Saint John of God
by Catherine Fournier
"God is Gracious"
Feast Day: March 8
Patron: fire fighters, booksellers, publishers, printers,
bodily ills, dying people, heart patients, sick people,
hospital workers, nurses, sickness, hospitals,
Image: Alms, crown of thorns, heart
John of God was many things in his long life: a shepherd, a soldier and mercenary, a book seller, a servant, and a hospital administrator. Everything he did seemed a little crazy. He ran away from home when he was very young, he ran away from being a shepherd to join the army, he reformed his life overnight after he fell off his horse, he decided to help an exiled family by being their servant the first day he met them, he started a hospital to take care of all the sick and poor in the city.
In everything he did, no matter how crazy and impulsive it seemed, John of God was following the will of God. Every time he saw a need, he saw one of God's children in need, and he jumped to serve them and God. Finally, after years of wandering from one country to another, from one job to another, from one need to another, he rented a house in Granada, Spain, and began caring for the sick, poor, homeless and unwanted. He gave what he had, begged for those who couldn't, carried those who could not move on their own, and converted both his patients and those who saw him.
His motto was: "Labor without stopping. Do all the good works you can while you still have the time." Because he could make up his mind so quickly to do the right thing and follow God, John of God can help us when we need to do the right thing, especially when we need to decide quickly. Whether it's to smile at the kid in class who was mean yesterday, or to let your little sister have the first pick of cookies, John of God will always help us when we ask. He'll jump to help us!
If people around you complain that you do things without stopping to think or plan, or get carried away with excitement too easily, just remind them about Saint John of God. He did many things in his life on impulse without considering his own future, and many people called him crazy, foolish and even dangerous. But Saint John of God was only so excited to be helping God that he never let other people change his mind.
Saint John of God was not an ordinary man, or even an 'ordinary saint.' His story is full of twists, turns and unexpected changes. But no matter how quickly John made a decision, he stuck with it, no matter what the hardship. He began early. When he was eight years old, John heard a visiting priest speak of the adventures of the world. So, he ran away from home to travel with the priest and never saw his parents again.
When John became sick, after some months of begging their way across the countryside, the manager of a large estate took him in and adopted him. John was content to stay with the manager and stayed, working as a shepherd, until he was 27. Then, to avoid marrying the manager's daughter, he ran away again, this time to join the Spanish army.
As a soldier, he wasn't yet a model of holiness, taking part in the gambling, drinking, and pillaging that his comrades enjoyed. One day, he was thrown from a stolen horse near French lines. Frightened that he would be captured or killed, he reviewed his life and vowed impulsively to make a change.
When he returned to his unit, he kept his spur of the moment vow, made a confession, and immediately changed his life. His comrades didn't mind so much that John was repenting but hated that he wanted them to give up their pleasures too. So they used his impulsive nature to trick him into leaving his post on the pretext of helping someone in need. He was thrown out of the army after being beaten and stripped. He begged his way back to his foster-home where he worked as a shepherd until he heard of a new war with Moslems invading Europe.
As a shepherd he had plenty of time to contemplate what God might want of his life. When he decided at 38 that he should go to Africa to ransom Christian captives, he asked in his usual impetuous way. He quit his job immediately and set off for the port of Gibraltar. He was on the dock waiting for his ship when he met a noble family being exiled to Africa for political intrigues. He abandoned his original plan and volunteered to be their servant.
When he reached Africa, he got a job building fortifications. It was grueling, inhuman work and the workers were beaten and mistreated by people who called themselves Catholics. Seeing Christians act this way so disturbed John that it shook his faith. A priest advised him not to blame the Church for their actions and to leave for Spain at once. John did go back home - but only after he learned that his newly adopted family had received pardons.
Back in Spain he spent his days unloading ship cargoes and his nights visiting churches and reading spiritual books. Reading gave him so much pleasure that he decided that he should share this joy with others. He quit his job (again) and became a book peddler, traveling from town to town selling religious books and holy cards. Eventually, he settled in Granada where he sold books from a little shop. (For this reason he is patron saint of booksellers and printers.)
After hearing a sermon from the famous John of Avila on repentance, the impulsive John was so overcome by the thought of his sins that he rushed back to his shop, tore up any secular books he had, gave away all his religious books and all his money. The townspeople thought he was mad, and he became the target of insults, jokes, and even stones and mud from the townspeople and their children.
Friends took the distraught John to hospital where he was confined with the lunatics. After John of Avila came to the hospital and told him that he had repented enough, John of God calmed down and was moved to another part of the hospital. John of God could never see suffering without trying to do something about it. And now that he was free to move, although still a patient, he immediately got up and began to help the other sick people around him. The hospital was glad of the help and reluctant to let him go when he wanted to leave, but leave he did.
John may have been positive that God wanted him to start a hospital for the poor who got bad treatment, if any, from the other hospitals, but everyone else still thought of him as a madman. It didn't help that he decided to try to finance his plan by selling wood in the square. At night he took what little money he earned and brought food and comfort to the poor living in abandoned buildings and under bridges. Thus his first hospital was the streets of Granada.
Throughout his life he was criticized by people who didn't like the fact that his impulsive love embraced anyone in need without asking for credentials or character witnesses. When he was able to move his hospital to an old Carmelite monastery, he opened a homeless shelter in the monastery hall. Immediately critics tried to close him down saying he was pampering troublemakers. His answer to this criticism always was that he knew of only one bad character in the hospital and that was himself.
