Faith and inspiration: Encyclopedia of saints for today

Saint John of God, Religious (1495-1550).

Feast Day: 08Mar.

John was born in Portugal but spent most of his life in Spain. He typifies the extraordinary zeal and energy that filled the country after Columbus’ travels to America. Young John served in the army of a Castilian count, where he acquired all the immoral habits of a mercenary. He fought for Spain against the French and the Turks, notable in Hungary. In the army, he gave up all practice of religion.

Repentance came to John in stages marked by dramatic incidents. But once he turned his life to God, he embraced the Christian ideal and never let it go. At the age of about forty, he was converted to a life of dedication to the service of God in compassion to the poor, extending he thought, to martyrdom in North Africa through helping Christian slaves. He was strongly advised against this. In Gibraltar, he became a peddler who sold sacred books and pictures so successfully that he opened a religious book shop in Granada in 1538. Like many Christian booksellers today, he hoped his little business would present him opportunities to lead others to Christ. But that year at Granada’s great festival on St. Sebastian’s Day, John’s life changed dramatically.

At the event, St. John of Avila’s preaching on the joys experienced by those who suffer for Christ, threw John of God into a paroxysm of repentance, crying and tearing his hair and clothes. He ran around the streets doing this until he was eventually confined to a mental hospital. However, John of Avila persuaded him to quit his unusual penitential practices and advised him to devote his energies in the future to the care of the sick and the poor.

The intervention by John of Avila calmed John. He stayed awhile at the hospital, serving the sick. Then he bought a small house and turned it into a hospital. Other men came to work with him, forming the foundation of the Brothers of St. John of God that has spread all over Christendom. For the next fourteen years until his death, John of God and his associates relentlessly served the poor and the sick. John worked with the utmost devotion for the physical and spiritual well-being of his patients. His ceaseless energy was balanced by prayer and austerity. His reputation reached the Spanish court at Valladolid, where he was received kindly and showered with gifts—which he gave to the poor of Valladolid.

John of God’s reputation for holiness spread throughout Spain. While he did not hold himself in high esteem as a spiritual director, many sought his advice. John’s death was untimely and his final illness was brought on after an episode of trying to gather firewood for the poor from a flooded Genil River in Granada and then trying to rescue a drowning helper. Eventually, his health collapsed and he died on his fifty-fifth birthday, kneeling before an altar set up in his room. He was canonized in 1690 and is the patron of hospitals and the sick and also of booksellers, in memory of his itinerant bookselling mission.

Bibliography:

Burns, Paul. “Butler’s Saint for the Day.” Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2007.

Farmer, David. “Oxford Dictionary of Saints.” New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Ghezzi, Bert. “Voices of the Saints.” Chicago: Loyola Press, 2000.

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