Saint Anthony’s

Some meejah foon (the word is not a misspelling of “fool” but a contraction of “buffoon”) notes that Saint Anthony’s Shrine (and basilica) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, is a “multifaith” institution. At the moment it would be a closed multifaith facility, as it was bombed out during Easter Sunday Mass.

Hundreds were killed, but in addition more hundreds were maimed, there and elsewhere that day — scarred painfully for life, limbs amputated, &c — by young suicide bombers who kill themselves instantly and painlessly, in the expectation of an immortal sex life with the houris of the Islamic paradise. (Imagine their surprise!)

Anti-Catholic bigotry is normal among Muslim terrorists, but also among liberal journalists; more common still is their drooling ignorance on the subject of the Church (as well as on most other subjects). All churches, not only Catholic, are “multifaith facilities.” We (I will speak only for the Catholics) have, since our beginnings, let people of all other religions inside. They can’t (legitimately) take Communion, but they may attend the Mass, and use the church for silence, meditation, prayer. Well, yes, there have sometimes been “security concerns”; and visitors making an unpleasant scene, or performing property damage, have sometimes been discouraged.

Saint Anthony’s, as the BBC reporter learnt, was a magnet for Christians other than Catholic; for Buddhists, for Hindus, for Muslims, for “others,” and for the postmodern “nones” who are a growing constituency in Asia as in the West. From its 18th-century foundation under Dutch colonial rule, as an underground congregation (the Dutch authorities banned Catholic worship), it was taking in strangers.

Saint Anthony of Padua has a following through South Asia, and may turn up, in mudbrick or stone, in popular art and portraiture, in the least expected places. As a child I attended a Saint Anthony’s school in Lahore, Pakistan; on my reception into the Catholic Church I took his name as my religious moniker because, like the superstitious peasants of far India, I could recall his presence in many signal moments from childhood forward. It was an acknowledgement of grace.

The shrine in Colombo was itself founded in circumstances powerfully mysterious, and its patron draws even non-Christians as a miracle-worker and bestower of gifts upon all who approach him. I realize that this will sound absurd to the desiccated minds of our self-styled “rationalists,” but there ye go. I have respect for the simple people they have contempt for; I have contempt for the people they hold in respect.

When we say, “Saint Anthony, pray for us,” as they are now saying in such numbers through Sri Lanka, we are not merely uttering a formula, or invoking a “symbol.” We are speaking of a person, and to that person, whose presence continues in human life. Most of us are Catholics, to be sure, but many are not.

Saint Anthony answers prayers. He does not check credentials.