St. John of God, Founder of the Order of Charity
St. John, surnamed of God, a Portuguese, was born at Monte Major. At his birth, an extraordinary heavenly light, in the form of a pillar of fire, was seen over his father’s house, and the church bells were rung by invisible hands. At the age of eight he secretly left his father’s house with a Priest whom his parents had entertained. The Priest, however, forsaking him on the road, he took service with a shepherd, and served him faithfully until he had reached his twenty-first year. His master then offered him his daughter in marriage, but John refused, and entered the army. Here, imitating his more lax comrades, he led an easy life. It happened that, while out foraging, he was thrown from his horse, and so badly injured that the blood flowed from his mouth and nostrils, and he lay insensible on the ground for two hours. On recovering, he raised himself to a kneeling posture, and, calling on the Queen of Heaven, he was soon restored to perfect health. On another occasion, being placed on guard over some captured booty, which the enemy retook, he was condemned to the gallows. The general spared his life, but ordered him to be ignominiously driven from the camp. Upon this, he returned to his former master and became a shepherd again. But soon wearied with this employment, he enlisted and fought against the Turks.
After this war was ended, he travelled to his native country in order to visit his parents. On his arrival he heard how his mother had died of grief, occasioned by his departure, and that his father had entered the Order of St. Francis. This news pierced the soul of John, and he determined to spend the rest of his days in penance–nay, he even resolved on going to Africa to shed his blood for Christ. He reached Ceuta, a city on the coast of Africa, in company with an exiled Portuguese nobleman. The nobleman, who had brought along his family, fell sick at this place, and he begged of John to postpone his projected journey and befriend him in this extreme calamity. John then worked as a laborer, and with his earnings supported the unfortunate family. Shortly after recovering, the gentleman was recalled from banishment, and the Saint, by the advice of his confessor, also retraced his steps to Spain, where he proposed to sell pious books. With this purpose, he bought an assortment of spiritual books and devotional pictures and sold them in the country places. One day John met on the road a poor barefooted lad, shivering with the cold. He took him up in his arms to bring him to a shelter. At first his burden appeared light, but gradually the burden became so heavy that he was obliged to sit down and rest. The boy then made himself known by displaying a pomegranate surmounted by a cross, saying, at the same time: “John, you will find your cross at Granada.” After these words he vanished. John, moved by an interior impulse, proceeds to Granada, hears a sermon preached, on the feast of St. Sebastian, by the celebrated F. Avila, which so touched his heart with sorrow for his sins that he wept aloud.
He now began in earnest to lead a penitential life. A desire to humble himself and to court the contempt of the world, induced him to act for a time the part of a madman. He was, therefore, taken to the hospital, locked in a cell, and subjected to harsh treatment. F. Avila, hearing of this, ordered him to lay aside his assumed madness, and perform the will of God by assisting the poor and sick. He obeyed, and waited upon the inmates of the hospital. Very soon, however, he purchased a dwelling with the alms he had gathered, and fitted it up for the reception of the sick. He carried the infirm on his shoulders to this house, and received those who came with the greatest tenderness. He cheerfully procured food and medicine for the sick, waited on them by day and night with the most unwearied zeal, consoled them in their sufferings, encouraged them to patience, and, when there was danger of death, exhorted them to receive the last Sacraments. He never left their bedside until death had claimed its own. God also sent him companions, who followed his example with zeal and devotion. Thus did the Order of Charity begin, which afterwards spread over many countries and wrought the salvation of many souls. The clergy and laity were greatly pleased with this work of charity, and gladly assisted John with abundant alms. In asking alms, he always said: “Be merciful to yourself, and do good to yourself; for,” he used to say, “almsgiving is of far more benefit to the donor than to the receiver.” At other times he would exclaim: “Brethren, do good while you have time.” Still abuse and injury from the ill-disposed were not wanting. St. John also had to suffer much from calumny and persecutions. This, however, did not prevent him from continuing his life of sacrifice. To his enemies his answers were always full of meekness, and thoughts of revenge were foreign to him. “If I wish to be saved,” he would say, “I must pardon my enemies sooner or later; I will do it rather this moment.
