Saint John of God (1495-1550). John of God would today be called impulsive—he would likely be medicated for it! But during his lifetime, he followed the innermost longing of his heart, oftentimes to the glory of the Lord, and sometimes to the detriment of the man. He was willful, quick to action, and committed to those in need. By the end of his life, Saint John of God had established an order of religious servants to the sick and poor, and through his model, had opened the doors of Christian charity and love to those in need. But his early life was marked by wandering and impetuousness, all of which eventually led him to Granada, Spain.
Saint John was born in Portugal, the child of devout Catholic parents. At age eight, after hearing a priest touring through the area deliver a homily, John left his parents in the middle of the night, following the priest, and becoming his servant. They lived an austere live, begging, and surviving on the kindness of strangers, until the lifestyle left John sick and weak. The priest, continuing his travels, left John in the care of a wealthy family with a large estate, and John eventually became the herder for their animals. He worked at this post for nearly 20 years, until the age of 27, his time in the mountains with only the sheep creating a broad space for him to pray and contemplate the glories of the Lord. He grew in faith, the Holy Spirit moving within in.
At approximately age 27, John joined the Spanish army in their war against France, leaving the fields to become a soldier. He quickly succumbed to the soldier’s life, engaging in gambling, drinking, pillaging, and other sinful ways. It was not until he was knocked from his horse—much like Saint Paul—and left by his battalion behind enemy lines that he felt a call to true conversion. John changed his ways, turning away from the sinful behaviors he had enjoyed, and devoting himself to God.
He did so, and set out on a journey to find his birth parents. Unfortunately, upon arrival in his hometown, he found they had both died in his long absence. John, filled with regret, began walking back to Spain, determined to return to his foster family and their sheep. While on this journey, holy tradition tells us that he found a small child on the roadside, dressed in rags and crippled. The boy asked John to carry him part of his way, which John did without a moment’s hesitation. The child, however, grew heavy, and John, after years of begging and poverty, was not very strong. When the pair reached a place to get a drink of water, John proposed to the child that they should stop and rest. The child came down from his shoulders and was transformed into the likeness of the child Jesus. "John of God," He said, "Granada shall be your cross," and immediately disappeared.
Saint John set out for Granada, where he would live the remainder of his years. In Granada he worked back-breaking manual jobs, carrying stone, selling firewood, unloading ships at the docks, and construction, the money from which he gave to the poor. Reading holy books at night, in the safety of the local church, became his refuge. Again, following the yearnings of his heart, John bought a small bookstore with which to share his love of reading with the world. Following a sermon of repentance of Saint John of Avila—the man who would become John of God’s spiritual advisor and mentor-- he ransacked his own store, destroying the secular books he was selling, leaving only those that would bring readers to God.
Those who knew him assumed he was mad, and had him institutionalized at the Royal Hospital asylum. There he spent forty days, tied to his bed (as was the custom at the time), and receiving daily whippings as treatment. On the fortieth day, Saint John of Avila visited, informing him that he had suffered enough, completed enough penance (like the time of Jesus in the desert), and had him released to a more favorable part of the hospital.
It was here, in the Royal Hospital, that John of God declared his intention to start his own hospital, after seeing the way in which patients were treated. Returning to the streets, he again sold firewood and worked menial jobs, giving all that he had to the homeless poor and sick. Eventually, he acquired a small home for the lodging of these forgotten members of society, and a few years later was able to move into a larger space, an abandoned convent. During this time, he established the Order of the Brothers Hospitallers of St. John of God, dedicated to medical service of the poor and indigent.
"John," the Holy Mother said, "it is by thorns and sufferings that you must win the crown my Son has waiting for you in heaven." Although Saint John could feel the thorns piercing his brain, he replied, "From your hand, Lady, thorns and sufferings are welcome. They are my flowers and my roses."
Returning to Granada, Saint John of God worked tirelessly for the poor and sick. He is reported to have worked miracles, including rescuing many from the Royal Hospital when it caught fire. Remembering that patients were tied to their beds, and witnessing others standing and watching them burn from a safe distance, John ran into the burning building, carrying and leading the patients to safety. He then climbed to the roof, removing the burning portions by hand with an axe, so as to prevent having to destroy the entire building to prevent the fire from spreading. Despite falling through the burning room, he emerged unscathed, having saved both the hospital and the lives of countless patients.
"There are three things that make me uneasy," he said. "The first is that I have received so many graces from God, and have not recognized them, and have repaid them with so little of my own. The second is that after I am dead, I fear lest the poor women I have rescued, and the poor sinners I have reclaimed, may be treated badly. The third is that those who have trusted me with money, and whom I have not fully repaid, may suffer loss on my account."
The life of Saint John of God is inspirational in so many ways. His service to those in need reminds us of our Christian call to serve—those who are hungry, thirsty, homeless, unclothed. More than that, his willingness to listen to the Holy Spirit, to let it fill his heart, and to follow those yearnings with abandon serve as a model for us. All too often we live in our heads, rather than our hearts. How many times have we been moved to help others in our hearts, but then listened to the thoughts of our head—it will be too hard, it won’t make any difference, what will people think?, or it’s not practical. How might we better serve our communities, like Saint John of God, if we opened ourselves to the call of the Holy Spirit—a loving and charitable force already residing within us!
Why pray the Rosary every day for a year?
Each time the Blessed Virgin has appeared-- whether it be to Saint Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes; to Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco at Fatima; or to Mariette Beco at Banneux-- she has asserted the importance, saving grace, and power of praying the Holy Rosary on a daily basis. Based upon her words, the Rosary is penance and conversion for sinners, a pathway to peace, an end to war, and a powerful act of faith in Jesus Christ. Pope Paul VI presented the Rosary as a powerful means to reach Christ "not merely with Mary but indeed, insofar as this is possible to us, in the same way as Mary, who is certainly the one who thought about Him more than anyone else has ever done."
To show us how this is done, perhaps no one has been more eloquent than the great Cardinal Newman, who wrote: "The great power of the Rosary consists in the fact that it translates the Creed into Prayer. Of course, the Creed is already in a certain sense a prayer and a great act of homage towards God, but the Rosary brings us to meditate again on the great truth of His life and death, and brings this truth close to our hearts. Even Christians, although they know God, usually fear rather than love Him. The strength of the Rosary lies in the particular manner in which it considers these mysteries, since all our thinking about Christ is intertwined with the thought of His Mother, in the relations between Mother and Son; the Holy Family is presented to us, the home in which God lived His infinite love."
As Mary said at Fatima, "Jesus wants to use you to make Me known and loved. He wishes to establish the devotion to My Immaculate Heart throughout the world. I promise salvation to whoever embraces it; these souls will be dear to God, like flowers put by Me to adorn his throne."