On Mercy Late in Life and Contagious Holiness: St. John of God

st john of godA few days ago we celebrated the optional memorial of St. John of God. Our pastor gave a marvelous homily that day, which inspired this post. One of the key connection points the pastor made was the connection St. John of God had with other Saints with whom I was more familiar. To be quite honest, I knew next to nothing about St. John of God. So I began to investigate his life, and what an amazing man of God, St. John of God was! I thought his life–as well as his spiritual connection to other Saints–made this a very appropriate topic for a post during Lent….especially as we approach the end of Lent.

St. John of God is best known for his many followers who eventually founded the Hospitallers, a religious institution focused on aiding the sick, suffering, and dying, among other services they now provide. They are still in existence today.

What I didn’t know was St. John of God’s late conversion in life. In many ways he was a prodigal of the Church. A baptized Catholic, like virtually all his family and friends, he was a public sinner, who sinned in countless ways. He wasn’t just known for one particular sin, but many. He was a soldier, but was particularly known for leading a life best described as completely “wild.” He was around 40 years old, or so, when he had his conversion. He found mercy rather late in life.

st john of avilaFor me, one of the most interesting facts about St. John of God was the Saint so influential in his conversion, and in helping provide him with the necessary spiritual guidance which we all need: St. John of Avila. St. John of Avila (pictured right) was known especially for his preaching. I know of him, however, primarily for his role as providing inspiration and spiritual guidance to a number of other canonized Saints, three especially significant and well known Saints in particular: St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. A Doctor of the Church, St. John of Avila became an ardent supporter of the newly formed Jesuits, early in his life, and many of his own followers, at his instigation, joined the Jesuits.

It is this spiritual friendship, among Saints, that I think so important. In this sense, holiness can be contagious. Saints don’t usually become Saints by themselves, but, in a way, take others with them. Saints have a way of inspiring and helping sanctify those around them, in turn aiding their friends and relations to become Saints as well. Through St. John of Avila’s guidance, St. John of God left his life of public sin, and devoted himself to helping the sick and dying.

As we approach the end of Lent, we should be inspired to finish Lent strong, living prayer, fasting, and alms giving (including the works of mercy, like St. John of God) especially well. Even if we haven’t lived Lent very well up to now, now is the time to press forward, knowing that we too can find mercy late in the game. Even if we haven’t been very faithful up to now, in the game of our life…it’s never too late to begin again and find mercy. And of course, this task is urgent. The holiness of so many, including St. John of God, depended very much in the holiness of St. John of Avila. The same is true for us. How many are waiting for us–without even realizing it themselves–to commit to struggle to be holy. If we strive to cooperate with God and struggle to become saints, how many of our friends and relations will be able to embark upon that path as well. We may have St. John of Avilas in our lives…we certainly of St. John of Gods in our lives. Let’s strive to become the saints God calls us to be.

23 thoughts on “On Mercy Late in Life and Contagious Holiness: St. John of God”

  1. Gentle Reader,
    This “article” has come to me through a Google Alert, triggered by “St John of God”.
    I have got to know Saint John of God, the co-patron of the sick over the past 60 years. I first encountered this amazing Saint in 1958 (-2016) when the story of his life, work and vision was presented to me by a Saint John of God Brother, otherwise a Hospitaller Brother of Saint John of God.
    Whatever can be surmised of his “sinfulness” from a life as a shepherd, soldier, construction worker and book-seller, John Cidade (Portuguese by birth) appears to have already been on a road to holiness when on January 20th 1538 he heard a sermon “on the love of God” preached by the saintly priest John of Avila.
    This sermon threw John Cidade into a tail spin which resulted in the penitent – intensely aware of God’s love for him, and how little he had done in response – running out into the streets of Granada, crying to God for mercy. He ran about tearing his clothes and tearing his hair out distressed and inconsolable ’till people took pity on him and placed him in the asylum that was the Royal Hospital; – Royal only in name,- John was given the treatment of the day which was very cruel, to literally and metaphorically “beat the devil out of him”.
    Unlike the many psychotically ill who were not responding to such cruel treatment John quickly came to his senses and realised that there must be a better way of “caring” for the mentally ill. Clearly, his was what might today be described as a dramatic mid-life crisis.
    Under the guidance of this Doctor of the Church, John Cidade devoted the remaining 12 years of his life (1495-1550) to caring for people marginalised by poverty and /or illness or disability. John realised his dream “God grant that I may have a place of my own where I can care for the poor as I wish”.
    I’ve run out of typing space! Saint John of God Pray for us.

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughtful response! That helps clarify a bit. I didn’t realize St. John of God had already set out on the path to holiness prior to his encounter with St. John of Avila, but that makes sense. St. John of Avila clearly had a big affect on him, for good, after their encounter. Indeed, St. John of God, pray for us!

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