Though he was meek and gentle to his enemies, tender and charitable towards the sick, towards himself he had only austerity; for he chastised his body by watching, fasting, and other penances. Prayer occupied all the time not employed in works of charity. Our Lord and His Blessed Mother frequently appeared to the Saint, while engaged in this exercise. Thus, our, Lady once showed him a crown of thorns and placed it on his head, with these words: “Through thorns and suffering, my Divine Son wishes you to merit the crown prepared for you in heaven.” Hardly had these words been spoken, when acute pains seized the Saint over his whole body, but more particularly in the head. However, by meditating on the Passion of Christ, and the greatness of the future reward, he lessened his sufferings. On another occasion, he found a traveller lying on the road who seemed to be dangerously ill, and, transporting him to the hospital, he washed his feet and laid him in a bed. As he was about kissing the feet of the poor man, according to his usual custom, he remarked that they were transpierced. It was Christ Himself, under the form of a poor man, who spoke thus to St. John: “Whatever you do to the needy and suffering, I take as done to myself.” At another time, he fell to the ground under the weight of a sick man whom he was carrying, and a beautiful youth helped him to arise. On being asked who he was, the reply was given: “I am the Archangel Raphael, commissioned by the Almighty to protect and guard you and yours.”
In addition to the many great spiritual favors which the Saint had received, the Lord also gave him the gift of foretelling the future and of working miracles. I will relate only one example, taken from the Breviary. A great fire broke out in the hospital at Granada. St. John, fearlessly passing through the flames, went from room to room and brought out the sick, and saved much of the furniture, he himself escaping without the slightest harm, though he was exposed to the fury of the flames for half an hour. The flame of Divine love which burned in his heart surpassed the intensity of the material fire. By this great wonder, omitting many others, God wished to honor His indefatigable servant, but glorified him still more by calling him to receive his eternal reward. A burning fever attacked the Saint, but his patience was not at fault. He piously received the last Sacraments, after which he begged to be left alone for some time. Rising and dressing, he threw himself on his knees before the image of the Crucified; he took the sacred emblem in his hands and kissed it, exclaiming: “Into Thy hands, Jesus, I commend my spirit.” On hearing these words, some rushed into the room, but found him dead, with the crucifix pressed to his lips. The dead body remained kneeling upright for six hours, exhaling a most sweet odor. His death took place March 8, 1550. The many miracles wrought through his intercession confirmed his sanctity, and have rendered him celebrated throughout all Christendom.
I. “I must forgive my enemies, sooner or later, if I wish to be saved; therefore I will do it immediately.” This was the maxim of St. John, and it was most reasonable. In fact, instant compliance with whatever is required for salvation is the safest plan: delays are ever dangerous. But wrath against our neighbor has this peculiarity, that, if fostered, it strikes deep root in the heart, and becomes enmity and hatred. Besides, the longer it is cherished, the more difficult is the task of tearing it out, just as a tree whose roots have struck deep in the soil is harder to uproot than a sapling which has sprung up. Now, the Gospel plainly teaches that hatred and enmity must be laid aside, in order to be saved. The necessity is absolute. But if this be so, is it not more prudent to divest yourself of this sin now than later, when it will cost you more trouble? Hence, the Holy Ghost says: “Anger resteth in the bosom of a fool” (Eccl. vii.). The wise man does not carry it in his breast, but quickly rejects it,–at least, he does not allow the sun to set on his resentment, but follows the advice of St. Paul, who says: “Let not the sun go down upon your anger” (Eph. iv.).
II. Have pity on yourselves; do good! With this invitation, St. John asked for alms; for he declared by his expressions that, by giving alms, a person is charitable and merciful to himself, and, whilst pitying others, he also has pity on himself. “A merciful man doth good to his own soul” (Prov. xi,). A most important truth, of which St. Basil writes: “Just as the crop benefits the sower, so also the bread given in alms redounds to the benefit of the giver.” In truth the charitable derive more advantages from the alms than the poor, who are the recipients; for the beggar obtains only a temporal and passing good, while the giver is repaid often by temporal favors, which God bestows as a reward; but he also reaps an eternal recompense, as Holy Writ so frequently promises heaven to those giving alms. “Give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven” (Mark x.). This is still more evident from the words which Christ will one day address to the elect: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink,” etc., etc.
Lives of the Saints: Compiled from Authentic Sources with a Practical Instruction on the Life of Each Saint, for Every Day in the Year by Rev. F. X. Weninger. Permissu Superiorum. New York: P. O’Shea, Publisher, 67 Barclay Street and 42 Park Place. 1876.