Saint John of God, Religious

Commentary on St John of God, Religious

John (Joao Cidade) was born on 8 March, 1495, in Montemor-o-Novo, Portugal.  His family, formerly well-off, had fallen on hard times, but was deeply religious.  His mother died when he was very young, and his father then entered a monastery.

But even before that, John ran away with a priest who had inspired him with stories of adventurous new worlds to be explored.  He would never see his parents again.  The priest and the boy begged their way from place to place and then John fell sick.  The manager of an estate who helped restore his health adopted John as his son.  Until the age of 27, John worked as a shepherd on the estate.  Urged to marry his employer’s daughter, whom he loved as his own sister, John ran away to join the army of Charles V in a war against France.  He was a typical soldier of his day – gambling, drinking and plundering.  One day, near the French lines, he was thrown from his horse.  Afraid of capture, he looked back over his life and decided on a radical change.

On his return to his unit, his fellow soldiers, while accepting his conversion, were not happy at his imposing its restrictions on them.  They tricked him into deserting in order to go to the help of a needy person.  He should have been hanged for this, but he escaped with being beaten, stripped and thrown out of the army.  After a short stint back at his shepherding work, he enlisted in another war and, when that was over, went looking for his parents only to find both had died.  Now 38 years old, he decided he should go to Africa to buy back Christian prisoners.

While waiting for a ship at Gibraltar, he came to the help of a noble family being exiled to Africa for political reasons.  He volunteered to be their servant.  On reaching Africa, the family became sick and John both nursed them and worked to earn money to feed them.  His Catholic employers on a building project treated the workers so badly that John’s faith was threatened.  He was advised by a priest not to blame his faith and to go back to Spain, which he did, but only after the noble family had received pardons.

Back in Spain, he laboured as a dockworker by day, and visited churches and read spiritual books by night.  The books gave him such satisfaction that he now became a pedlar of religious books, going from town to town.  At the age of 41, a vision led him to Granada where he continued to sell books.  Then on 20 January, the feast of St Sebastian, after hearing a sermon by St John of Avila, he experienced a major conversion.  John of Avila would become his spiritual director and encourage him in his desire to work for the poor.  But people around him thought he had gone mad.  He destroyed all the secular books in his shop, and gave away the religious books and all his money.  His weeping and torn clothes made him the target of jokes and insults.

Sympathetic friends brought him to a hospital where he was put in with people suffering from mental illness.  Here he experienced the standard treatment of the time – he was tied down and whipped daily. His director came to visit and said his penance had been sufficient – 40 days like his Lord in the desert – and had John moved to a better part of the hospital.

Now, with more freedom, although still a patient, he began to help other patients.  The hospital was glad to have unpaid nursing help, and were not too happy when he went off to start a hospital of his own.  From that time onward, he vowed to devote the rest of his life to the sick and the poor, and under better conditions than he had experienced.

However, people still saw him as a kind of madman, and it did not help when he tried to raise finances for his project by selling wood in the city square.  In the evenings, he would take his meagre earnings to provide food and comfort to the homeless.  His first hospital was in the abandoned buildings and bridges of Granada.  Then a chance came for him to rent a house, although he had no money to equip it.  After going out begging for money, he would carry sick patients back on his shoulders.  He would dress their wounds and mend their clothes, devoting his nights to prayer. Instead of peddling goods, he took anything he was given – scraps of goods, clothing, anything at all.  Some time later, he was able to move his ‘hospital’ to an old Carmelite monastery and used part of it as a shelter for the homeless.  He was accused of pampering troublemakers, to which he would reply that the only bad character he knew was himself!

One remarkable instance was when he single-handedly rescued patients, as well as much of the bedding and blankets, from the main hospital after it had gone on fire, while others looked on doing nothing.  His final escape from the building was regarded as little short of a miracle.

Gradually a dedicated circle of people were attracted to John and the work he was doing. He organised them into the Order of Hospitallers, now better known as the Brothers Hospitallers of St John of God, who care for the sick in countries around the world.

Not unexpectedly, his death came about out of his impetuous urge to help others.  While collecting valuable driftwood from the river in flood, one of his helpers fell into the water.  John immediately jumped in to rescue him.  The boy could not be saved and John himself contracted pneumonia.  He died on his 55th birthday, 8 March, 1550.

John was canonised by Pope Alexander VIII in 1690, and later named patron saint of hospitals, the sick, nurses, firefighters, alcoholics, and booksellers. One mark of honour to his labours is that his congregation has been officially entrusted with the medical care of the Pope.

From the time he was a young boy until the day of his death, John followed the impulses of his heart. The challenge for him was to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit rather than his own inclinations. But unlike many who act impulsively, when John made a decision, no matter how quickly, he stuck with it, no matter what the hardship.

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