St. John of Capistrano, Priest
1386 – 1456
October 23 – Optional Memorial
Liturgical Color: White
Patron Saint of military chaplains and jurists
A worldly man converts and becomes a rigorous Franciscan and great preacher
Today’s saint, like Saints Francis of Assisi, Maximilian Kolbe, Jerome Emiliani and many other male saints, was a prisoner of war. And just like all the others, imprisonment changed John of Capistrano forever. Being confined to the four walls of a prison made him realize how precious was the life that God had given him and how sad it was to waste it on frivolities. John had studied law before he was captured in battle and had even become the mayor of the major Italian city of Perugia. He was bright, energetic, and successful. Life was his oyster. John’s mature decision to enter religious life was not, then, an escape hatch from real life or the last exit on a dead-end road. He had silver in his hands but dropped it to stretch for the gold. In a shocking display of humility after giving his life to Christ, John mounted a donkey backwards and rode through the streets of his town wearing only a list of his worst sins. People ridiculed him and pelted him with mud and dung. In this forlorn state, he presented himself at the door of a Franciscan monastery to seek admission. He was immediately accepted. After studies, he was ordained a priest in 1421.
John’s well of humility had no bottom, and his physical austerities never ceased. He continually mortified himself. He fasted, went barefoot, and slept little throughout his life. He was a protégé of the great Saint Bernardino of Siena, a fellow Franciscan. Like Bernardino, John became a renowned preacher and traveled throughout Central and Northern Europe drawing vast crowds. John lived poverty so totally that he, along with other reforming Franciscans of his generation, made it appear as if they were the measure for Christ’s poverty, instead of Christ being the example and inspiration for Franciscan poverty. John’s radical poverty and other reforming efforts were also the beginning of the divisions that would eventually cleave the body Franciscan into three distinct Orders.
Already famous in his mid-sixties as a theologian, preacher, and inquisitor, John was appointed by the Pope to lead a team of Franciscan missionaries to Hungary and the Bohemian peoples of Central Europe. John Hus, a Bohemian priest, had been burned at the stake by the Church for heresy in 1415. This searing event had caused his followers, known as Hussites, to increasingly separate themselves from the Church. Hussite theology was a precursor to the Protestant movement that engulfed Northern Europe one hundred years after Hus’ death. The Pope wanted John of Capistrano to either convert the Hussites or to subjugate them.
John’s mission to Hungary and Central Europe produced mixed results. He was an effective crusher of heretics, but his techniques did not always display the tact such a delicate mission required. After the shocking fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, John led a preaching crusade to unify a Christian response to the threat of impending Muslim expansion. At the age of seventy, Saint John personally led troops in a successful battle to defend Belgrade from the Turks, but he died soon afterward. Over two centuries after his death, John and his melodic last name of Capistrano were immortalized by his Franciscan brothers when they named a large mission in Southern California in his honor. The Mission of San Juan Capistrano, although ruined by earthquakes, is a much visited stop on the famous chain of missions that wind up and down the spine of California. This soldier-priest and tireless reformer and preacher was canonized in 1724.
Saint John of Capistrano, we ask your intercession to embolden all preachers to present the truths of Catholicism in all their fullness and vigor, and to buttress that preaching by an impeccable life of virtue and apostolic activity.