by Anton Wills-Eve

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five very diverse celebrations


I’m not always 100% honest on this site, try as I might, but today I am. It’s my birthday. More importantly this is my 300th post – coincidence – and is also My Feast day (the reason my mother chose my name) – not a coincidence! Now be honest, did ANY of you know it was the feast of Saint Anton? Which of us do you want to hear about first? Let’s make it me.

These are just five of my most memorable birthdays in chronological order. My tenth birthday in 1952 stands out for lovely spring weather, the great fun in our huge mansion and grounds with 20 boys and girls at the party, and the first time I really felt I could not live without always being with one adorable person. The food and party were great, the games indoors and out were super, but then there was Glenda. We had known each other for five years by then and, when we crept away into the orchard and kissed properly for the first time in either of our lives, that day became simply unforgetable.

The next was in 1963, my twenty first. I was at University in Paris and also working in my spare time as a journalist. The family lived on the Ile St Louis behind Notre Dame in the middle of the Seine. Dad offered me money or a fairly expensive party for my 21st. You know me, I went for the party. The day was free, he paid for three of my best friends to come over from London and we had a whale of a time. My parents and sister and three friends had lunch at my favourite restaurant in the centre of Paris. We were well known there and it just went on and on until around four pm. The evening section was an enlarged party in our apartment at home and in the fashionable brasserie on the ground floor and corner of the street overlooking the river. It was Fairyland. We even threw tomatoes at passing gendarmes who could see it was a celebration and just waved. Not like today, children. But wonderful!

My next memorable celebration was only five years later. By then, 1968, I was Reuters’ News Editor for Indo China and living in Saigon. On April the 30th I flew to Vientiane in Laos to help set up the first diplomatic contacts which led to the Paris peace talks on Vietnam. I could not have written that fact at the time, everyone thought it was just a journalistic assignment, but I fortuitously happened to know the North Vietnamese consul in Laos from my university days. I could speak fluently to him, to the South Vietnamese representatives and of course the US negotiator, who the next year held a senior post in President Nixon’s administration. We thrashed out a format for both sides to at least start talking to each other. As a neutral, and the only person in the group who could understand all the others, I was almost Shanghaied into joining the diplomatic teams of three incredibly diverse sets of people. I liked my work too much to accept. But while away a major offensive broke out in Saigon on May 5th and four journalists, including three of my close friends, were killed that Sunday. I flew straight back. There followed two months of hell; running a major news service, arranging two funerals and writing to relatives of dead friends, making sure new staff understood what to do, and only one senior member of the company there with me. My May tenth that year would normally have passed unnoticed. But I had a lot of civilian friends in the British embassy, not least the  ambassador, a Scotsman who had known my mother when they were children, who would not hear of ignoring it. They all insisted we had a really great champagne knees-up round the embassy compound swimming pool to celebrate the most extraordinary birthday in my life.

And briefly two more birthdays that matter an credible amount to me. The first in 1990, the significance of which only became clear much later. My wife and I set out on a pleasant break to include my 48th birthday.  But when we settled down for a drink before dinner that evening she found she had gone off alcohol. Almost impossible. But it made her think and she told me she might, just might, be pregnant.  What a present! She soon found out she was and a fifteen year old prayer was later to be answered in the form of my youngest son. That whole story is more incredible than anything on this page and is told elsewhere. And fifth and most different to any celebration was my birthday in 2,000 ad. That was the day I received confirmation after a biopsy that I had a serious form of cancer. It changed the rest of my life completely when added to the other major illnesses I was fighting. But in one sense this is the perfect point at which to tell you about Saint Anton, or Antoninus as he is in Latin and as I was baptised.

Florence in 1446 was the centre of the Renaissance world. The greatest poets, philosophers emerging painters and  humanist statesmen were starting to question the Church’s right to make pronouncements on science and factual knowledge and political ideas which many wanted to see overthrown. As The Medici family in Florence were the richest people in Italy, probably Europe, and had even started using modern international banking techniques when trading, the world of the high middle ages and its spiritual obedience were coming to an end, as was the universal acceptance of Papal authority in affairs of state. But Florence had just lost its archbishop and fully expected Pope Eugene IV to appoint a princely, rich prelate to the very important post. He didn’t. He remembered regularly chatting to a Dominican Friar who so often pulled him up and advised him when he was about to sanction developments which might not be in the Church’s best interests. He told the City fathers and the Medici family that he was appointing a Dominican preacher whom they might not at first appreciate, but would eventually come to love.

Following one of the most inspired papal appointments of all time, Friar Antonino devoted the next thirteen years to teaching, by prayer, example and above all preaching the rich and somewhat ungodly renaissance Florentines what Christianity was really about. He kept a household of only four regular people. He sold all the cathedral treasures and gave the money to the poor. He housed beggars and the destitute in the vast cathedral rooms and built a huge new hostel for the sick and unfortunate in his city. But above all, by preaching quietly, with sincerity and conviction he managed to turn half the rich families of the magnificent city into the greatest philanthropists Tuscany has ever known. When he died, worn out through neglecting himself, in 1459, Pope Pius II insisted on personally conducting his funeral service. He was canonised sixty four years after his death. My mother knew absolutely nothing about him when she thought that the Anglicised version of Antoninus would be fine for her son.

To have a model like that to live up to is impossible. I pray every day of my life to be worthy to share his name, but I have to say that I have only succeeded in one way. I cannot turn away anyone in need, because God loves them. Be they saint or sinner, believer or infidel, this is the greatest virtue I have been blessed with thanks to all I know of what Saint Anton taught and did. I could never have devoted my life to God as he did, I have not got the will power needed to be that much of a saint. But the example of one man who did have has stayed with me every day of my life.