A new breath of life for a centuries-old devotion

Marco Carvalho

A popular event made its triumphant return to normalcy in mid-June after a few years of canceled events and smaller substitutes. Saint Anthony’s Feast – one of the oldest and largest neighborhood festivities in Macau – was commemorated with the celebration of a Solemn Eucharist, followed by an age-old religious parade recently revived. Headed by Bishop Stephen Lee Bun-sang, the procession took to the cobble-stoned streets of the parish, enticing Catholics and curious alike.

Celebrated both in Portuguese and Cantonese, the Mass was once again held in the multi-secular Saint Anthony’s Church, whose structure dates back to 1638, after the building was the target of lengthy rebuilding and requalification works, conducted over the last three years.

The feast was also the first celebrated in the parish since the new statutes of the Brotherhood of Saint Anthony of Lisbon were approved and published in Macau’s Official Gazette. Created in 1893, the religious fellowship recently celebrated it’s 130th anniversary, bolstered by improved regulations and a new breath of life. The Brotherhood, Miguel de Senna Fernandes claims, is now better equipped to face the challenges of modernity: “The Brotherhood of Saint Anthony decided to renew and rebuild itself. We have new statutes, there were a series of regulations that were changed. Former and new members of the Brotherhood decided to come together, in the spirit of a certain fraternity, to profess and strengthen the cult of Saint Anthony of Lisbon in Macau,” the president of the Brotherhood’s General Assembly told O Clarim. “Basically, the primary objective of the amendment to the statutes is to promote the cult of Saint Anthony, first and foremost because Saint Anthony is one of the city’s patron saints. The enterprise of redoing and enhancing the statutes was, in itself, a process that took some time, but the most important aspect in this effort was to reinstate the cult of Saint Anthony. It was an endeavor that came at the right time. The Brotherhood is 130 years old, one of the oldest in Macau,” Mr. Senna Fernandes, a lawyer by trade, recalls.

The improvements made to the Brotherhood’s statutes and regulations were fashioned with a purpose in mind: to bring up to date the intended goals of the fellowship, given the drastic changes that Macau has undergone over the last 130 years. Despite the formidable overhaul that took over the territory, the fundamental mission of the Brotherhood remains untouched. The Brotherhood of Saint Anthony’s main aim is still to promote “public reverence and the teaching of Christian doctrine in the name of the Church”, “organize divine worship with special dedication to Saint Anthony of Lisbon” and help brothers in need, through the practice of charity and charitable works. The major change introduced by the amendment to the Brotherhood’s regulation concerns the statutory rectification of a practice that became commonplace over the years, that of allowing sisters into the Brotherhood: “One of the major changes concerns the admission of women. This is nothing new, because women have been a part of the Brotherhood for quite a long time, but, until now they did not have the right to vote.

Now, with the new statutes – and also because there was a need to harmonize them with the current legislation – naturally the sisters will have equal rights, meaning that they will obviously cast their vote and have a word to say in all things pertaining the future of the Brotherhood. This is one of the major changes that the amendment to the statutes brought and I think it is quite important. It is important that all the brothers and sisters are allowed to express their will,” Miguel de Senna Fernandes argues. “A few new dispositions were also introduced. The members of the Brotherhood have the right and obligation to wear a special mantle, the so-called opa. There is a mantle of the Brotherhood of Saint Anthony of Lisbon and, therefore, all of this is to put into practice under the new statutes. Last June, the procession took to the streets of the neighborhood and we were there, dressed fittingly, with a certain pomp and circumstance. But I believe this is important, as a sign of the revitalization of one of the oldest religious fellowships in Macau,” the president of the Brotherhood’s General Assembly adds.

Reverence, faith and identity

The cult of Saint Anthony is, in Macau, contemporary with the arrival of the first Portuguese in South China. Born in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1195, Saint Anthony became the object of an extraordinary devotion soon after his death, as miracle followed miracle. Invocation to Saint Anthony became commonplace aboard the ships and vessels engaged in the Asian trade.

The Church, dedicated to the Portuguese thaumaturgist, was one of the first to be built in Macau. The faith and confidence that Saint Anthony inspired in the local population were such that the ‘wonder worker’ was enlisted, in 1725, as a soldier in the Portuguese military deployment based in the city. The long story of devotion to Saint Anthony of Lisbon, Miguel de Senna Fernandes claims, is an important part of Macau’s identity and so, it should be protected and preserved: “The cult of Saint Anthony is very characteristic of Macau. It is something that is genuinely local. We don’t find such an effusive devotion to Saint Anthony in Hong Kong, for instance. It is a good example of a deep, strong religiosity, with a long-standing tradition among Portuguese-speaking communities all over the world, but, at the same time, it is also a very local cult. I would say that it is very distinctively a part of Macau, opposed to other Catholic traditions that failed to impose themselves. In this sense, the cult of Saint Anthony – which is very deeply rooted not only among the Macanese community, but also among the Chinese community – must, therefore, be seen as something that is part of Macau’s identity,” Miguel de Senna Fernandes argues.

After the amendment, the Brotherhood of Saint Anthony grew to encompass fifty brothers and sisters, a significant part of whom are already senior citizens. The greatest challenge facing the fellowship, the lawyer is well aware, is to bring new blood to the decades-old brotherhood: “Among us, there are a few young members in their twenties and thirties. There are two, at least. But, of course, in these sort of religious communities, most of the brothers are elderly people. There are, nevertheless, some younger brothers among us. We hope to attract a few more, because ultimately, what is at stake, is the very own survival of these collective initiatives. Projects like these have to be established, matured and cherished and it’s obviously essential that the younger generations, themselves, are perfect aware of their role in all this process, Mr. Fernandes claims.

Known as the patron saint of the poor, of sailors and fishermen, of priests and travelers, a protector and guardian of lost things, Saint Anthony is also seen in Portugal, Spain and Brazil as a marriage saint: legends exist of him reconciling couples. His feast day, June 13th, is celebrated in Lisbon with parades and marriages.