St. John of God
Memorial: March 8
Given his incredibly impulsive nature, it is likely that today’s saint, a Portuguese native, had ADD. Unlike many with ADD, he never outgrew that impulsiveness or learned when to follow it and when not to.
For instance, at age 8, he obeyed an impulse to follow an itinerant preacher who preached about the wonders of the New World and converting the heathen therein.
Likely the evangelist kept telling the boy to go home and be with his parents, who must have been worried sick about him. Still John trailed after him, and they begged in every village into which they came until John fell sick one day in rural Spain.
The preacher left him in the care of a wealthy estate’s manager, whose wife nursed him back to health. The boy was eventually put to work as a shepherd in the local mountains.
Then in 1523, when he was 27, his foster father proposed that John marry his daughter, “whom he loved as a sister.” Was it only that? Was she unattractive to boot? Was she good but also flawed and that made her unattractive to him? Was the Holy Spirit putting a damper on any attraction that may have arisen because of the plans God had for him? We don’t know.
What we do know is that rather than marry the young lady, he left the estate and joined the Spanish infantry to help Spain fight the invading French.
Like many of his fellow soldiers, he drank to excess, gambled, and took liberties when the opportunity presented itself.
And it was during this time that he was negligent with his brigade’s funds, which allowed the enemy to steal that money.
Another version of his story says he was thrown from his horse one day near the French lines. He became deathly afraid they would capture and kill or imprison and torture him. This caused him to reevaluate his life, and he converted.
After safely returning to camp, he encouraged all his buddies to convert, too. Repeatedly. He was like a broken record. He. Wouldn’t. Stop.
Whether their hearts were hard or the Holy Spirit wasn’t moving them in the same way, they weren’t having it.
“So they used his impulsive nature to trick him into leaving his post on the pretext of helping someone in need.” In other words, they tricked him into inadvertently deserting his unit.
Whatever the case, his superiors sent him to jail and were going to hang him. He prayed fervently for a miracle from Our Lady, and at the last moment he received a reprieve. Eventually he was beaten, made to go naked, and released. For several years he went back to his foster parents, but by 1532, he had returned to military service and fought under Emperor Charles V at Vienna against the invading Muslims.
After the Christian forces’ victory in that conflict, John decided to go home to Portugal and his real parents. Upon arriving, however, he learned his father had entered a monastery and died soon thereafter. His mother had also passed. All he had left was an uncle. So with nothing for him at home, on a whim, he decided, “I’ll go to Africa and ransom Christian captives.” He was 38.
John was “on the dock waiting for his ship when he saw [an upset, grieving] family.” Upon discovering “they were a noble family being exiled to Africa after political intrigues, he abandoned his original plan and volunteered to be their servant. The family fell sick when they reached their exile, and John kept them alive not only by nursing them but by earning money to feed them.”
To support his new family, he got a job building fortifications. It “was grueling, inhuman work, and the workers were beaten and mistreated by people who called themselves Catholics. Seeing Christians act this way so disturbed John that it shook his faith. A priest advised him not to blame the church for their actions and to leave for Spain.”
The family he had served was pardoned, and with their return to Spain set, he too decided to go back to Europe. So he made his way to the peninsula, where by day he unloaded ships on the docks and by night he visited churches and read theological works.
He grew to love reading so much, he wanted to share this love with others. This is why he became an itinerant book and holy card peddler.
Then a vision sent him to Granada, where he opened a small bookstore, selling mostly religious books, and his business thrived. This was in a time when the printing press was relatively new and books had suddenly become affordable.
It was during this period of his life when some perplexing happened to him. A little boy approached asking for charity, which John gave him. In return, the child told him “Granada is your cross,” and instantly disappeared.
A little while later, in January 1539, when he was about 40, John went to hear St. Juan de Avila preach, and it was like a thunderbolt struck him. Since his conversion, he had always been pious, but now, he was absolutely on fire for the Lord.
He went back to his shop, gave away or destroyed all the books there, tore off all his clothing, and wandered naked through the city like a madman shouting random things about Jesus: “Mercy, Lord, I am a sinner!” and similar things.
If you’ve ever lived in a big city, you’ve seen this sort of person, haven’t you? They’re shouting at the top of their lungs, and you think as you pass them, ‘Tsk. Tsk. He’s off his meds. They shouldn’t have let that one out of the asylum,’ and you go on with your day.
