March 7, 2017

Saint John of God, Servant of the Sick

Saint John of God
Detail, St. John of God  saving the Patients of the Royal Hospital from a Fire,
Gómez Moreno, 1880, in the Museo de Bellas Artes, Granada, Spain.

March 8th, is the optional memorial of Saint John of God. If the character of St. John of God were to be condensed into just two words, those words would be “impulsive” and “humble.” While the first sometimes led him into trouble before taking him in a better direction, the second guided him into only one path — the way that led directly to God. The first years of John’s life were quite literally all over the map. Born in Portugal in March 1495, John would remain at home with his parents until he was eight. In the year 1503, John chanced to hear the sermon of a traveling priest, who spoke about the wonderful adventures awaiting anyone who went to the New World, which Portuguese exploration was just beginning to open up. His impulsive nature afire, John ran away from home that night to follow the priest, with whom he traveled (though not to the New World) until the child became too sick to go on.

Luckily for John, the manager of a large estate took him in, nursed him back to health, and gave him a job tending sheep, which he did faithfully until he was 27 years old. Then, under pressure to marry the manager’s daughter, John again ran off, this time to join the Spanish army as a mercenary. Once among the ranks of the soldiers, he forgot all his earlier religious training and began a wild life of drinking, gambling and theft. When an incident with a stolen horse threatened to have him either captured or killed by the enemy, a now thoroughly frightened John impulsively vowed to make a complete change in his life.

Although his comrades in arms didn’t mind if John made his confession, they resented the fact that he wanted them to change as well. They managed to get him thrown out of the army, and John was reduced to begging his way back home. He decided to look for his parents, whom he hadn’t seen since he was a child, but to his everlasting grief, they had both died in his absence. In his new religious zeal, John resolved to go to Africa in order to seek martyrdom by trying to free Christians there. Happily, a confessor advised John not to pursue this impulse but return instead to a quieter life in Spain. There he opened a religious goods store and led, for at least a time, a fairly uneventful life.

It was listening to a sermon by Saint John of Avila which began the next phase of his journey; overcome by remorse for his former life, John gave away nearly everything he owned and began to beat himself publicly in the streets, begging God for mercy and loudly repenting his past life. His actions resulted in his being committed to a mental hospital; it was John of Avila who visited him there and convinced him that the way to God was to serve the needs of others rather than inflict such severe punishments on himself.

Happily, John took this advice and soon rented a house, which he converted into a hospital for the city’s destitute. He sought out any and all who were sick, especially those no one else wanted. When someone complained to the archbishop about the kind of people John was giving shelter and care to, John’s only reply was that “I know of no bad person in my hospital, except myself alone, who am indeed unworthy to eat the bread of the poor.” John of God served the sick and poor for another ten years before dying himself. The founder of the Brothers Hospitallers, John is also the patron of booksellers and hospitals. O God, who filled Saint John of God with a spirit of compassion, grant us, we pray, that, giving ourselves to works of charity, we may merit to be worthy of your Kingdom.

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