“And who,” comes the usual response, “is Anthony Mary Claret?”
It happens nearly every time we introduce the name of this remarkable saint in the course of conversation. Which we do frequently, since St. Anthony Mary is very fittingly invoked in connection with a great many of our religious discussions nowadays.
But our reply to the question only prompts bewilderment on the part of our uninformed inquirers, leaving each in turn to wonder aloud, “How is it that I never heard of him?” For this is how we must answer their first query:
Anthony Claret was a renowned apostle — one to be compared to no lesser figure than Saint Francis Xavier. Too, he was a miracle worker whose prodigious cures would rival the marvels of Saint Anthony of Padua. And, like Saint Vincent Ferrer, he was a mystic, as well whose prophecies unfolded the events of our very day.
What is more, as was told him by Our Lady, he was to be the Saint Dominic of the latter times spreading devotion to the Holy Rosary. In his own era, however, he would best be remembered as “the most calumniated man of the nineteenth century.”
Yes, he was all these and more — much, much more! Indeed, in the last analysis, Saint Anthony Mary Claret was perhaps the greatest of our great modern Saints. And yet, strangely enough, scarcely a century after his death he is also probably the least known.
This is a phenomenon without precedence in Christian annals. Never before has the fame of so illustrious and conspicuous a hero of the Church been forced into obscurity, and in such a short time! Yet never has the world needed more the example, the inspiration, and the heavenly assistance of so splendid a saint. So, America, allow us to introduce Saint Anthony Mary Claret.
Catalonia, a region of Spain with a dialect all its own, lies against the Pyrenees in the northeastern corner of that country. It was there, in the town of Sallent, that Senor Juan Claret made a special visit to the parish church on Christmas morning, 1807, to have his day-old son baptized. Surely, he reasoned, in favor of his haste, God would especially bless a child regenerated in grace on the very birthday of Our Lord. And, of course, he was right.
The infant was christened Antonio Juan Adjutorio Claret y Clara. Years later when consecrated archbishop, “out of devotion to Mary Most Holy I added the sweet name of Maria, my mother, my patroness, my mistress, my directress, and, after Jesus, my all.” But in childhood he was known simply as “Tonin.” And that’s the long and the short of the heralded name, Anthony Mary Claret.
There was something exceptional about “poco Tonin.” There was, for example, his rare disposition and charitable nature which he would later attribute entirely to God’s good grace. Constrained by his confessor under formal obedience later in life to write his autobiography, Saint Anthony affirmed, “I am by nature so softhearted and compassionate that I cannot bear seeing misfortune or misery without doing something to help.”
This explains his struggling with thoughts about eternity at the mere age of five. “Siempre, siempre, siempre ” — “forever and ever and ever” was the shuddering notion that robbed the little fellow of sleep, contemplating the endless horrible suffering that was the lot of the damned. “Yes, forever and ever they will have to bear their pain.”
It was “this idea of a lost eternity” that would actuate the extraordinarily holy and eventful career of the apostle, and that would provoke him one day to remark, “I simply cannot understand how other priests who believe the same truths that I do, and as we all should, do not preach and exhort people to save themselves from falling into hell. I wonder, too, how the laity, men and women who have the Faith, can help crying out.”
The diminutive aspirant for the priesthood began school at the age of six and proved to be a diligent student. It was during these years of primary education that the stalwart champion of sound catechetical training learned his most important lesson in life: “Just as the buds of roses open in due time, and, if there are no buds, there can be no roses, so it is with the truths of religion. If one has no instruction in catechism, one has complete ignorance in matters of religion, even if one happens to be of those who pass for wise. Oh, how well my instruction in catechism has served me!”
These were economically hard times for Spain and the Clarets could not afford seminary enrollment for their pious son after his elementary schooling was completed. A local priest offered to give Antonio private instruction in Latin, but the death of that good man a short time later left no alternative but for the boy to take up work in his father’s textile shop, to which he devoted his next five years.
By the age of seventeen, a brilliant natural aptitude for the weaving profession led the young Catalan to want to study advanced techniques in the great trade center of Barcelona. The discovery of his rare talents won him renown and position in the business community of that city, all of which success totally eclipsed his priestly vocation. Worse still, his mind incessantly awhirl with the challenges of the trade, he found their compelling interests becoming strong distractions even from an ordinary spiritual life. “True,” the saint lamented retrospectively, “I received the sacraments frequently during the year. I attended Mass on all feasts and holy days of obligation, daily prayed the Rosary to Mary, and kept up my other devotions, but with none of my former fervor. I can’t overstate it my obsession approached delirium.”
But the Blessed Mother long ago had chosen Anthony Claret to serve in Her holy labors, and She was not about to leave the young man so far afield of them. Among the means of grace Our Lady used to direct him back on course was this forceful incident:
The extremely hot summer of 1826 and the tremendous strains of his work left the artisan severely debilitated. His only relief was to take walks along the seashore, where he could refresh himself by sipping a few drops of the salt water. While he was wading one day, a huge wave suddenly engulfed Antonio and carried him, helpless, out into the deep. Claret could not swim, yet strangely he was somehow kept afloat on the water’s surface. His first impulse was a natural one for any good Catholic; he called out to the Blessed Virgin for help, and just as suddenly found himself safely back on shore!
Having remained remarkably tranquil till this moment, Anthony now commenced to quake uncontrollably as he began to understand the meaning of his dramatic experience. What, after all, were the worldly affairs to which he had become so habituated and attached but themselves a sea of peril! Soon the words of Christ, “What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?” were haunting him. “The remembrance of this sentence made a deep impression. It was like an arrow that wounded me.”
Guilt seared the Catalan’s conscience. He became convinced that, through careless neglect of the precious gift of a calling to the sacred ministry, he had shown gross ingratitude to God.
Resolved to make full restitution, Claret at first thought of pursuing “the solitary life of a Carthusian” monk with all its rigorous penitential existence. In fact, in preparation for entering the Carthusian Charterhouse he began practicing harsh asceticism with his confessor’s approval, alternating from day to day scourgings with wearing hair shirts. The asceticism was to be continued — and increased — throughout all his holy life, but God soon gave Anthony to know that he was called to become a missionary, not a Carthusian recluse. And so, the saint docilely entered the seminary at Vich to continue his studies.
Extraordinary Career Begins
Since the day Saint Anthony Mary Claret was born, Spain had been afflicted with political turmoil, and the agonies of such strife were to remain ever present throughout his lifetime. In fact, though no one more scrupulously avoided every trace of partisanship, ironically none was to suffer the bitter consequences of this upheaval more than he.
Claret symbolized, in some sense, the whole Church as the innocent victim and hated enemy of modern world intrigue. There are those, for that matter, who see in Saint Anthony more than just an example, but actually a living prophecy of the persecution that Holy Mother Church and her divine Faith must endure in latter times, suffering humiliation and even apparent defeat before rising again victorious to her greatest glory.
For the enemy who relentlessly persecuted Antonio Claret, while wreaking havoc on Spain and other countries, is that same demonic force which even now seeks the ruin of the Church. Considering this, and also that that force shaped events which formed the matrix of the saint’s illustrious career, it will be helpful to take a brief glimpse at the problems in Spain preceding his time.
An Enemy Hath Done Yhis
At the turn of the nineteenth century, the constitution of that nation which boasts scores of saints was still found to open with a profession of the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Faith. But the Bourbon dynasty ruling Spain had so degenerated in recent years that its successor to the throne, King Charles III, inaugurated through what he called “reform” measures his own version of GalIicanism, repudiating Church authority and confiscating her property.
These policies characteristically were followed by the persecution, suppression, and expulsion of religious orders, as in all other countries where the state “liberated” itself from the Vicar of Christ. Also characteristic of such monstrous scheming was the parallel growth of a so-called “intellectual” movement — in this instance known as “Spanish Enlightenment” — which was no more coincidental to the tyranny over the Church in Spain than was the Masonic “Age of Enlightenment” movement to the grotesque Revolution and Reign of Terror in France.
An uprising brought to power a “Liberal” ministry which set up a new constitution. And so, “emancipated” again from what Modernists like to term the “peculiarly narrow Catholic conservatism” of the ancien regime , Spain once more was choking in the foul air of heresy — Protestantism and Jansenism — and of atheistic philosophies a la Rousseau and Voltaire. Likewise, there was mounted against the Church a new persecution that was highlighted by the massacre of many priests and bishops, some of whose martyred corpses were found to be incorrupt and emanating a sweet odor when later exhumed.
At the time these latter developments started unfolding, Antonio Claret was a seminarian. Strongly impressed by his brilliance and holiness, the Bishop of Vich, Pablo de Jesus Corcuera, decided that the young Catalan should begin preparing for ordination long before his seminary training was completed. The prelate explained confidentially, “I want to ordain Antonio now because there is something extraordinary about him.”
