Saint John Berchmans


St John Berchmans, Religious, SJ (memorial)

John Berchmans was born in Diest, Flanders, in Belgium in 1599, the son of a shoemaker and the eldest of five children, three of whom entered religious life. He spent much of his time at home caring for his mother, who was in poor health. His family was very religious and he thought early in life of becoming a priest. He lived in the rectory of Notre Dame parish while he studied but after three years his father told him he would have to leave school and learn a practical trade to supplement his family’s poverty. The pastor of the Diest Béguinage offered to pay for Berchmans’ education in return for his service as a servant. In 1612 the John made the same arrangement in Mechlin in the house of Canon Froymont. In 1615, the Jesuits opened a college at Malines (Mechlin) and John Berchmans was one of the first to enrol. He proved an energetic student and a leader among his peers. He decided to join them rather than become a diocesan priest. His father was disappointed because, as a diocesan priest, John could have supported his family but not as a Jesuit. Nevertheless, he gave his son his blessing.
In 1616, John he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Malines, after reading the life of Aloysius Gonzaga, and came under the influence of Fr Antoine Sucquet. A few months after entering the Jesuits, John’s mother died. His father gave up his shoemaking and entered the diocesan seminary. He was ordained a priest in April 1618.

Meanwhile, the young Berchmans developed a strong and deep spirituality based on faithful observance of the rules of religious life. Apart from Aloysius Gonzaga and he was also inspired by the example of the English Jesuit martyrs (who had spent some of their exile in Flanders).
It was his down-to-earth appreciation for the ordinary things of life, a characteristic of the Flemish mystical tradition, which formed the basis of his spirituality. He had an approachable, kind and outgoing personality which made him attractive to all.
On 25 September 1618 John made his first vows as a Jesuit and went to Antwerp to study philosophy, the next step in his formation. After only three weeks he was told go to Rome to continue his studies. This could indicate he was destined for higher studies in the future. Before he could return to Mechlin to say goodbye to his family, his father died suddenly.
He did very well in his studies and, at the end of his third year, was chosen to defend the whole philosophy course in a public disputation. Due to overwork in preparing for his final exams, his health was affected. He became gradually weaker as he prepared for the disputation on 8 July. When it was over, he was then called on to represent the Roman College at another disputation to be held in the following month of August at the Greek College. The two demanding events so close together were too much for his weakening condition.
On 7 Aug he suffered an attack of dysentery, followed by a fever. Pale and weak, he was sent to the infirmary. He grew weaker day by day as his lungs became inflamed. When fellow Jesuit students came to his bedside, he spoke of Paradise as if he would soon be there. The brother infirmarian suggested he should receive Communion the next day, even though it was not a Sunday. (Communion was taken only once a week in those days.) The Jesuit community came in procession bringing Viaticum to their dying brother. He asked for his crucifix, rosary and the rule book he so closely followed. There was a steady stream of visitors, including the Superior General. He spent his final night in prayer and died on the morning of 13 August. He was just 22 years of age. It was said that numerous miracles were attributed to him even at the time of his funeral.
He was beatified by Pope Pius IX in 1865 and canonised by Pope Leo XIII in 1888.
His body lies in the church of St. Ignatius in Rome, where Aloysius Gonzaga is also buried.
John was beloved by all who knew him and is remembered today for his unfailing cheerfulness and his strong desire to do God’s will, even in the most ordinary of things.
 

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