His impulsive wish to help saved many people in one emergency. The alarm went out that the Royal Hospital was on fire. When he dropped everything to run there, he found that the crowd was just standing around watching the hospital - and its patients - go up in flames. He rushed into the blazing building and carried or led the patients out. When all the patients were rescued, he started throwing blankets, sheets, and mattresses out the windows - how well he knew from his own hard work how important these things were. At that point a cannon was brought to destroy the burning part of the building in order to save the rest. John stopped them, ran up the roof, and separated the burning portion with an axe. He succeeded but fell through the burning roof. All thought they had lost their hero until John of God appeared miraculously out of smoke. (For this reason, John of God is patron saint of fire fighters.)
John was ill himself when he heard that a flood was bringing precious driftwood near the town. He jumped out of bed to gather the wood from the raging river. Then when one of his companions fell into the river, John without thought for his illness or safety jumped in after him. He failed to save the boy and caught pneumonia. He died on March 8, his fifty-fifth birthday, of the same impulsive love that had guided his whole life.
St. John of God was born at Montemor o Novo, Portugal, 8 March, 1495, of devout Christian parents. His life was governed throughout by an enthusiastic, unquestioning fidelity to the grace of God.
A Spanish priest whom he followed to Oropeza, Spain, in his ninth year left him in charge of the chief shepherd of the place. When he had reached manhood to avoid marriage, John took service for a time in the army of Charles V, and then in a regiment on its way to Austria to do battle with the Turks.
Succeeding years found him first as a shepherd at Seville and still later at Gibraltar. He travelled there on the way to Africa where he planned to ransom Christians held captive by the Moors. On the dock side, he met a Portuguese family just expelled from the country. His impulsive charity impelled him to offer his services to them as a servant.
On the advice of his confessor he soon returned to Gilbratar, where he began an Apostolate of the printed page. He travelled the towns and villages about Gilbratar, selling religious books and pictures, with practically no margin of profit, in order to place them within the reach of all.
It was during this period of his life that he was granted the vision of the Infant Jesus, Who gave him the name John of God, also bidding him to go to Granada. There he was so deeply impressed by the preaching of Blessed John of Avila that he distributed his worldly goods and went through the streets of the city, beating his breast and calling on God for mercy.
This extreme behavior caused many to doubt his sanity. He was considered a madman and spent some time restrained and gagged in a mental hospital, until the Blessed John of Avila counselled him to stop his lamentations and take some other method of atoning for his past life. He then directly made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, where the nature of his vocation was revealed to him by the Blessed Virgin.
Returning to Granada and calling on his experience in the hospital, he dedicated himself the service of the sick and poor. He rented a house in which to care for them and after furnishing it with what was necessary, he searched the city for those afflicted with all manner of disease, bearing on his shoulders any who were unable to walk.
For some time he was alone in his charitable work soliciting by night the needful supplies, and by day attending scrupulously to the needs of his patients and the rare of the hospital; but he soon received the co-operation of charitable priests and physicians. This was the beginning of his order, though initially the main action of the members was to keep John from over exerting himself.To put a stop to the saint's habit of exchanging his cloak with any beggar he chanced to meet, Don Sebastian Ramirez, Bishop of Tuy, had made for him a habit, which was later adopted in all its essentials as the religious garb of his followers, and he imposed on him for all time the name given him by the Infant Jesus, John of God.
Among the many miracles which are related of the saint the most famous is his rescue of all the inmates during a fire in the Grand Hospital at Granada, he himself passing through the flames unscathed (for this reason he is the patron of fire-fighters). His well known boundless charity to widows and orphans, those out of employment, poor students, and fallen women was also strong, loving and forgiving. After thirteen years of severe mortification, unceasing prayer, and devotion to his patients, he died amid the lamentations of all the inhabitants of Granada. His last illness had resulted from an heroic but futile effort to save a young man from drowning.
If we look forward to receiving God's mercy, we can never fail to do good so long as we have the strength. For is we share with the poor, out of love for God, whatever he has given to us, we shall receive according to his promise a hundredfold in eternal happiness.
What a fine profit, what a blessed reward! With outstretched arms he begs us to turn toward him, to weep for our sins, and to become the servants of love, first for ourselves, then for our neighbors. Just as water extinguishes a fire, so love wipes away sin.
So many poor people come here that I very often wonder how we can care for them all, but Jesus Christ provides all things and nourishes everyone. Many of them come to the house of God, because the city of Granada is large and very cold, especially now in winter. More than a hundred and ten are now living here, sick and healthy, servants and pilgrims. Since this house is open to everyone, it receives the sick of every type and condition: the crippled, the disabled, lepers, mutes, the insane, paralytics, those suffering from scurvy and those bearing the afflictions of old age, many children, and above all countless pilgrims and travelers, who come here, and for whom we furnish the fire, water, and salt, as well as the utensils to cook their food. And for all of this no payment is requested, yet Christ provides.
I work here on borrowed money, a prisoner for the sake of Jesus Christ. And often my debts are so pressing that I dare not go out of the house for fear of being seized by my creditors. Whenever I see so many poor brothers and neighbors of mine suffering beyond their strength and overwhelmed with so many physical or mental ills which I cannot alleviate, then I become exceedingly sorrowful; but I trust in Christ, who knows my heart. And so I say, "Woe to the man who trusts in men rather than in Christ."