1495 – 1550
Optional Memorial: Liturgical Color: White
There are many “Johns” who are saints, beginning with Scripture itself: St. John the Baptist, St. John the Evangelist, St. John of the Cross, St. John Fisher, etc… The name John has also been taken by many popes. Today’s John has the title “of God.” It is a simple and direct title. The word “God” conveys everything under God and everything that is God, without distinctions such as “of the Cross,” “of the Holy Name,” or “of the Infant Jesus.” Neither does it carry any hint of a homeland such as “of Assisi,” “of Calcutta,” or “of Padua.” All saints are “of God,” of course, but the plain title “of God” fits the personality, outlook, education, and simplicity of today’s John very well. The name was not given to him posthumously. John said that the Infant Jesus gave him the name in a dream. A Spanish Bishop who personally knew John and his work later ordered him to bear this title from then on.
St. John of God did not have the advantage of an excellent education. But what his mind lacked his heart supplied. He left his Portugese home as a child in the care of a priest and went to neighboring Spain. From there he lived an itinerant life as a farmer, shepherd, adventurer and then a soldier. He travelled the length and breadth of Europe fighting in the service of kings and princes, mostly against Muslim Turks. Many years later he found his way back home and went to see if his parents were still alive. But he had been gone so long, and had left so young, that he couldn’t even remember their names. An uncle told him that they had died. At this point, the wandering John decided to ransom his own freedom to North African Muslims in exchange for Christian hostages. The plan came to nothing and, upon the advice of a Franciscan priest, he returned to southern Spain.
At this, the lowest point of his aimless life, John had a breakthrough, or perhaps a breakdown. He fell under the influence of a saint, John of Avila. Upon hearing him preach, and upon receiving his advice, the wandering John stopped in his tracks. He fasted, he prayed, and he went on pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Extremadura, Spain. So total was his repentance for his past sins that he was placed for a time in a hospital for the mentally ill. But his repentance was real. He changed forever and always. And then he started caring for the kind of persons that he used to be. He fed the hungry, clothed the naked, housed the orphan and homeless, and gave shelter to the cold. He gave away his cloaks so often that the Bishop had a habit made, ordered John to put it on, and told him not to give it away. John’s dedication to the poor and sick drew many followers. They emulated his generosity and soon, an Order was born. The group was eventually approved by the Holy See in 1572 under the title of The Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God. The Order spread quickly throughout the world, often with the support of the Spanish Crown. Its work on behalf of the poor continues today in numerous countries through hundreds of institutions.
St. John of God practiced a type of Ignatian spirituality in evaluating his own life. He was not just a spectator of his life, observing it from the outside. He became a student of himself, evaluated his own errors, listened to advice, stopped what he was doing, changed direction, and charted a new course. In some saints there is a fine line between holiness and madness. St. John of God straddled that fine line. He became mad for the Lord and was canonized by the Church for his holy madness in serving the poor and the God who loves them.
St. John of God, patron of hospitals and the sick, help us to follow your example of service to the poor through gift of self. You did not just ask for charitable donations, but for charity itself. You did not ask others to do what you did not do yourself. Through your intercession, may all those in need encounter a servant as generous as yourself to satisfy their basic needs.
From Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
NOTHING in John’s early life foreshadowed his future sanctity. He ran away as a boy from his home in Portugal, tended sheep and cattle in Spain, and served as a soldier against the French, and afterwards against the Turks. When about forty years of age, feeling remorse for his wild life, he resolved to devote himself to the ransom of the Christian slaves in Africa, and went thither with the family of an exiled noble, which he maintained by his labor. On his return to Spain he sought to do good by selling holy pictures and books at low prices. At length the hour of grace struck. At Granada a sermon by the celebrated John of Avila shook his soul to its depths, and his expressions of self-abhorrence were so extraordinary that he was taken to the asylum as one mad. There he employed himself in ministering to the sick. On leaving he began to collect homeless poor, and to support them by his work and by begging. One night St. John found in the streets a poor man who seemed near death, and, as was his wont, he carried him to the hospital, laid him on a bed, and went to fetch water to wash his feet. When he had washed them, he knelt to kiss them, and started with awe: the feet were pierced, and the print of the nails bright with an unearthly radiance. He raised his eyes to look, and heard the words, “John, to Me thou doest all that thou doest to the poor in My name: I reach forth My hand for the alms thou givest; Me dost thou clothe, Mine are the feet thou dost wash.” And then the gracious vision disappeared, leaving St. John filled at once with confusion and consolation. The bishop became the Saint’s patron, and gave him the name of John of God. When his hospital was on fire, John was seen rushing about uninjured amidst the flames until he had rescued all his poor. After ten years spent in the service of the suffering, the Saint’s life was fitly closed. He plunged into the river Xenil to save a drowning boy, and died, 1550, of an illness brought on by the attempt, at the age of fifty-five.
Reflection.—God often rewards men for works that are pleasing in His sight by giving them grace and opportunity to do other works higher still. St. John of God used to attribute his conversion, and the graces which enabled him to do such great works, to his self-denying charity in Africa.
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.