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St. John of God (March 8)

March 8, 2005

St. John of God rescuing patients from a burning hospital

The 1400s were not a good time to have Jewish or Moslem family ties in the Spanish peninsula.
Christians had finally regained control of their land after seven hundred years of Moslem occupation
and were naturally very suspicious of anyone with ties to the enemy.
Even converts were regarded with skepticism,
since Moslems and Jews had been known to fake conversions
in order to infiltrate the government and even the Church
(this, by the way, was the reason behind the much-maligned Inquisition–
such false “conversions” were a very real spiritual and national threat).
Sometimes the children of Jews or Moslems, even converts,
were removed from their homes to be raised in a “good Catholic family”
with the intention of saving their souls.
This may have been the motivation behind the actions of a misguided priest
who removed today’s saint from his home at the age of eight.

John Cidade, born in Portugal in 1495, was an only child, the darling of his parents.
That at least his father was truly devout
is implied by the fact that he ended his days as a Franciscan monk,
but perhaps the visiting priest thought it was all just an act.
At any rate, whether he talked young John into accompanying him or actually kidnapped him,
the result was the same.
John soon found himself on the road, traveling with the priest
and begging from village to village until he became sick.
The man who nursed him back to health, the manager of a large estate in central Spain,
took John under his wing and trained him as a shepherd
(wool and mutton were big business in Spain at the time).

When John was 27, the Count of Oropesa, who owned the estate on which John worked,
raised a small army from among the members of his estate
to aid Spain’s Emperor Charles V in his war against France.
John, a member of that army, soon joined his fellow soldiers in their immoral pursuits.

He was brought up short one day when looting near enemy lines.
His horse threw him, knocking him unconscious and severely injuring him.
When he came to, he realized with alarm that he was in grave danger of being captured.
Remembering his childhood prayers, he called upon the Blessed Virgin for help,
resolving to change his ways.
When he managed to crawl back to his own camp,
he credited his narrow escape to the Blessed Virgin’s intercession.
Another time a store of booty collected from the French, which John was supposed to guard,
was found to have been rifled.
He was very nearly hanged for neglecting his duty
(according to his fellow-soldiers, irritated over his changed life,
had tricked him into leaving his post on the pretext that someone needed help).
He was on the scaffold with the noose around his neck when another officer passed by,
inquired into the charges and decided to let John off
with a beating and dishonorable discharge.
Humbled, John returned to his old job of shepherding.

In 1532, at age 37 or so, John again went off to war.
He again joined the Count’s forces, this time to aid Charles V in repelling a Moslem invasion of Vienna.
After their mission had been successfully completed,
the soldiers returned to Spain by ship, landing near Portugal.
John made a pilgrimage on foot to the shrine of St. James of Compostella, which was not too far away, and there made a good confession,
continuing the spiritual transformation that had begun during his first experience as a soldier.
He decided to see if he could locate his parents,
and with the Count’s permission, made his way back to Portugal.
He finally found an old uncle who told him that his mother had died of grief
just a few days after he’d disappeared.
His father, suddenly a childless widower, had joined a Franciscan monastery,
where he ended his days as a monk.

This news affected John deeply.
Not only did he grieve over the sins of his early days as a soldier,
he also felt somehow responsible for the tragedy
that his disappearance had brought into his parents’ lives.
He decided that he needed to follow his father’s example
and devote himself entirely to God.
But how?
For a while he took odd jobs to support himself, traveling southward.
For a few months he took up shepherding again,
on the estate of a wealthy lady in southern Spain.
Finally he decided to go to Africa,
where he’d heard that Christians had been enslaved by the Moslems.
Maybe he could purchase the release of some of them, or even take their place.

When he reached the harbor, he met a well-to-do Portuguese family going into exile
and agreed to become their servant.
They only went as far as Ceuta, the Portuguese penal colony
on the African side of the strait of Gibraltar.
The family John served quickly became destitute and sick.
John not only served them, he hired himself out to work on the fortifications
which were being built to protect the colony from pirates.
In this way, he earned enough money to keep the entire family from starvation.
Because this was a penal colony, prisoners worked alongside freemen,
and the overseers didn’t distinguish between them, but lashed both cruelly.
Conditions were harsh, and some of the workers fled to the nearby Moslem city of Tituam,
converting to Islam (by necessity) in the process.
John was grieved by this and wanted to try bring them back,
but a Franciscan priest who made his acquaintance advised against it.
He recognized the danger to John’s physical and spiritual health
and advised him to return to Spain immediately.
Out of obedience, John did so, still unsure how to give himself totally to God.

His next move was to outfit himself as a peddler,
selling religious books and holy pictures on the road in southern Spain,
giving his customers an exhortation to use their purchases well and to live holy lives.
As he made his way through the countryside one day, a small, poor child asked John to carry him.
Obligingly, John hoisted the child on his shoulders and continued on his way.
However, the child was heavy and John was none too strong,
so he stopped to rest near a water fountain.
When John put the child down, he was instantly transformed.
“John of God”, said the child, “Grenada shall be your cross”.
The child then disappeared (
John proceeded to Grenada, where he set up a bookstore and continued his business.
He was also a constant visitor at the neighboring church.
He was now 43.