But there was one other reason. Bishop Corcuera had the foresight to know that the increasing political upheaval spelled renewed suffering for the Church which would likely make ordinations difficult at a later time. And so it proved to be. Claret was ordained on the Feast of Saint Anthony of Padua, June 13, 1835, and returned home to celebrate his first Mass in Sallent. It was then that the government, forbidding any further ordinations, seized the seminary and converted it into a barracks. The bishop accordingly instructed Padre Antonio to remain in Sallent as a parish cleric while continuing his theological studies privately.
August 2, the Feast of the Portiuncula, is for southern Europe major feast day that in better times drew faithful Catholics to the Communion rail in throngs. So it was in the year 1835. On this feast Mosen Claret — so the Catalans address a priest sat to hear confessions for the first time. This being his home, naturally all the town was eager to discover what sort of priest this native son was. After the gentle cleric had spent six hours in the confessional absolving the offenses of masses of penitents, the verdict was in: Father Antonio Claret was in deed a “holy man.”
The parishioners cherished their new priest so deeply — el santito or “the little saint,” they dubbed him — that they pleaded that he be allowed to preach what was for Sallentinos one of the most important sermons of the year — that of the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary, to whom the town was dedicated. Permission was granted and Saint Anthony acceded to the compelling pleas, though not without humble reluctance. His sermon on the Queen of Heaven was delivered with a simple yet stirring eloquence that these parishioners had never before heard.
There was no doubt about it. As Bishop Corcuera had perceived, there was “something extraordinary” about this twenty-seven-year-old cleric. Hence, though still with two years of theology studies to complete, Anthony Claret was appointed parish vicar with the eminent duty of preaching on alternate Sundays. This was no small honor or recognition.
The Frustrated Apostle
Prior to being named vicar of the Sallent parish, Saint Anthony Claret was chosen to fill a very important post that of Regent of Copons. Typical of his humility, he had protested the appointment, and the bishop did set it aside, but only to offer then the position at Sallent. This, too, Father Claret shrank from, and when all other objections were overruled he argued that his insignificant stature he was only five feet tall — would be a handicap. The physiognomical argument, however, was wittily countered by another from his superior: “A man is measured by his head.” Claret had a large round head, though obviously the Prelate was alluding to his brilliant mind. And so, the saint then felt obliged by obedience to accept the appointment of parish assistant.
But able administrator though he was, this deeply compassionate priest who from childhood had yearned to save all souls from hell’s eternity was restless to undertake apostolic labors. The passage of time only increased that ambition, for in reality it was divinely inspired. Mystically, too, he was also given the instilled knowledge that he would have to suffer tremendous persecution as a missionary. Far from discouraging the saint, however, the anticipation of it only further inflamed his fervor with the desire to seal his faith with his blood.
Upon completing his theology studies after years of parish work, “I determined to . . . go to Rome, to present myself to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith so that they could send me anywhere in the world.” Having been released by his bishop, Padre Claret set out for the Eternal City.
When Antonio arrived at Rome in August 1839, he learned that it would be several weeks before he could see the Prefect of Propaganda Fide. Deciding to utilize the time by making a retreat, therefore, he presented himself to the Jesuit Fathers for guidance in the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola. Awed by the exceptional piety of Padre Claret, the retreat master urged the saint immediately to enter the Society of Jesus to fulfill his apostolic ambitions. Thus it happened quite unexpectedly for the humble Catalan who never dreamed himself worthy of belonging to the Society: “Overnight I found myself a Jesuit.”
Our saint had never been happier. Community life with the Jesuits provided sterling examples of sanctity, humility, obedience, asceticism, and discipline. And it gave him broader opportunity to catechize as well as to minister to hospital and prison inmates work he lovingly had performed back in Sallent whenever administrative duties allowed the time. All in all, he learned much and was making great spiritual progress as a Jesuit novice when, after only a few months, he suddenly developed a crippling leg ailment. The Father General of the Society, understanding this as a sign that the novice was not called to be a Jesuit, advised him to return to Catalonia. Saint Anthony obeyed and the leg pain disappeared!
Apostle and Wonder-Worker
Here again was an unexpected change in direction — and it would not be the last — for Antonio Claret. Indeed, the uncertainty of his future must have been frustrating, as his desire to labor in the apostolic vineyards, though stronger now than ever, was hindered at every turn.
Yet, his vocational detour to the Society of Jesus had not been without purpose. For among the many things he learned from the Jesuits that would richly benefit his oncoming spectacular fate were the studied practices of devotion to the Immaculate Heart, as acquired from the recently discovered Treatise On The True Devotion , by Saint Louis Marie de Montfort. Hence, we find Claret at this time offering his whole being to the Immaculate Mother: “You seek, perhaps, an instrument who will serve you in bringing a remedy to the great evils of the day. Here you have one, who, while he knows himself as most vile and despicable for the purpose, yet considers himself most useful, inasmuch as by using me it is your power that shall splendor, and it will be plain to the eye that it is you who are accomplishing things, and not I.”
Increasingly, he was being asked to conduct “novenas” — that is what he called his missions so as not to invite the suspicion of civil authorities in the neighboring parishes. And as the demand for his missions grew about the region, so also did the crowds attending them. It was only to be expected then, that Antonio could not long escape the ire of the anticlericals. His sermons eventually were banned, and the saint had to retire to a remote parish deep in the mountains.
Fortunately, by 1843, power shifts in the government temporarily led to a somewhat more lenient attitude toward the Church. The Holy See, therefore, named Antonio Claret as apostolic missionary. At last, the saint had become what he so long had dreamed of and prayed for — an apostle!
And what an apostle! At this point, the life of Saint Anthony Mary Claret explodes into a story so uniquely sensational that it would seem legendary, were there not volumes of carefully examined evidence to prove otherwise.
Once underway in his new assignment the holy priest was preaching sometimes ten, even twelve sermons a day. In this way, he would manage to deliver some ten thousand sermons in his apostolic career, an effort that would crush the stamina of giants. Yet this little man slept no more than two hours a day — usually much less, often satisfying himself with a short nap while sitting in a chair — and ate hardly more than a sparrow. After years of sustaining his grueling pace, the saint would explain, “I know God wants me to preach, because I feel as peaceful, rested, and energetic as if I’d done nothing at all. Our Lord has done it all. May He be blessed forever.”
To better appreciate the Herculean task he undertook, consider that his mission field was the one and a half million souls that populated all of Catalonia, the surface territory of which, though barely larger in boundaries than the Netherlands, is seemingly amplified hundreds of times by its towering mountains. These alps so isolated their inhabitants that two villages appearing very close on a map might scarcely have heard of one another. (And eventually the Canary Islands were added to his charge.)
It was across such impossible terrain that Saint Anthony doggedly tramped — he would never allow himself the luxury of riding through the heavy snows of winter, the muddy mire of the rainy seasons, and the choking dust and heat of summer.
“Summer caused me the most suffering,” he revealed, “for I always wore a cassock and a winter cloak with sleeves, while the hard shoes and woolen stockings so wounded my feet that I frequently limped.* The snow also gave me a chance to practice patience, because when high snowdrifts covered the roads I couldn’t recognize the landscape, and in trying to cross the drifts I would sometimes get buried in snow-covered ditches.”
[*Many observed that the saint never would brush away mosquitoes that swarmed about him in dense clouds, preferring instead to offer up this torment as further penance.]
Nor could the apostle systematically comb his territory. Having always to keep a step ahead of government authorities whose tolerance of the popular preacher soon wore thin, he would never conduct two consecutive missions in the same area. Instead, each was given at the farthest possible point in Catalonia from where the last one had been preached.
Sometimes, however, the itinerant missioner needed a little supernatural help. In making one of his strenuous journeys, he confronted an impassable river. An angel in the form of a young boy approached from nowhere and said, “I will carry you across.” Father Claret only smiled incredulously, asking how such a small child expected to carry one of his bulk across the swollen waters. But the boy did just that, then vanished!
On another occasion the saint had recently arrived at Olost. After saying morning Mass, he was headed for the confessional at 6:45 when he unexpectedly announced, “I’m off for Vich!” and disappeared through the door. The roads at the time being buried under several feet of snow, his startled host immediately sent an assistant with a horse after the preacher to help him on his way. But after riding three miles the assistant returned, unable to find Mosen Claret or even his tracks in the snow! Eight witnesses testified that at 7: 15 — a half hour later — Saint Anthony arrived at Vich, some thirty miles distant, just as a messenger was leaving to bring the preacher word that his dear friend, Father Fortunato Bres, had only moments earlier suffered a bad accident!
