St. John Capistran, Confessor
Among the Saints who glorified and illustrated the Church of Christ in the 15th Century, St. John was one of the most famous. He derived his surname from the place of his birth, Capistran, a town in the kingdom of Naples. After he had studied the liberal arts, he was sent to Perugia to study theology and law, in both of which he soon became so proficient, that he was made an officer at the Court of Justice, and gained the highest esteem of the whole city. One of the richest and first men gave him his daughter in marriage, together with a large fortune. Every thing seemed to smile upon John; but his good fortune lasted not long. Perugia refused to acknowledge Ladislas, King of Naples, as her rightful Lord, and revolted against him. John was secretly an adherent of the King, and stood well with the royal army. This no sooner became known, than he was put in prison. He expected surely that he, in whose service he had lost his liberty, would take his defence and set him free; but as this did not take place, John began to see how faithless the world is, and how changeable is all temporal happiness. About the same time, his young wife died, and he determined to leave the world and endeavor to gain, in a religious order, the grace of the Most High and eternal salvation.
To this end, he sold all his property and gave the money he received for it as ransom for his liberty, and then went to the convent of St. Francis, humbly praying to be admitted. The superior, fearing that John had made his resolution too hastily, and that he would not persevere, examined him very strictly, and tried his vocation with the greatest severity. John stood the test and was allowed to take the vows after the novitiate; and from that time, his life was a continual fast. He partook of food only once a day, and ate no meat for 36 years. Three hours was all the time he gave to sleep, and that upon the bare ground. Besides this, he scourged himself daily to blood, and endeavored to mortify himself in every possible manner. His heart was inflamed with love for God, and nothing was more agreeable to him than union with the Almighty in prayer, reading devout books and listening to the word of God. Before the Crucifix or in presence of the Blessed Sacrament, he passed whole hours on his knees, either with tears in his eyes or in deep rapture.
The name of John, said he, had been given him by the special design of God, in order that he should endeavor to become a favorite disciple of the Lord and a faithful son of the Blessed Virgin. He was zealous for the salvation of men, and travelled, for several years, through the principal cities of Italy, preaching everywhere the word of God. He had an especial gift to move the most hardened sinners; and the sighs and tears of his audience sometimes obliged him to interrupt his sermon. At that period lived St. Bernardine of Sienna, a holy missionary, who possessed the same zeal as John, but who had been accused at Rome, on account of his veneration for the most holy Name of Jesus, which to some seemed immoderate. St. John went to Rome to defend his friend, and thus his virtue and wisdom became known to the Popes, who employed him in many important affairs, all of which he conducted to their greatest satisfaction. Nicholas V. sent him as apostolic Legate to Hungary, Poland and Germany, which gave him an opportunity to do indescribable good in those countries. Many heretics, especially Hussites, were led back to the true Church; and in converting them, he heeded not the peril in which he placed his own life. Twice was poison given him by the enemies of the true faith, but God miraculously protected his life. Many other labors of the holy man for the benefit of the faithful we omit for want of space.
One deed, however, for which he deserved the thanks of the whole Christian world, must not fail to find a place in this work. Mahomet II. threatened to exterminate Christianity. He had put an end to the Greek empire in 1453, by taking Constantinople and more than 200 other Cities; and in 1456, with an immense army, he besieged the city and fortress of Belgrade, with the intention of becoming master of the entire Western Empire. The Pope, relying more on virtue and holiness than on the arms of the Christian princes, sent St. John to preach the holy war against the arch-enemy of Christianity, and to exhort all Christian princes to take up arms, and commanded him to be present in person with the Christian army during the campaign. The holy man executed the command, united the Christian powers and urged them to the battle. The two armies, the Turkish and the Christian, were arrayed against one another, but the former was far superior to the latter in numbers; and yet on the issue of this battle depended the fate of Christendom. St. John, with a crucifix in his hand, went from rank to rank, encouraging the soldiers to fight bravely, by repeating to them that it was Christ and His Church whom they were defending. The presence and the exhortation of so holy a man gave courage to the soldiers, and, at the first assault, they carried consternation into the army of the infidels. Mahomet himself was wounded, and his soldiers were lying in thousands on the field of battle in their blood. The victory was complete, and so visibly the fruit of a miracle, that neither the leaders of the Christian armies, nor the soldiers, ascribed it to the power of arms, but to the holiness and prayers of St. John. Thanking the Lord of armies for His protection, the Saint after the war, retired to the cloister of Villich, in Hungary, whence, after three months of a most holy life, he was called to receive the crown of everlasting glory, in the 72nd year of his age. The Almighty glorified His faithful servant, before and after his death, by many miracles. At Vienna, in the church of St. Stephen, is yet to be seen the pulpit from which St. John preached.
I. As soon as St. John recognized the instability of the world, the faithlessness of the favor and friendship of man, and the vanity of all temporal happiness, he began to seek most earnestly the favor and friendship of the greatest of all monarchs, and with it, eternal salvation. He acted wisely; for, the grace of God is to be esteemed more highly than that of all the monarchs of the world. It is more necessary, useful and desirable than the friendship of all men. It is very difficult to gain the friendship of men; it is also very easy to lose it; and when we need it most we seldom find it. The favor of God is easily gained; and no one can take it from us while we deserve it. In every need, we can promise ourselves to be supported by Him.
Why, then, do you not more eagerly seek after it? Why do you not endeavor to preserve it? Why are you more solicitous to gain the favors of mortal man than the grace of your God?” The love of a human being,” says the pious Thomas a Kempis, “is a false and unstable love: but the love of Jesus is true and constant.” Love and keep as a friend, Him who does not leave you, especially not at a moment when all others will forsake you. Remain with Jesus in life and death. Give yourself to Him who alone can help you when all others abandon you.
II. Nothing was more agreeable to St. John than his communion with God in prayer, in reading devout books and listening to the word of God. In prayer, we speak to the Almighty, according to St. Augustine. In pious books and religious instructions, the Almighty speaks to us. Do you also love this kind of intercourse with God? How much time do you devote to it? Your conduct shows that you converse more willingly with men than with God, because you give so much more time to the former than to the latter. Your many frivolous visits, your long, empty conversations are a proof of it. Can you believe that such intercourse with human beings is more useful or more necessary than an intercourse with the Almighty? You can hardly be so foolish. “The greatest Saints,” says Thomas a Kempis, “have avoided the society of men. As often as I have been among men, I have returned from them less good. I wish I had been more silent, and that I had not had any intercourse with men.” It is seldom that one returns from long conversations without sin; for, the Holy Ghost assures us that long conversations are a cause of sin. By this, however, I do not mean to forbid necessary or proper intercourse with others. But do not frequent the society of the wanton or wicked; and do not go too much into society. Do not prolong your conversations without need. Guard yourself against empty, useless or idle conversations. If you observe these rules, you will have more time to be with God in prayer, devout reading and sermons. “If you withdraw from gossiping and idle visits, you will find time enough for pious meditation”, writes Thomas a Kempis.
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.