That same year, St. John of the Cross,
who had joined St. Theresa of Avila in reforming the Carmelite order, came to preach in Grenada.
His theme was the glory of being a fool for Christ,
and John of God found in his words the direction he had been looking for.
Selling religious books was good, but he wanted to do more.
He didn’t feel he had suffered sufficiently for the sins of his youth.
He could be a fool for Christ!
With loud cries, he bewailed his past sins, running about the streets like one gone mad,
tearing out his hair and generally making a scene.
The rabble followed, jeering, ridiculing and throwing things at him.
This was exactly what he was looking for, so he persisted.
Finally, he was thrown into the insane asylum,
where the treatment of choice was to bind the patients and whip them.
John felt this was only what he deserved, so he persisted in his “lunacy”.
Eventually this came to the attention of St. John of the Cross,
who had reason to suspect John’s motives, perhaps from experience with him in the confessional.
He sought John out and scolded him roundly for his deception,
for causing so much trouble and for living off the alms given for the insane
when he was perfectly capable of taking care of himself.
Suitably chastened, John resumed his normal demeanor
and St. John of the Cross had him transferred to another part of the hospital.
There John helped care for his fellow patients
(he had some background in treating wounds from his days as a soldier).

John prepared for the next phase of his vocation
by making a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadeloupe,
not too far from the fields in which he’d originally been a shepherd
(not to be confused with the better-known shrine in Mexico,
where the Blessed Virgin had appeared just a few years before).
He returned determined to serve the poor with everything he had.
He rented a house and began to gather tramps, cripples, beggars, recently released prisoners
and anyone else who needed assistance.
Those who were unable to walk, he carried on his back.
Those who had a roof over their head, he served in their own homes.
He not only cared for the sick and fed and housed the poor,
he kissed their feet and let them know somebody cared.
He sat by their side and was merry with them,
and would then urge them to go to confession and pray.
At night he would mend their clothes while he prayed.
He had a special concern for women of ill-repute,
and would visit brothels to plead with the ladies there
with a crucifix in his hand and tears in his eyes.
Many jeered, but some repented, and he helped them start over.

In order to finance this mission of mercy, John used his old peddler’s skills,
rattling a tin can in his hand as he went about the streets crying
“Do yourselves a good turn, ladies and gentlemen, do yourselves a good turn.”
His work attracted the attention of the Church authorities,
and he was called to meet with the bishop of Grenada, who approved his work
and asked him to wear a habit (instead of the clothing he’d traded with his most recent beggar)
so that all would know he acted with the bishop’s approval.
It was also this bishop who confirmed the name by which we know him.
When the bishop asked John his name,
John replied that a child he had helped had called him “John of God”.
The bishop declared that was what he should be called.

John’s holiness and generosity proved infectious.
Wealthy men and women of the area began to finance his work,
although he tended to give away more than he had, and was constantly in debt.
Some of those he helped stayed on to work with him and others joined him
(the order of Brothers Hospitallers of St. John of God
formed after his death from this nucleus of his helpers).
He was not without enemies, though.
Some accused him of encouraging ne’er-do-wells in their ways and harboring bad influences.
Indeed, many of his patients were quarrelsome and greedy,
turning on John with ridicule and accusation.
John took it all in good humor, as payment for his past, dissolute life.
When one woman was particularly abusive, charging him with all sorts of crimes in his past life,
he gave her two coins, telling her to go out into the street
and proclaim what she’d said to him in private.
When the archbishop asked John to account for reports of bad characters in his institution,
John fell on his knees and replied,
“The Son of Man came for sinners, and we are bound to seek their conversion.
I am unfaithful to my vocation because I neglect this,
but I confess that I know of no bad person in my hospital except myself alone,
who am indeed unworthy to eat the bread of the poor”

In addition to his daily aid to the poor and sick, John rose to the occasion in emergencies.
One day the Royal Hospital (where John had been confined as a madman)
caught on fire, and the townspeople were utterly unable to control the blaze.
The entrances were blocked by fire,
and the sick who were able to move crowded at the windows, pleading for help.
Nobody dared enter the building except John, who rushed in through the flames and rescued the sick,
then saved mattresses, blankets and other valuables by throwing them out the windows.
For fifteen minutes he disappeared between two walls of flame and clouds of choking smoke.
Everyone thought he’d perished.
But then he sprang from the flames, unharmed except for singed eyebrows
(yes, he is a patron of firefighters, among other things!).

John of God combined a life of deep prayer with his life of tireless action
(his motto was: “Labor without stopping. Do all the good works you can while you still have the time”).
In his later years, as he prayed before a crucifix,
he had a vision of his Lord, Jesus Christ, Our Lady, and St. John.
Our Lady stepped forward from the group with a crown of thorns in her hand,
and pressed it hard upon his head.
“John,” she said, “it is by thorns and sufferings
that you must win the crown my Son has waiting for you in Heaven.”
John felt the thorns piercing his very brain;
still he could only reply:
“From your hand, Lady, thorns and sufferings are welcome;
they are my flowers and my roses”

John’s final mission of mercy cost him his life.
He was at the riverside during a flood, trying to save some of the possessions of the poor,
when one of his companions fell in the water.
John, already in poor health, jumped in to save him and caught pneumonia.
Crowds gathered to tend him, but after the bishop had given him the last sacraments,
he asked for some time alone.
His nurses found him kneeling, his head resting on the feet of the crucifix,
his soul in glory.
It was his 55th birthday, March 8, 1555.

St. John of God, model of repentance, humility and generous service, please pray for us.


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