More than once it is recorded that Antonio Claret traveled considerable distances across snow in little time without leaving any trail. The mystery about these supernatural excursions was broken when a young man named Raymond Prat, having joined the holy priest on one such trip, actually witnessed an angel appear at Claret’s side to transport him over snow-covered terrain.
Great Among the Greatest Apostles
“I am driven,” Antonio Claret wrote in his autobiography, “to preach without ceasing by the sight of the throngs of souls who are falling into hell. . . . Woe is me if I do not, for they could hold me responsible for their damnation!”
This explains the compulsion of the man widely spoken of in his time as “the greatest preacher of the day.” But it does not account for how he made moral conversions by the thousands wherever he went. When asked the secret of his missionary success, the saint answered: “I pray to Our Lady and demand results of Her.”
“But what if She does not give them?”
“Then I take hold of the hem of Her robe and refuse to let go until She has granted me what I want!”
Humanly speaking, however, what made him so popular as a preacher in an era of spiritual deterioration and cynicism was the natural eloquence, the brilliantly simple style, and the irresistible charm of his sermons. Though none of his sermons were recorded, the following passage from one of his writings is typical enough to demonstrate how he preached, using unstudied comparisons and metaphors:
Now observe . . . the contrast between the luxurious dress of many women and the raiment and adornment of Jesus. . . . Tell me, what relation do their fine shoes bear to the spikes in Jesus’ feet? The rings on their hands to the nails which perforated His? The fashionable coiffures to the crown of thorns? The painted faces to That covered with bruises? Shoulders exposed by the low cut gown to His, all striped with blood? Ah, but there is a marked likeness between these worldly women and the Jews who, incited by the devil, scourged Our Lord!
At the hour of such a woman’s death I think Jesus will be heard asking: “ Cujus est imago haec et circumscriptio — of whom is she the image?” And the reply will be: “ Demonii — of the devil.” Then He will say: “Let her who has followed the devil’s fashions be handed over to him; and to God, those who have imitated the modesty of Jesus and Mary.”
So great was the demand for the “novenas” of Saint Anthony throughout Catalonia that his schedule was always booked solidly for many months in advance. A pastor in Olot, discovering this problem and yet urgently needing the saint’s apostolic results, went to a Carmelite nun reputed for her holiness and asked that she pray for the speedy delivery of Mosen Claret to the parish. A short time later, the famed missioner appeared at the pastor’s door and announced, “A miracle of the Virgin of Carmel has brought me to you,” confirming that the prayers of the pious Carmelite to Our Lady had been answered.
“But the unquestionable miracle was the preaching that followed,” wrote Padre Fernandez. Still spoken of as the “great mission of Olot,” it lasted one month. Every day Father Claret entered the Church of San Esteban at four a.m. and remained there until nine-thirty at night. “The immense church . . .” says Royer, “was jammed to the last inch of standing room for his three-hour sermons. The greatly-moved throngs demanded the services of twenty-five confessors, and three priests were occupied throughout entire mornings only to distribute Holy Communion.” In the evenings, the combined voices of this vast congregation praying the Rosary with the holy missioner was said to be “like the rumble of thunder.”
When not preaching, Saint Anthony was in the confessional until he left for the day. And “even then, penitents frequently followed him to the rectory where the confessions might well continue for another hour.”
Understandably, such phenomenal labors performed by one man were considered miraculous by those in Olot. But for some seven years it was merely routine for the indefatigable Father Claret to preach several lengthy sermons every day to priests, nuns, hospital and prison inmates, besides those given to the general public — and then to hear confessions, often for another fifteen or more hours in the same day. People would stand in seemingly endless queues for four and five hours — even days in some instances — to receive absolution from el santito . Not everyone had the determination to match such patience, of course. And it was not unusual that dozens of additional priests were needed to confess these overflow throngs, all stirred to repentance by the forceful sermons of Saint Anthony.
Satan so hated the work of this meek little priest that he seized every opportunity to try to stop or frustrate it. Taking hellish delight in attempting to terrify the saint’s audiences at open-air missions, the fallen angel would bring on violent tempests or, at night, would raise powerful blasts of wind to extinguish all the lanterns.
Antonio was preaching in a jammed church in Serreal when the devil dislodged a large stone from the main arch, causing the supporting structure to collapse and fall on the very center of the crowd. Miraculously, not a single person was touched!
“The demons,” Claret wrote, “. . . persecuted me terribly.” Once, as he was traveling, they sent a boulder hurtling down on the apostle, narrowly missing him. “Sometimes [Satan] would afflict me with terrible maladies. But oddly enough, as soon as I realized that the malady was the work of the enemy, I was totally cured without medical aid.”
One such affliction was a gaping wound in the saint’s side that exposed several ribs. When he invoked the aid of the Blessed Mother the wound was instantly healed.
“If hell’s persecution was great,” Saint Anthony added, “heaven’s protection was greater. I experienced the visible protection of the Blessed Virgin and of the angels and saints, who guided me through unknown paths, freed me from thieves and murderers, and brought me to a place of safety without my ever knowing how. Many times the word was sent out that I had been murdered, and good souls were already having Masses said for me.”
For years Saint Anthony had been studying the problems of the rampant evils of modern society. What was needed obviously were more missioners like himself, yet those that Spain did have had been driven out or murdered by the Masonically dominated government. It was not possible, then, to recruit and organize a company of missionary priests as he desired, nor could the saint increase his own labors any further. At last Claret arrived upon a workable solution: “Traveling from one town to another, my mind was continually pondering ways and means by which I could make the fruits of the missions more lasting. The solution which occurred to me was . . . to have sermons and instructions printed and given to the people after each mission or retreat.”
Thus was conceived a new apostolate for the defense and propagation of the Faith — the Catholic press. In 1843, Padre Claret published his first volume, The Right Road , and the little book immediately became so popular that within seven years well over 300,000 copies were in circulation. (Bearing in mind the much smaller populations of those times and the far lower levels of literacy per capita, this was quite an achievement.) Inspired by such success, he promptly set to work at more writing, for which purpose, he explained to a friend, “I am stealing the hours from sleep.” Before his death he would compose, in all, 144 works which, to the present times, have seen more than eleven million copies printed.
But it was no quest for fame that charged this literary ambition: “My object was always to seek God’s greater glory and the salvation of souls.” Nor was he seeking any financial gain: “I have never made a penny’s profit from the works I have seen through the presses. On the contrary, I have given away thousands upon thousands of free copies . . . for I consider this the best alms one could possibly give nowadays.”
The saint elaborated on this point: “If people do not have good books they will read bad ones. Books are the food of the soul, and just as the body is nourished by wholesome food and harmed by poisonous food, so it is with reading and the soul.”
It was this thinking and the already proven craving of the people for sound Catholic writings that led Antonio, in 1848, to found the Libreria Religiosa , whose purpose was to publish and distribute such literature, as well as to provide medals, rosaries, and other religious items. The effort was just getting under way, and the saint was preparing to compose new books for the program, when he was unexpectedly dispatched to the Canary Isles. Fortunately, however, he had the help of two dedicated priests from Barcelona to continue this important apostolic work in his fourteen-months absence.
A logical adjunct to the work of the Religious Library was the Academy of Saint Michael, a lay apostolate to be founded by Saint Anthony Mary Claret some years later, to encourage, subsidize, and promote Catholic literature and art.
Still in all, such efforts, vital though they were, could not adequately substitute for what might be accomplished by a small force of apostles as devoted to the salvation of souls as Padre Claret. And the dream of organizing such a company always loomed in his thoughts, despite the government’s strict prohibition against missionary orders. Curiously, however, though the ambition to establish his own congregation remained frustrated under these political circumstances, Saint Anthony did help to found others.
The general suppression of religious orders forbade convents to accept novices, which kept many religious aspirants from fulfilling their vocations. Concerned for their plight, Claret organized the Daughters of the Immaculate Heart, a sodality for women whose members, Daniel Sargent explains, “could, while living in the world, inhabit the cloister of Our Lady’s Heart. He wrote for their instruction and consolation a pamphlet called Religiosas en sus Casas , that is, ‘Sisters Living in their own Houses.'” Later, he would found the Teaching Sisters of the Immaculata, dedicated to the teaching of young girls.
Numerous other orders also owed their existence in one way or another to Saint Anthony Mary Claret — to such an extent that many claim him as a founder. But as late as 1848, this man of extraordinary achievement had yet to fulfill his own dream, to found a missionary congregation that would multiply his apostolic efforts throughout Spain — and the world.
When the holy preacher returned from the Canaries in May of 1849, he learned that the government’s harsh antagonism to the Church at least temporarily had waned. At last his time had arrived! With approval from his superiors, he immediately set to work on the greatest ambition of his life.
