St. Anthony Abbot: An Italian Tradition

Animals Blessed in St. Peter’s Square to Mark Today’s Feast

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By Pietro Barbini

ROME, JAN. 17, 2012 ( Today is the feast day of St. Anthony, Abbot. Even though he was an Egyptian hermit, his day has been marked in a special way in Italy for many centuries. 

The feast of St. Anthony, considered to be the founder of monastic life, is celebrated not only by the Catholic Church, but also by the Lutheran and Coptic Churches. His life was handed down to us by St. Athanasius of Alexandria, who was his faithful disciple and companion in the fight against Arianism.

Italians mark his memory with a variety of vigils, processions, special blessings, parades and gigantic bonfires, along with open air celebrations involving songs, music and historical re-evocations that recount the life and miracles of the saint. This takes place generally between Jan. 16 and 17. 

The celebrations usually start with a vigil, which is followed by the opening of the stands filled with the food typical of the local region. The following morning, after Mass, bonfires are lit, after being blessed by the parish priest. During the day and into the evening there is dancing, singing and food-tasting, accompanied by folkloric music and dramatic performances of several kinds, such as the reading of poetry and folk tales.

In addition to the bonfire, there is also a the custom of having the parish priest bless the fields, cattle and harvest. St. Anthony is the patron of butchers, peasants, breeders and domestic animals. 

Many entrust themselves to his intercession, asking for healing of illnesses, but also praying for release from the devil. In religious art, St. Anthony is known as “the saint of the demonic temptations”; in fact, he was continually attacked during his life, tempted and tormented by the devil, at times even physically. 

Meanwhile, in Rome, Jan. 17 was marked by a blessing of animals in St. Peter’s Square. Presided over by Cardinal Angelo Comastri, the archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, the animals included chickens, sheep, goats and horses.

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