Well, that’s how it was with John. He seemed like a lunatic. The kids in the street, threw rocks at him and made fun of John. (“There goes the loonie,” and that sort of thing.)
And people, even his friends, did think he was mad. Put yourself in his friends’ place: Here’s this respected businessman, and he goes and does this. He wasn’t insane, though. Instead he was in love with Jesus. However you can see why they’d think that.
But here’s the interesting thing. After St. Juan’s sermon and before he’d torn up the books and torn off his clothes, John had gone to St. Juan for confession. For his penance, St. Juan had told him go about acting crazy so that people would humiliate him and make him suffer greatly.
This resulted in his friends having him committed to an asylum. There the orderlies beat him and didn’t feed him well. This was standard procedure at the time. Medical professionals thought torturing the mentally disturbed would jolt people out of their insanity.
In any event, it was through this experience with the mentally ill that John saw how very often the afflictions of the body are caused by afflictions of the soul. As a result he spent his time as an inmate ministering to both conditions in his fellow patients.
St. Juan visited him after 40 days and told him his penance was complete. He affected John’s release and then sent him on pilgrimage to Our Lady of Guadalupe, not the shrine in Mexico, but the original site of that name in Spain.
There John received an inspiration. When he returned to St. Juan, he shared this with the holy man, and the two men developed an idea to serve the poor and the sick in hospitals.
The problem was that he received a lot of opposition because “everyone else still thought of him as a madman. It didn’t help that he decided to try to finance his plan by selling wood in the square. At night he took [his earnings] and brought food and comfort to the” homeless.
“He used his old experience as a peddler to beg alms, crying through the streets in his peddler’s voice, ‘Do good to yourselves! For the love of God, brothers: Do good!’ Instead of selling goods, he took anything given – scraps of goods, clothing,” coins, anything.
John rented an old, dilapidated house for his hospital. After caring for patients during the day, he would go from home to home collecting people’s leftovers to feed his wards the next day. Every time he got new clothes, he’d give them to the poor. Therefore the local bishop gave him a black habit (this is what his order—the Brothers Hospitallers—wears to this day). Once, when the Royal Hospital caught fire, he kept going back into the building to rescue the sick. Not a single person lost their life.
You can well imagine it doesn’t take long before the fame and reputation of what he was doing to spread. In fact, his efforts so impressed the bishop, His Excellency started calling him “John of God,” which is why he’s known by that name to this day.
All the while, the work grew, and it grew because it married John’s love for Christ with the good business sense he developed when he owned his bookstore. Furthermore not only were he and St. Juan opening more and more hospitals, but these were innovative, cutting edge hospitals.
“Throughout his life he was criticized by people who didn’t like the fact that his impulsive love embraced anyone in need without asking for credentials or character witnesses. When he [moved one hospital into] an old Carmelite monastery, he [also] opened a homeless shelter in the monastery hall.
“Immediately critics tried to close him down saying he was pampering” not the sick but “troublemakers.”
His response to this was forever the same: “He knew of only one bad character in the hospital and that was himself. His urge to act immediately when he saw need got him into trouble more than a few times. Once, when he encountered a group of starving people, he rushed into a house, stole a pot of food, and gave it to them. He was arrested.”
“Another time, on finding a group of children in rags, he marched them” to a clothing shop, where he bought them clothes. After they were dressed and on their way, it was revealed he had no money. The shop owner let him pay him back on credit.
His death is a beautiful testament to the way he lived his life.
What happened was that he and another man had gone down to a nearby riverbank to collect firewood. It had been raining, however, and the river had risen and was swift. His companion fell in and would have drowned except John dived in and rescued him.
As a result, he caught pneumonia. At first he tried to hide it, but eventually he couldn’t and they took him to the house of a wealthy lady, where they thought they might cure him. He was too sick, however.
As he lay dying, people rich and poor stood outside clamoring for his blessing. Think of it: Here he was, on his deathbed, and people were still wanting something from him.
He died on his birthday in 1550 at age 55.
St. John of God is good to remember at this time of year because Lent has never been about merely giving up something or practicing some virtue. Always it has been coupled with almsgiving. Consider what St. James says in his epistle, that if we don’t have works, our faith is dead. Faith alone can’t save us, in other words.
We don’t have to imitate St. John of God in the sense that we make people think we’re loony or anything. But let’s possibly let think them think we’re a little loco for the Lord. And maybe we don’t have to give away everything, but isn’t there something we can give up this Lent?