It was the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, July 16, 1849, when five zealous, gifted, and highly virtuous priests* gathered with Father Claret before an image of the Mother of Divine Love at the Seminary in Vich, to dedicate their lives to Her labor for souls. And so at long last was born the Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, known more commonly as the Claretian Fathers.
[*One of these heroic co-founders was the saintly Father Jaime Clotet (1822-98), whose cause for beatification has been introduced.]
New Mission for the New Missioner
“Today,” beamed the pious Catalan with an air of triumph, “begins a great work!”
Was Claret’s optimism only wishful thinking? After all, the infant community was so small and most of its family so young. Then, too, they had nothing, not so much as a convent to shelter themselves. In fact, they dared not even bind themselves by vows as yet, for fear that a sudden reversal of the government’s humor could bring suppression upon the order.
Whence came the saint’s confidence, then, for the future of this new congregation? From his absolute faith in the Virgin Queen, whom he regarded as the real Foundress and Superioress, as well as from his faith in those confreres who would perseveringly devote their entire selves to Her Immaculate Heart.
“For a Son of the Immaculate Heart of Mary,” he explained, “is a man on fire with love, who spreads its flames wherever he goes. He desires mightily and strives by all means possible to set the whole world on fire with God’s love. Nothing daunts him; he delights in privations, welcomes work, embraces sacrifices, smiles at slander, and rejoices in suffering. His only concern is how he can best follow Jesus Christ and imitate Him in working, suffering, and striving constantly and single-mindedly for the greater glory of God and the salvation of souls.”
He was struck with complete surprise when, only weeks after founding the Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, notice arrived from Rome that he had been nominated to become Archbishop of Santiago, the primatial see of Cuba!
“The nomination . . . frightened me so much that I did not want to accept. I deemed myself unworthy of so exalted a dignity and incapable of its discharge, owing to my lack of learning and virtue necessary for an office of such importance. And afterward, when I had reflected more at length on the matter, I decided that . . . I ought not to abandon the Libreria Religiosa and the congregation which had just come into existence.”
It was October 7, 1850, fittingly the Feast of the Holy Rosary, when the saint was consecrated Archbishop, adding the glorious name of Maria to his own.
Later Claret left for Madrid to receive the pallium from the Papal Nuncio. And finally, late in December, he sailed for Cuba with a large company of priests and nuns.
Primate of Cuba
It was characteristic of the unique Catholic spirit of the Spanish that immense throngs turned out to welcome the new Archbishop with joyous demonstrations, as he arrived in Santiago on February 16, 1851. But the religiously festive mood of the people was, at the same time, a glaring paradox, considering the actual state of Cuba.
For it was not to reward Antonio Maria Claret for his pious achievements that he forcibly had been made Primate Archbishop of the island. Rather, it was because he clearly was the only man living who was at all capable of saving that “Pearl of the Antilles”!
Fifty years of Spanish royalty’s insane and horribly sinful experimentation with Masonic ideals had wrought its very worst consequences in Spain’s colonies. Most had been lost by now. And as for Cuba, while still a Spanish possession, it was only a tenuous one at the moment. Heretical creeds being widely propagated in the country were destroying Catholic values and morals by sheer default on the part of the Catholics. And Spain’s callous indifference to Cuba’s needs had given Masonry every advantage for incubating revolution.
The United States, covetous of the island’s rich mineral wealth and, frankly, antagonistic to the Catholic nation that ruled it, joined with Masonic powers in trying to break Spain’s weak hold by exporting professional agitators to Cuba to incite open revolution. Other nations, such as France and England, were more hateful adversaries of Spain. They profitably exploited her timid rule in the little country by promoting a flourishing slave trade there in defiance of Spanish law that prohibited bondage.
So poor was his archdiocese in priests that there were no more than 125 to serve its huge population. Most of the priests could not understand Latin! Many had never received the Sacrament of Confirmation! Some could not properly perform their priestly duties, for their poor training. Others abandoned them entirely. And a few were living in concubinage.
“It was a guiding maxim with him,” according to testimony about Claret’s clerical reforms in Cuba, “that it was preferable to leave the parishes priestless than to send them unworthy pastors. For he had observed . . . the people were more likely to be preserved in grace in places with no priests whatsoever than in towns directed by bad priests, where depraved customs invariably prevailed. ‘If God doesn’t send me true vocations,’ he contended, ‘He will protect the [neglected] souls by means of His angels. It is He Who gives the call; and it is not for me to introduce unworthy [pastors] into flocks they will devour rather than feed.'”
But, with the sweeping reforms that the saint brought about, God did send him worthy vocations. The holy prelate seemingly performed miracles in gradually transforming many of the motley array of clerics he had inherited into real priests. In the meantime, until those ambitious efforts could bear substantial fruit, he reduced the awkward ministerial void by offering benefices to Catalan seminarians who would come to Santiago and be ordained. In general, his labors were so successful that as early as 1852 he could report: “The clergy of this country has been completely reformed.”
Antonio Maria Claret was one of the greatest reformers of the century — and assuredly the greatest in Cuba’s history. For no shepherd, after the example of our Most Holy Lord, ever loved or was devoted to his flock more than he.
It was not enough that, after reducing his salary, the angelic Archbishop gave most of his funds to the poor, setting aside one day each week for the distribution of alms. He also undertook an ambitious program to build tuition-free schools, hospitals, orphanages, homes for the elderly, and other similar institutions. Beyond that, he founded a system of parish savings banks, offering loans at interest rates so low that they would barely support the operation, so as to stimulate the poor economy and improve living standards.
Still the Missioner…
The duties of being Archbishop of Santiago did drastically alter the apostolic labors of Antonio Maria Claret — not to diminish them, but vastly to increase them. For all the administrative reforms within his ability could never have stood without an accompanying thorough reconstruction of public morals. This meant that, above all else, he was still a missioner, since preaching the Faith, said the saint, “has always been considered the principal obligation of bishops. Woe to those bishops who neglect this essential obligation! They will be treated as dogs who were silent when they should have barked. Woe to them!”
And Still the Prophet
“The Blessed Virgin will always be prelate here,” the holy man had protested on the day of his episcopal installation. This heartfelt declaration underscored not only his humble servility to the Immaculate Heart, but his hope, too, that a short-lived incumbency as Archbishop would please Divine Providence, allowing him soon to return to his missionary field. Thus, he had hardly completed his first pastoral tour when he petitioned to be released from “this cross, because I have done all I am capable of to institute here a general reform of customs. Nothing more is possible.”
This was an ironic request since, as well he knew, his departure from the island was not so soon to be. Even before his arrival, the saint had foretold: “We shall spend six or seven years in America.” His stay in Cuba was precisely six years and two months, and during that time he made at least three pastoral visitations to every parish in the archdiocese — four to most of them. And despite the many hardships and obstacles, Claret himself had to admit, contrary to his earlier opinion, that “with God’s help in every way imaginable a great deal of good was accomplished.”
It was 8:30 in the morning of August 20 that the worst earthquake in Cuba’s memory struck Santiago. Every day for several weeks one merciless shock followed another — sometimes as many as five in a day in a siege of terror that left no structure spared of devastation. Only with the presence of their saintly pastor could the people of Santiago muster hope for deliverance from this awful scourge. Nor was their confidence in the powers of the famed miracle worker unmerited. Claret did, in fact, stop at least one erupting tremor by pressing his holy hand to the ground.
“God does with many of us as does a mother with a lazy sleeping child,” the saint explained. “She shakes his cot to wake him and make him rise. If that fails, she strikes him. The good God does the same with His children who are sleeping in their sins. He has shaken their beds that is, their houses by the earthquakes, but He spared their lives. If this does not awaken them and cause them to rise, He will strike them with cholera and pestilence. God has made this known to me.”
Even so, many seemed to forget his doleful prognostication. Scarcely a month passed, when cholera broke out, spreading with the speed and horror of an inferno. Again, the saint hurried home from a distant mission to attend to his stricken sheep, exhausting himself in every way possible for their spiritual and bodily comfort.
Within three months the plague claimed nearly three thousand lives one-tenth of Santiago’s population. And while the reality of such human misery pained the blessed Claret, he had the far greater comfort of knowing that not one life was lost without the consolation of the sacraments.
Nothing, however, would comfort the apostle when he foresaw the spiritual death of many souls, who at a later time would follow into schism an apostate priest, proclaiming himself to be Archbishop of Santiago. The schism itself, he said, would be “a chastisement,” but only part of a third great punishment that would afflict Cubans, whose hearts remained callously hardened against God.
