis, quite elementary and rough, but that is the way it is: his experience proves that it is fear that brings deviants in line. What would he say today, upon seeing how certain preachers are careful of avoiding topics which are controversial, upsetting, compromising and which do not garner much popularity with most people, such as the end of the world, death, life after death in glory or castigation?

Father Samuel Doimi, reading through the Sermones methodically, page by page, counted 38 mentions in the Gospel of the fact that conversion must not remain a vague state of undetermined interior anxiety, but must be externalised in concrete deeds. Conversion must not be ephemeral, but long-lasting, and substantiated by perseverance until the end. Not those who begin well, but those who hang on through difficulties and crosses will reach eternal blessedness.

Naturally, the preacher must accompany the converted soul through the main phases of his new life, and not abandon him in the unavoidable period of trials provoked by Evil, by weak and deceitful flesh, and by the world which pesters and fools him. In the garden of God, the fruit-bearing plants do not have take care of themselves alone. They also receive the care of the gardener, who is God with his grace, and they make use of his helpers, the pastors of souls. 

On various occasions Saint Anthony touches on the "answer" of the converted soul. This is within the description of repentance-sacrament, and in its personal form (called, less appropriately, "private"; although, as the rescission from God and the Church is a public act, in the same way repentance involves everyone, through the restored relationship with God and with the Church). In the attitude of Mary Magdalene, who, dismayed in mourning, stations herself next to the empty tomb crying, bowed down, staring, Anthony recounts the fundamental moments:
  • contrition (or pure pain),
  • confession,
  • reparations for the evil done and the good not done.
Elsewhere (first Sunday of Lent) he asks, "What should contrition be like? Listen to the psalmist, 'A contrite spirit is a sacrifice to God; you, oh God, do not disdain a broken and humiliated heart.' Expressed in this short verse are the compunction of a spirit that is tormented by its sins, the reconciliation of the sinner, the universal repentance of his sins, and the persevering humiliation of the repentant. Because the spirit of the penitent, when it is pierced and wounded by pain, is a sacrifice appreciated by God, who makes peace with this sinner, who, in his turn, reconciles with the Lord." 

"Since contrition must be universal, the heart must be contrite. Not only "broken" (tritum), but "pounded, ground" (contritum). Both things are necessary. Broken: the sinner must break his heart with the hammer-strokes of contrition, with the sword of pain he must cut it up, one piece for each mortal sin. Suffering he cries and crying he suffers (dolendo defleat et deflendo doleat). He should feel more pain for a single mortal sin committed than he would feel if he had lost the control of the whole world and of all the things found in it. In truth, as a result of mortal sin he lost the Son of God, which is the most sublime reality, dear and precious to all creatures. His heart must also be ground, because he must suffer contemporaneously for all the sins committed, omitted and forgotten." (11, 65-66).

Contrition must extend to all sins committed, whatever the circumstances, and to all the good left undone. Sin corrupts:
  • the conscience consenting to evil,
  • the person with the sinful act,
  • the reputation with the scandal it gives rise to.
Contrition, alone, releases one from all sins, but for it to be real and operative, it implies confession.

"The sinner who repents and intends to confess is immediately absolved of guilt by the Lord, and his eternal punishment is transformed into a punishment in purgatory. Contrition must be so strong, like that of Mary Magdalene or the good thief, that in case of death it will conduct us straight to heaven. When we confess to a priest, he imposes a temporal punishment, which is a transformation of the punishment of purgatory that we have incurred. Followed with diligence, this will start us on the road to eternal glory. This is how God and the priest release us from and absolve us of our sins." (1, 239).

That which Saint Anthony, too, calls the second life raft after the shipwreck is the explanation of sins made by the priest. According to the sermons, changing the perspectives and the tone of exposition, emphasis can be placed on one or another aspect of confession.

Confession has four enemies that, turned around, become four friends:
  • the love for sin (is detestation),
  • the shame to denounce it (the serene courage to tell the truth),
  • the fear of repentance (the courage to taken on responsibilities and consequences),
  • the desperation to obtain pardon (the faith in divine mercy).
In the meantime, centuries have passed, and the weight of repentance has changed. In Saint Anthony's time, it was very severe, the penalty of retaliation or, in the style of Dante, of making the punishment fit the crime.

Therefore, humility is necessary. If one is not ashamed to cause trouble, why should he blush when his deeds are unmasked, especially since the confessor is gravely bound to silence. Certainly, confessing well requires effort:
  • preparation,
  • accusation,
  • shame...
More positive values also emerge, such as:
  • the hope for a liberating pardon,
  • hatred for evil,
  • force of purpose,
  • the obligation to obey the confessor ...
The Saint twice cites the famous mnemo-technical verse enumerating the circumstances of sins: who, what, where, through whom, to whom, in what way, when. Circumstances which should be applied to the confession of every mortal sin, such as hate, gossip and slander, hypocrisy and falsity, lasciviousness, pride, stinginess and usury, negligence of duties and so on.
Confess well, confess often. At that time, Canon 21 of the 4th Lateran Council (1215) was already in act, prescribing annual confession. Anthony deplored the numerous believers who followed this minimum, "If you drink the poison of sin every day, every day you must accept the antidote of confession." (1, 467) A great expert of consciences was speaking!

He also spent time on the duty of discretio (discretion, discernment, balance) especially on the part the priest. Confession looks like a penitent, but even more it has the traits, the religious atmosphere, the moral sentiment and the style that the priest gives it. Absolution does not work in a mechanical way. Its efficacy also depends on the disposition of the faithful, especially on the seriousness of his resolution.

"Satisfaction" carries less weight today than it did in the Middle Ages. It is the third stage in sacramental repentance. Before the rise of Scholasticism (in the second half of the 13th century) there was a high level of severity in this field. Rigaldi, the author of an ancient legend about Saint Anthony, tells that the Thaumaturge ordered 12 pilgrimages to Rome, on foot, for a converted latro et raptor (brigand and robber).

As we are poor sinners ("he who says he is without sin is a liar": 1st letter of John, 1,10), our earthly state is of incurable fragility, of inexhaustible repentance and incessant confession and conversion, and reparation. It is not enough to repent, it is necessary, within the limits of possibility, to restore the compromised equilibrium, and damage done. Saint Anthony insists on the expiatory power of prayer to God, charity to one's neighbour and fasting.

Satisfaction (called today, simply, but inaccurately, penitence) must be in proportion to the sin, so that the punishment corresponds to the sin with which we have stained ourselves. Certainly, this only has value if it is done in the spirit of faith. Then it is Jesus who immolates himself in us, who repairs together with us, and it is his omnipotent grace that brings back order and harmony where there was the devastating evil deed.

"We, therefore, who call ourselves Christians with the name of Christ, unanimously with devoted minds, pray to the same Son of God, Jesus Christ, and, with insistence, we ask that he allow us to pass from the spirit of contrition to the desert of confession so that we can receive forgiveness for our iniquities and, renewed and purified, we deserve to enjoy the joys of his resurrection and to take our place in the glory of eternal beatitude, with the help of his grace. May he have honour and glory in the centuries. Amen!"

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