The Radical Prodigal Saint John of God

Saint are by definition ‘extreme’, for they see past the veil of this world, and act almost solely working for the next. Hence, one of the things looked for in a person who dies with a reputation for sanctity is ‘heroic virtue’, that goes well above and beyond the call of duty, so to speak, and the more above and beyond, the better, all things considered.

Such is Saint John of God (+1550), sort of an early Mother Teresa, who devoted the last decade of his short life – he died at 55 – helping the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick, in an era when many were left to their own devices, to die in the gutter, or waste away wherever they could find a bed, sort of like India when the first Sister of Charity arrived.

Before this decade which launched him into holiness and into heaven, John led a turbulent life, running away or being kidnaped away from home at the age of 8, and left to fend for himself, he begged on the streets, and was eventually taken in by a man, to tend for his sheep and – implausibly enough – marry his daughter.

John would have none of it, and ran off again to becomes a soldier-at-arms, a trooper, a rough life he lived for 18 years.

But his faith had not left him, nor his latent love of family; he tried to find his parents, but his mother had died soon after his disappearance, and his father, who had joined the Franciscans, was also gone. So John went off to Africa with the vague intent to free Christian slaves and perhaps gain martyrdom; that did not work out so well, and a Franciscan urged him to return to Spain.

It was soon after this that, at the age of 42, on the feast of Saint Sebastian, January 20th, 1537, during a sermon by Saint John of Avila, he had a profound conversion and what may have been a sort of breakdown. The itinerant former soldier wandered out into the streets beating and berating himself, loudly proclaiming sorrow for all his past sins for all who wanted to hear. And many did not. He was soon put into an asylum, where the ‘treatment’ consisted of being chained, flogged and starved. Not that John minded that much, but the same John of Avila intervened, and urged the would-be saint to moderate his penance, and work with the sick, the poor, the abandoned.

To this he dedicated himself with the zeal characteristic of his nature, and, like Mother Teresa five centuries later, others soon joined this radical man in his radical work. He began an Order of Hospitallers, before his death on his 55th birthday in 1550. The Brother Hospitallers of Saint John of God – officially approved in 1572 – now number 45,000 members, working throughout the world in 53 countries for the sick and poor, many of whom would still otherwise be left in the gutter. Would that we could get back once again to doing ‘medicine’ for the love of God, instead of the love of mammon, for which so many seem to work in our own bloated, over-compensated socialist health-care system, where even the hall moppers are raking in six-figure union wages. Collapse may not soon be far off, and then we all may need a lot more like the inimitable John of God.

In the meantime, we should all do what we can for those less fortunate. God can do quite a bit with those who take His truth to heart, regardless of how late we get to the game. Just so long as we die trying.