To two fellow priests, Padre Sala and Padre Currius, he confided that this punishment was to be “a great war” and “the loss of the island.” Then in the town of Sara he warned the people: “You are resisting the words of your bishop who loves you as a tender father and who is sacrificing himself for your souls. I pray to God to avert the terrible punishment that is threatening you. For you will be hunted down like so many rabbits and these fields will be drenched with Spanish blood.”
Several Claretian Fathers have attested that the episcopal nomination of their canonized Founder had been mystically revealed to him but not from heaven in this instance. “Now you should be content,” was the message to Saint Anthony Mary Claret. “They have named you Archbishop of Cuba. There you will take care of your souls, but I likewise will take care of mine !”
“This information,” Father Thomas recorded, “which was communicated in the form of writing, appeared in the saint’s breviary . . . signed by the scrawl of the Devil!”
Chief among the aims of the Masons was revolution against Spanish rule. Claret himself reported that they tried three times to generate just such a revolution during his prelacy in Cuba, but each succeeding attempt was a more dismal failure than the last. “Because of this,” he added, “the enemies of Spain could hardly stand the sight of me. They said that the Archbishop of Santiago did them more harm than the whole army. They were sure that as long as I remained on the island their plans would fail, and so they began plotting to kill me.”
His Excellency revealed in a private letter one of the conspirators’ attempts on his life: “Not knowing how to get rid of me in any other way, they tried to poison me. They would have carried it off, too, if the [hired] culprits had not been overcome with remorse and told me of the plot. I forgave them with all my heart.”
Far from intimidating the little prelate, the threats against him only heightened the hope that God would choose him for martyrdom. In 1855, Claret had begun his fourth pastoral tour and already had made prolonged visits to the parishes of several large towns when that yearning began to overwhelm him: “For several days I had been feeling very fervent and full of longing to die for Jesus Christ. The love of God seemed to be the only thing I knew how or chanced to talk about. . . . Even in the pulpit I would remark that I desired to seal the truths I was preaching with the very blood of my veins.”
Seal of Faith
On February 1, the eve of the Purification, the primate opened his visit at Holguin. Royer notes, “. . . During the course of his evening sermon honoring the Virgin, he did seem to hint of trouble anticipated. After relating a miraculous escape from a tidal wave at Barceloneta, he paused briefly and then exclaimed: ‘Who knows but that this very night the Most Holy Mother may not preserve me from another such danger?'”
Claret could not recall this: “I have no idea what I said or how I said it, but people remarked that I was happier than ever before.”
Leaving the church, the Archbishop proceeded into the darkness of Holguin’s unlighted streets accompanied by four priests, one of whom led the small procession with a lantern. Crowds lined the street bidding affectionate greetings to their beloved shepherd as he passed. Nothing was suspected, therefore, when from their midst approached a man whose stooped posture indicated that he merely wished to kiss the prelate’s ring. It was the hired assassin, Torres!
The unsuspecting Claret put forth his ringed hand while raising a handkerchief to his mouth with the other, apparently to muffle a cough. In a flash, Torres thrust a dagger at the throat of the saint, whose lifted hand and bent head fortunately deflected the deadly blade from its mark. Instead, it slashed through the length of Antonio’s left cheek and into his arm, severing flesh right to the bone.
Amazingly, the fiendish act still escaped the notice of others on the darkened scene until the Archbishop cried out, “Rid me of these !” (In his memoirs Claret would explain, “For when my assailant wounded me, I saw the demon himself helping [Torres] and giving him the strength to strike.”) Finally, after making another attempt to murder his gravely injured victim, the killer was apprehended.
Even then, already having lost a dangerously large amount of blood, Saint Anthony hazarded worse hemorrhaging by rising to protect his would-be assassin from an enraged mob, declaring, “He has my pardon. Leave him alone.” And later, when Torres was sentenced to death for his monstrous deed, the loving saint again intervened, offering to pay all of the deportation expenses for this disciple of demons if the Captain General of Havana would pardon him.
Archbishop Claret survived his closest opportunity for consummated martyrdom. Yet that disappointment was more than offset by his inestimable joy, witnessed by all who visited him during convalescence, at having been able simply to suffer, “to shed my blood for love of Jesus and Maria.” And for the rest of his life the seal of his Faith would be indelibly imprinted on his body by the scars it would bear.
Extraordinary phenomena attended the healing of the wounds. The saint gives this account: “The first was the instant healing of a fistula that doctors had said would be permanent. The blade had severed the ducts of the salivary glands, so that saliva was draining through a small opening in the scar on my cheek, just in front of the ear. The doctors were planning a painful operation of doubtful value for the following day. I offered myself to the Blessed Virgin Mary in prayer, offering and resigning myself to God’s will, when I was suddenly healed. Next day, when the doctors examined the wound, they were astonished to see the results of this remarkable healing.
“The second phenomenon concerned the wound on my right arm. As it healed, it formed a raised image of Our Lady of Sorrows in profile. Not only was it raised in relief, but it was colored white and purple as well. For the next two years it was perfectly recognizable, so that friends who saw it marveled at it. Afterwards it began to disappear gradually. . . .”
Return to Spain
The face of Saint Anthony Mary Claret was left terribly disfigured, his speech badly slurred, by the awful wound. Nonetheless, in a month’s time he was back hard at his grinding apostolic and pastoral labors, preaching and hearing confessions for long hours with that familiar Claretian zeal as though unmindful of any physical impairment or of his enemies’ determination yet to consummate their heinous plot. On he went without let-up for another year, despite even contracting deadly yellow fever, from which the diminutive Archbishop made another miraculous recovery.
Then, on March 18, 1857, an urgent message arrived from the governor of Cuba, informing Antonio that the Queen requested his immediate presence in Madrid. Since it was a special privilege granted to Spanish monarchs to nominate episcopal candidates, it was supposed by the governor feared by the saint that Isabella II wished to appoint him Archbishop of Toledo, the primatial see of Spain, which was then vacant.
True enough, when Claret arrived in Madrid and was promptly brought before Queen Isabella, she offered the appointment that would make him confessor and spiritual director of the royal family. Not surprisingly, Saint Anthony personally wanted no part of the exalted office. But realizing its potential bearing on the security of the Church, he deemed with characteristic humility that the decision was not his to make.
Presenting the issue to the Holy Father, Archbishop Claret was assured by Pope Pius IX that the nomination “offered a wider scope for the defense of the most holy Faith in Spain.” This was enough. What was rendered as persuasive counsel by the Vicar of Christ was esteemed by his faithful son as heaven’s edict.
In a spirit of obedience — and truly one of self-sacrifice as well — Antonio accepted the new duty. Later, in 1859, against his wishes, Archbishop Claret was named president of the Escorial, from which position he thrice tried to resign. For the nine years that he held it, however, he worked wonders in restoring the great monastery to pristine splendor. At no increased expense to royal patrimony, but rather by substantial outlays of his own funds, the saint re-established the seminary as “a model institution of clerical learning,” providing scholarships for fully one-half of its three hundred students. He also organized a resident community of chaplains to replace the dispersed Hieronymites; opened a secondary school, equipped with laboratories and museums; founded a new library; established productive farms for agricultural sciences; and restored or replaced the great art treasures that had been lost or damaged.
How utterly detestable, then, were the Masons who, having virtually destroyed this beautiful Catholic legacy and robbed it of its riches, now attacked the good and generous soul who restored the Escorial, accusing him of stealing its paintings and of amassing personal wealth from its funds!
So far were these ugly lies from any semblance of truth that, in point of fact, Monsignor Claret had refused to accept even a small gift of fruit from the monastery farm. “Not a pear!” he insisted, though certainly he was entitled to much more than this mere token. Yet these and other similar vilifications were only a beginning of the concerted and limitlessly cruel assaults on the humble ecclesiastic that would soon distinguish him as “the most calumniated man in the world in his day.”
He viewed no work more important than his role as a sacrificing priest: “I know that I can offer God no morsel more delicious nor drink more refreshing than the souls that repent before the pulpit or in the confessional.”
So, too, did he fear failing this duty, praying: “My God, I would never want Thee to say of me what Thou didst say of the priests of Israel: ‘You have not gone up to face the enemy, nor have you set up a wall for the house of Israel, to stand in battle in the day of the Lord.'”
The gravity with which Antonio held this sense of his priestly duty is best portrayed in an incident that was related by the Claretian Father Juan Echevarria. It happened that the apostle assisted at a service in which another well-known preacher of the day delivered “a brilliant and animated sermon.” To the immense satisfaction of this celebrated orator, his discourse drew high acclaim from all in attendance. That is, from all but one, Archbishop Claret, who simply “retired silently.” By his own admission, not having “been able to sleep all night” on account of the prelate’s conspicuous reticence, the preacher called on Claret next morning to inquire if and why the saint had been so displeased with his sermon.
