“Blessed be the eternal God; for the fishes of the sea honor him more than men without faith, and animals without reason listen to His word with greater attention than sinful heretics.” 

—St. Anthony of Padua

Many years ago, while preparing for a presentation, I came across a story about St. Anthony of Padua, a very eloquent and passionate preacher, giving a sermon to the fish.

When preaching in a town near Padua, where there were heretics in great numbers, St. Anthony became frustrated that his words and teaching about Christ were falling on deaf ears. So, after a prayerful discussion with God, he made his way to the shore to preach to the fish.

“Listen to the word of God, O ye fishes of the sea and of the river, seeing that the faithless heretics refuse to do so,” St. Anthony proclaimed.

No sooner had he spoken these words than a great multitude of fish, both large and small, swam to the bank where St. Anthony stood. All the fish held their heads out of the water and seemed to be keeping their attention on St Anthony’s face.

St. Anthony began to preach to them, saying: “My brothers the fishes, you are bound, as much as is in your power, to return thanks to your Creator, who has given you so noble an element for your dwelling; for you have at your choice both sweet water and salt; you have many places of refuge from the tempest; you have likewise a pure and transparent element for your nourishment.

“God, your bountiful and kind Creator, when He made you, ordered you to increase and multiply and gave you His blessing. In the universal deluge, all other creatures perished; you alone did God preserve from all harm.

“He has given you fins to enable you to go where you will. To you was it granted, according to the commandment of God, to keep the prophet Jonah, and after three days to throw him safe and sound on dry land. … Because of all these things you are bound to praise and bless the Lord, who has given you blessings so many and so much greater than to other creatures.”

At these words the fish began to open their mouths and bow their heads, expressing reverence and praise for God in their own way.

After hearing the story, a creative group of teachers pointed out that fish come to the surface of the water when they are being fed. It was an observation and a lesson powerful in its simplicity, and one which returns to me whenever I see fish in a bowl or tank rising to the surface to eat.

These unique creatures of God will always be a reminder of the need to come up to the surface from the deep recesses of our lives to be fed by the Word of God. They bring to mind the many blessings that call us to gratitude, especially those we have failed to consider.

But there is another image that haunts me. It comes from a poem of this same story, written by a 17th– century Augustinian priest, Father Abraham a Sancta Clara. His poem takes an unexpected turn when St. Anthony finishes preaching:

The sermon now ended, each turned and descended;

The pikes went on stealing, the eels went on eeling.

Much delighted were they, but preferred the old way.

 The crabs are backsliders, the stock-fish thick-siders,

  The carps are sharp-set, all the sermon forget.

  Much delighted were they, but preferred the old way. 

The inspiring image of God’s creatures listening intently to St. Anthony is not enough.  Now, I must consider, in my own life, how the Word of God changes me. Do I respond in gratitude for the blessings God has bestowed on me or am I content to be pleased with the sermon but preferring my old way?

If there’s one thing all of the saints would tell us, it’s that God’s word must change us. Whether it’s an experience like St. Patrick’s, who received guidance from God in dreams, or St. Paul’s conversion from Christian persecutor to Christian apostle after being struck to the ground and hearing the voice of Jesus, we must never go back to the old way of doing things.

Originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.