“Tell me, Father,” the Archbishop tactfully responded, “have you ever preached on the salvation of the soul or the terrible misfortune of the damned?”
“No, Your Excellency, I have not yet preached on those subjects.”
“Have you preached on death, on judgment, on hell, on the necessity of conversion, on avoiding sin and doing penance?”
But again the priest could only render a negative reply.
“Well then, my friend, I am going to speak to you with all sincerity, since you have asked me to do so. Your discourse did not please me, nor can I approve the manner of those who in their sermons omit these great truths of Christianity and only touch such subjects as serve but little to convert souls. I do not think that such sermons are either agreeable to or shall be approved by Our Lord, Jesus Christ.”
How much less, then, could so conscientious a preacher and zealous seeker of souls as he was be content with the restrictions placed on his apostolic ambitions by his station at court!
It was during this period that, however humbly reluctant to do so, the obedient son of the Immaculate Heart penned his memoirs at the command of Father Xifre, the saint’s confessor and then Superior General of his order. That part of the account discussing his years at Madrid is fraught with heart-piercing ejaculations, Job-like utterances that cry for heaven’s mercy.
Witness: “I have no inclination or disposition to be a courtier or a palace retainer. Hence, living at court and being constantly at the palace is a continuous martyrdom for me.”
And: “I often tell myself that God sent me to this place for my purgatory, that I may atone for the sins of my past life. . . . I have never suffered so much as I do here at court.”
And there were many more such cries of anguish. But by no means did the apostolic labors of Saint Anthony terminate at Madrid. There were, for instance, occasional furloughs for the pious prisoner of the palace, affording him “some consolation in the midst of my sufferings.” Touring now and then with Their Highnesses for months at a time, he was free to occupy himself almost entirely with preaching.
Remarking that the Apostle of the Rosary, as he was called, delivered a dozen or more sermons a day on these long excursions with the royal retinue, his confessor mentioned: “One day I asked him how he could survive such a constant ordeal. He answered, ‘I am just a horn; someone else does the blowing.'”
As for how the rest of this term of palatine purgatory was served by Saint Anthony Mary Claret, the written accounts of conscience he periodically made to his confessor detail for us how each moment of his every day was spent.
Like Saint Alphonsus and his sainted American contemporary, Bishop John Nepomucene Neumann, Claret resolved “never to waste a moment of time. Hence, I will always keep busy either studying, praying, preaching, conferring the sacraments, et cetera.” And so, upon rising “at three in the morning, sometimes earlier,” his rigorous routine commenced immediately with prayer — even as he dressed.
Antonio then would “take the discipline, the harder the better, when I think of my sins and of the scourging of Jesus and of His love.” From youth it had remained the saint’s faithful practice to scourge himself one day and wear the cilice (coarse hairshirt) the next. “The cilice is more painful than the discipline, but, it being all the more repugnant to the body, I never omit it. (For further mortification he completely abstained from meat, fish, and wine; fasted three days a week; and on other days contented himself with a very light diet of potatoes and greens.)
This done, the Divine Office was recited, followed by spiritual readings, more prayer, and an hour of meditation in preparation for the Sacrifice of the Mass. At six he would celebrate Mass in a state of near ecstasy, as many observed. At seven, having completed his thanksgiving, he entered the confessional where he remained until eleven o’clock, when he would go to receive visitors in audience for an hour — “my most bothersome hour because they are always asking me to help them in affairs in which I never meddle.”
At noon Saint Anthony said the Angelus and devoted fifteen minutes to examining his conscience, afterwards making the Way of the Cross and reciting more of the Office. Then, if there were no matters at court to press upon his afternoons, he would spend them preaching, writing, and visiting the sick, prisons, schools, convents, hospitals, and orphanages. On such days his travels could easily be traced by the trail of books and pamphlets which the Archbishop liberally dispensed along his busy route.
These activities, frequently interrupted for visits to the Blessed Sacrament that animated in him “such lively faith that I cannot describe it,” terminated at eight thirty in the evening, when Claret made another examen of conscience and recited the fifteen decades of the Rosary and other devotional prayers. Finally, after more work, he would retire late.
This routine of what the court confessor modestly called his “ordinary daily occupations” was hardly ordinary. To achieve so intense an interior life and to practice faithfully such pious devotions and noble works as he did, surely would satisfy the loftiest ambitions of virtue for most men of good will.
“But this is not enough to satisfy me,” the fiery Catalan mildly contested, suppressing more can did expression of his tortured emotions. His apostolic heart, which admittedly harbored “a holy envy of those missionaries fortunate enough to be able to go from town to town preaching the Holy Gospel,” still languished under the Queen’s bondage.
Understandably so, for before his prophetic eyes, Spain and the whole world were visibly deteriorating from the persistence of insidious philosophies and heretical creeds. Cruelly deceptive ideals of a “new world order” — a “universal brotherhood of man” — being propagated by furtive forces were eroding traditional moral values of society everywhere. All the powers of hell were reaching a climactic rage, ready to be vented again in full fury against the divine Spouse of Christ, Holy Mother Church. And the poor missionary Archbishop remained chained to the palace walls, helpless to counter these great modern evils.
The spectacular life of Saint Anthony Mary Claret could be likened to the Holy Rosary, which was so much an integral part of it. It had its joys in the tireless and constant preaching of the Faith and the conversion of countless souls.
It had its sorrows, too, in sufferings increasingly so bitter that they evoked from the little saint this fitting utterance: “On the cross I have lived and on the cross I wish to die. From the cross I hope to come down, not by my own hands, but at the hands of others after I have finished my sacrifice.”
And, as incredibly intense persecutions summoned Antonio nearer to his last earthly mission, glorious mysteries also became a part of his rare career of holiness, giving him the sweetest heavenly consolations in the midst of his greatest anguish.
Beginning in 1856, the saint was under command by his confessor to write of any inner lights he received from heaven. Monsignor Claret obediently began this unusual log, noting an event that occurred in Cuba, on July 12, 1855. Kneeling before a painting of Our Lady, to give thanks for the graces She obtained for him in composing his beautiful pastoral letter on the Immaculate Conception,* he “heard a clear and distinct voice issuing from the picture, saying ‘Bene scripsisti ‘ [You have written well].”
[*So great was Claret’s enthusiasm in defense of Marian doctrines that the papal declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 was not enough for him. He championed a further pronouncement to the world — that of Our Lady’s Assumption. This doctrine was finally proclaimed by Pope Pius XII in 1950, the same year that Saint Anthony Mary Claret was canonized.]
So, too, on three other occasions did Our Divine Lord utter His approval of books the saint had penned.
Saint Anthony was blessed with many heavenly messages from Jesus and Mary, most of them to console him in his suffering or to counsel him in perseverance and prayer.
Some were very simple: “On April 27 , He promised me the love of God and called me ‘My little Anthony .'”
And some were precious: On “September 20, 1866 . . . I prayed to Our Lord, ‘O Jesus, do not allow all Thou hast suffered to be lost.’ He answered, ‘It will not be lost; I love you dearly .’ ‘I know,’ I said, ‘but I have been most ungrateful.’ ‘Yes, you have been very ungrateful .'”
Other supernatural communications, however, were to prepare Saint Anthony — and, through him, the world — for the final battle. On October 8, 1857, the Blessed Virgin told him: “Be watchful for what is to come .” Repeating this message, Her words and voice were emphatic.
The next day, “at four o’clock in the morning,” the Queen of Heaven again addressed him, saying: “You must be the Dominic of these times in propagating devotion to the Rosary .”
Then, on September 23, 1859, “at seven-thirty in the morning, Our Lord told me: ‘You will fly across the earth. . . to preach of the immense chastisements soon to come to pass .’ And He gave me to understand those words of the Apocalypse (8: 13): ‘And I beheld, and heard the voice of one eagle flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice: Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth; by reason of the rest of the voices of the three angels who are yet to sound the trumpet.’
“This meant that the three great judgments of God which are going to fall upon the world are: (1) Protestantism and Communism; (2) the four archdemons who will, in a truly frightful manner, incite all to the love of pleasure, money, reason (or independence of mind), and independence of will; (3) the great wars with their horrible consequences.”
On the following day, Our Lord made known to Claret that his Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary would spread the saint’s exquisite writings and his apostolic spirit throughout the world, to combat these monstrous evils of modern times.
In all his afflictions Saint Anthony had always found incomparable strength and consolation in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. And so, to fortify the little apostle in his fiercest combat, God conferred upon him a very special grace with which few other saints in the history of the Church have ever been favored.
“On August 26, 1861, finding myself at prayer in the church of the Holy Rosary, at La Granja, at seven o’clock in the evening, the Lord granted me the grace of conserving the Sacramental Species within my heart.”
For the rest of his earthly days he shared with the Mother of God in a special way the divine privilege preserving incorruptibly from Communion to Communion the precious Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ in his bosom. Now a human tabernacle of Our Lord, he reflected: “I now bear within me day and night the adorable Eucharist. I must therefore be always recollected and cultivate the interior life. Moreover, according to Our Lord’s command, I must try to arrest by prayer and in other ways the evil rampant in Spain.”
Some months later, after obediently writing down this sublime experience, Antonio became plagued with doubt. Believing himself to be wholly unworthy of so wondrous a blessing, he perhaps felt that he might only have dreamed it. In any event, he was thinking of erasing all mention of the episode when the Blessed Mother spoke, forbidding him to do so. “Afterward, while I was saying Mass, Jesus Christ told me that He had indeed granted me this grace. . . .”
Then, as if to assure the humble prelate of his worthiness of the esteemed privilege, something quite remarkable occurred on Christmas Eve in 1864. Having celebrated Midnight Mass, Monsignor Claret arose from making an unusually long thanksgiving. As he left the chapel his countenance betrayed an unmistakable look of ecstasy to Don Carmela Sala, who greeted the saint outside. At length, Antonio dispelled the mystery, confiding to his friend his precious secret: “The holy Virgin placed the Child Jesus in my arms tonight!”
Only it was not really a secret. There had also been present in the chapel some Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, who confirmed that “during his thanksgiving, Father . . . had received the Child Jesus in his arms. The Blessed Virgin had given the Child to him.”
The Ongoing Martyrdom
In departing from Cuba Archbishop Claret, to be sure, had not escaped the wrath of the Masons and their allies. On the contrary, well aware of the force of his irresistible charm and holiness, they had all the more reason to fear that his spiritual guidance of the Queen surely would pose a serious obstacle to their ambitions. Thus, they became more determined than ever to kill the gentle little saint.
Several highly suspicious mishaps, including a “mysterious leak,” saturated fuel, and an artillery explosion, gave evidence that the ship which bore the famed missionary back to Spain had been sabotaged. As yet, however, Antonio seems not to have suspected that his life still was the target of a murderous conspiracy, giving no hints of such thoughts in briefly mentioning the many dangers we encountered on the trip home.
But an incident in 1859 made him fully conscious of the fact that “there was a plot to kill me.” Relating the details to his spiritual director, Claret wrote: “The would-be assassin entered the church of Saint Joseph on Alcala Street in Madrid . . . and he was converted through the intercession of Saint Joseph, as Our Lord let me know. The assassin came to talk with me and told me he was a member of a secret lodge that was backing him. It had fallen to his lot to kill me, and if he did not succeed within forty days, he would be killed, just as he himself had killed others who failed to carry out their orders.”*
[*The incidents recounted here, like the infamous murder of William Morgan in New York, expose but a partial profile of that most wretched face of the Masonic societies, of which most Masons themselves are ignorant, and which the majority would certainly oppose. None, however, should be deceived. Even at its so-called “fraternal and benevolent” best, Masonry, by its furtive nature and wicked oaths, is and will always remain a diabolical conspiracy against the One True Church. And its ruthless character invariably will surface whenever the divine truths of the Faith are zealously taught and defended in their fullness. It was for this reason that Saint Anthony Mary Claret was persecuted.]
Shedding tears of shame and contrition, the agent embraced his intended victim, then set off to take up hiding from his vengeful comrades. But it was not long before another assassin was chosen to carry out his unfinished mission.
This henchman, described as a well-dressed man,” followed Padre Claret to Montserrat, where at the time of his arrival, he found the Archbishop preaching. As the murderer entered the Church, he heard Saint Anthony Mary praising his lifelong Protectress, the Queen of Heaven, who “even at this instant . . . is freeing me from a greater danger that threatens me.”
Upon hearing this oracle, the killer, like his predecessor, was struck with remorse, presented himself and his dagger to the holy man, and confessed his terrible assignment. Archbishop Claret not only forgave but generously aided him in arranging his escape from the sworn revenge of the secret society.
But even when beyond the reach of blades, bombs, and bullets, Saint Anthony was never long secure from the ugly temper of his enemies. Almost every day the mail brought him the vilest epistles of hatred, loaded with filthy obscenities and threats. Once the Masons sent him a crate containing a dead body with a dagger thrust into its heart and a note reading: “As you will soon be seen!”
Meanwhile, in preparation for widespread revolution throughout all of Europe, a monstrous assault had been made upon that bulwark against the forces of conspiracy, the Church. “Backed by Napoleon III and International Masonry, all enchanted with the heady prospect of seeing the Pope stripped of his temporal prerogatives,” Royer observes, Garibaldi had seized the Papal States and “had proclaimed . . . Victor Emmanuel King of a consolidated Italy.”
Aided by vociferous Spanish Reds, Louis Napoleon was able to intimidate King Francisco and the Queen’s Prime Minister, O’Donnell, into supporting Spain’s recognition of the unstable Masonic kingdom in Italy. This, despite the fact that to do so incurred excommunication and, furthermore, that most Spaniards were vehemently opposed to such an outrage against the Vicar of Christ.
It depended on Queen Isabella, nonetheless, to ratify Spain’s official recognition. And only Antonio Maria Claret could keep her from committing that travesty of justice the second reason why the Masons had to destroy him.
“I had continuously exhorted her to avoid the whole question of recognition,” wrote the saint. “I urged her to die indeed with her honor, rather than to stain it with so ugly a blemish.” To impress his position more strongly on the politically weak ruler, he threatened the one thing that, in view of her attachment to him, she could not bear — that, “should she recognize the kingdom of Italy, I would forthwith retire.”
Accordingly, Isabella promised him she would never approve the illegitimate government, insisting she would sooner die than concede in the issue. Unfortunately, a courageous spirit is so easily dissipated before subtle temptations of the flesh.
In this case it was Prime Minister O’Donnell, now an agent of Louis Napoleon for all intents and purposes, who did the devil’s bidding. For two years he relentlessly harangued the naive queen, gradually convincing her that it was “not so much a question of recognizing the right in the matter as the fact,” and that to do so would occasion no real consequences to the Pope. “To these treacherous arguments,” Claret observed, “he added that there were vital commercial reasons for the approbation.”
Having thus dulled the Queen’s sense of justice with the toxic fumes of pragmatism, O’Donnell then moved in for the kill. She really had no choice, he threatened, but to grant recognition or be deposed by a revolt. That being what her visionary confessor had prophesied, Isabella in a moment of confusion and weakness finally yielded.
“This,” said Saint Anthony, “was like a sentence of death. Presenting myself before Her Majesty, I asked her. ‘Senora, what have you done?’ She told me, and I replied: ‘Well, they have deceived you. . . . Now I must go.'”
Retiring to Vich, the saint rejoined his little band of confreres, leaving Isabella brokenhearted. In a state of near desperation, she wrote to him begging for his return.
Not knowing what to do, Antonio consulted the Papal Nuncio, who advised him that duty neither required nor opposed his further labors at court under the circumstances, but added “I need only remind you of the revolutionary conspiracy against Her Majesty.”
Without expressly saying so, the Nuncio obviously favored Isabella’s petitions. Still, however, Monsignor Claret remained uncertain in the matter, and so, joined by the saintly Padre Clotet, he prayed before the Blessed Sacrament for enlightenment.
“Their devotions concluded,” it is recorded, “Claret turned a glowing countenance upon his companion and announced: ‘My indecision has been dispelled. Jesus Christ, from the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, has deigned to tell me I must go to Rome.'”
In presenting the matter to the Vicar of Christ, Saint Anthony learned that Isabella had also been pleading with Pius IX to secure the return of her confessor. The decision of His Holiness was that, if the Spanish ruler would comply with “certain contingent stipulations,” Claret should resume his duties at court. She did; and he did.
But. though Isabella was fully repentant of her disloyal act, she still foolishly contented herself in the thought that the gesture of recognizing the Masonic regime had made her throne secure from the threat of being overthrown. She couldn’t have been more mistaken, as Claret ceaselessly tried to impress upon his spiritual daughter month after month. Even as seditious railings against the monarchy by the press, and numerous incidents of rioting made the certainty of revolution manifest, Her Majesty, caught up in euphoric giddiness, remained deaf to the appeals of the frustrated saint.
While touring late in the summer of 1868, Isabella came face to face with an aborted military plot for her abduction. Again Claret pleaded with her: “Senora, we must return to Madrid at once. I tell you we are on the brink of revolution!” Yet, incredibly enough, she still would not take the situation seriously not until paralyzing news reached the royal party at San Sebastian, informing them that Madrid had fallen and a Red regime now ruled Spain, bringing all the horrors of destruction and barbaric cruelty which our mystic had foretold.
Under the “protection” of Louis Napoleon, the royal family was escorted into exile in France, accompanied by the Queen’s faithful confessor. For the heartbroken Antonio Maria Claret it was a bitter and crushing finale to forty years of untiring apostolic labor and sacrifice. Aged, exhausted, and penniless, he was now banished from his beloved Spain, never again to set foot on its soil.
The Vatican Council
Early in 1869, Archbishop Claret journeyed to Rome to attend festivities of the papal jubilee. While there, the Pope announced that an ecumenical council would be convened at the Vatican on December 8 of that year.
That the whole prospect of the forthcoming Council filled the saint’s mind with excitement is no surprise. For all his humility and simplicity, Monsignor Claret was a brilliant theologian. He was greatly concerned with, and had written a book about, preserving the splendors of the Church. Moreover, he had worked on many catechisms and written several himself. It was his burning hope that the Council would take up the matter of approving a catechism for the universal Church, and, in fact, he had one of his own to propose for that purpose. So the holy man busied himself in the months before the Council with preparatory study and research.
The most publicized issue that would come before the Council was the doctrine of papal infallibility. This, too, gave the saint high expectations, in his eagerness that “its teaching will be a beacon to show us a safe haven amid the storm and tempest that is still mounting and spreading. [Otherwise] woe to the earth!”
But, being confident of the complete unanimity of the Church fathers on this teaching, Claret anticipated its treatment in the Vatican Council to proceed quickly, allowing the bishops to devote their time to issues which would demand more careful and thorough examination.
Actually, the argument of the Inopportunists, as they came to be called, was only a shabby evasion of their true motives. For, in reality, they simply did not want to be constrained by a precise definition of an immutable truth. They preferred, instead, that this doctrine of papal infallibility and all other doctrines that it affected be consigned to a vague realm of “uncertain” traditions, which supposedly could be freely interpreted as desired.
This became clear when opponents held forth as an example of alleged “abuse” and “excess” of papal authority the Bull, Unam Sanctam , in which Pope Boniface Vlll declared ex cathedra : “. . . It is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff. ”
Gallicanists hated this declaration because it implicitly denied that bishops share equal authority with the Pope. Liberals hated it because in their hearts they secretly held, entirely by human reason and to the exclusion of faith, that it was not absolutely necessary for salvation to be subject to the Roman Pontiff. In fact, they had drafted a schema, to be presented for the Council’s approval, that stated there could be salvation outside the one true Church, by directly contradicting three ex cathedra pronouncements. Here, then, was the real reason for both groups’ opposition to a proclamation of papal infallibility.
And so, after listening for months to long hours of devious arguments and evasions from orators skilled in the art of manipulation, a diminutive yet eminent looking figure finally rose in indignation to address the assembly. His remarks were simple, refreshingly brief, but powerfully compelling, riveting the attention of all to his humble countenance. He was Archbishop Antonio Maria Claret.
“. . . I am here to say,” began the Council’s only canonized saint, “that from long study of Holy Scripture, of tradition never once ruptured, of the words of the Fathers of the Church and the Sacred Councils, from deep meditation upon the reasoning of the theologians which, for the sake of brevity, I shall not cite, I can assure you with full conviction that, in everything touching the sense and forms of the Apostolic Roman Catholic Church, the Supreme Pontiff is infallible. . . .”
Then His Excellency cut through all the deceptions to the heart of the opposition with words that caused many an antagonist to squirm.
“The truth of papal infallibility would be clear to all men if Scripture were understood. And why is it not? For three reasons.
“The first, as Jesus told Saint Teresa, is that men do not really love God. The second, that they lack humility. It is written: ‘I confess Thee Father Lord of heaven and earth, because Thou hast hidden these truths from the wise and those prudent according to the world, and revealed them to the humble.’ Third and finally, there are some who do not wish to understand Scripture — simply because they do not wish the good.
“Now, with David, I pray: ‘May the Lord have mercy upon us, bless us, let His Holy Face shine upon us.’ I have spoken.”
Who could not be struck by the aura of holiness about this man, whose visage bore the scars of his great faith? Indeed, a Canadian bishop said that when he met the saint during the Council proceedings he felt like bending his knee before him as he would “before a tabernacle!”
And who could resist the forcefulness of his doctrine, without incurring the sentence of anathema that he pronounced? When the vote was cast on July 13, 1870, the overwhelming majority concurred with a declaration of the primacy and infallibility of the Successor of Peter.
But the ordeal had been too much for this gentle little lover of truth: “Because I cannot bear,” he wrote, “that anyone or anything should trespass in this matter — I would gladly shed my blood for it, as I said in open session — when I heard the errors and even heresies and blasphemies that were being spoken on it, I was so overcome by indignation and zeal that the blood rushed to my head in a cerebral attack. My mouth couldn’t contain the saliva and it ran down my face, especially on the side that was scarred in Cuba. Besides this, my speech is greatly slurred.”
He had suffered a stroke, from which he would never recover. “Heresies and blasphemies” from the lips of his fellow bishops had succeeded in doing what assassins and conspirators could not. Padre Claret left Rome to die.
Home for Saint Anthony now was in Prades, France, whither his exiled confreres had fled. Padre Jaime Clotet recounts the bittersweet joy of the Founder’s return to his Congregation: “Despite the ineffable consolation of having him with us, I was deeply pained to see him so weak. He could hardly stand! The change in his features was shocking, and he could scarcely speak. ‘My God!’ I said to myself, ‘can this be the Archbishop?'”
With no regard for his awful state, the saint insisted on preaching, hearing confessions, and participating in community devotions as much as his strength would endure. He did, in fact, enjoy some flurries of improved health, but just as quickly he would lapse back into a condition at times “so severe,” reported Clotet, “that the prayers of the dying were said over him five different times.” To make matters worse, he also began to suffer attacks of neuralgia that afflicted him with excruciating torment.
Father Clotet again comments: “One might have thought that he would be left in peace among his little band of followers. But this was not to be.” Even now, the Masons could not resist the opportunity to inflict colossal indignities upon their hated enemy. Word arrived that French gendarmes had orders to arrest His Excellency under preposterous charges of organizing guerrilla activities and of conspiracy against the Red regime in Spain. The stricken Founder, bidding a final good-bye to his children of Mary’s Pure Heart, was whisked away into hiding, taking refuge in the Trappist monastery at Fontfroide.
Early in October, Padre Xifre sent a message to the saint’s dear friend, Padre Clotet: “The founder is dying. His vestments and episcopal insignia required for interment.” Clotet promptly collected the items and sped off to Fontfroide in the hopes that he would not be too late to embrace his spiritual father one last time. But soon enough he was at the side of Saint Anthony, where he faithfully remained for ten long and painful days.
They say that the saint was often delirious in those latter days. But in his most enfeebled state, his mind was still preoccupied with the salvation of souls. “Souls, souls, give me souls,” he said repeatedly.
And, strangely, something else: “Shall you go to the United States, then?” he asked Padre Clotet, taking his friend by total surprise in the middle of the night. Was this, also delirium? Perhaps. But while exiled in Paris, when certainly his mind was fully rational, the mystic then too had been anxious for his Congregation to labor in the New World writing: “America is a great and fertile field, and in time more souls will enter heaven from America than from Europe. This part of the world is like an old vine that bears little fruit, whereas America is a young vine. . . . I’ve already grown old. . . . If it weren’t for this, I’d fly there myself.”
On the twenty-first of October the Archbishop was seized with fresh torments, this time with no unconsciousness or delirium to give him any relief from this long and final siege of suffering.
Two days later, barely able even to whisper, he asked for absolution while with great effort he signed himself with the Cross, clutching his Rosary beads and tenderly kissing the Crucifix. The end was now very near.
After passing the long night in watch, Padre Clotet next morning left the saint’s side long enough to say Mass. When he returned, his beloved friend and father could only speak to him by way of a gaze. But this, between two men who shared a common spirit of sanctity, was itself a moving dialogue. And Clotet with complete understanding of his wishes, gave utterance to those words which the eyes of his dear companion conveyed: “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Just before nine o’clock on the morning of October 24, 1870, the bell at the convent of the Carmelite Sisters of Charity, in far-off Tarragona, suddenly began to toll untouched by human hands. At that very same moment the soul of Saint Anthony Mary Claret was summoned by Almighty God into glorious eternity.
His remains were laid to rest at the monastery in Fontfroide. Fittingly, his tombstone was inscribed with the words: “I have loved justice and hated iniquity; therefore I die in exile.” The body, exhumed twenty-seven years later to be translated back to Spain, was found to be perfectly incorrupt.
Saint Anthony Mary Claret, Pray for us.