ST. JOHN OF GOD
The Champion of Charity Benedict O’Grady, O.H.
One of the greatest oppressions besetting man today is materialism. Man is more than a mere material being, he has a spirit, a soul, and this elevates him to a plane where mere materialism, devoid of the noble ideals of religion, degrades him to nothing more than the level of the animal. Man looks for something more uplifting than the “good life”, for his spirit must be satisfied in order to make him a fully integrated being. Many have learned to their sorrow that material comforts do not fully satisfy them and often bring about a void in their lives which craves to be filled. Young people especially often search for heroes with whom they can identify. They are not always wise in the choice of those they emulate or admire. But man needs heroes to admire, it is part of his psychic make-up.
The Church holds up to us, as concrete examples of how sanctity is possible, her own great heroes. We call them, the saints. A paradox of Christianity is that its heroes are chosen, not for learning, science, bravery or art, as the world chooses its heroes, but for one thing alone – holiness. The saints have had all the above mentioned attributes, but it was precisely because they practiced heroic sanctity that they became saints.
St. John of God’s life story merits special attention today when psychoanalysis can be used to discover and discuss the troubled depth of the human spirit. These days, mankind is seeking new heroes, men and women it can identify with. John of God is a man from the past, but his influence is as vital in the world today as it was four centuries ago. He was such a human man, so much like us in many ways, he suffered greatly and his sufferings were both mental and physical. John overcame his anguish and trials by bearing them manfully, not like a stoic, but in unison with the sufferings of Jesus Christ.
The story of John of God is one of the glories of the Church of the Counter-Reformation. A loyal son of the Church, he never questioned the teaching authority of the Pope or bishops. He possessed the insight to see his own shortcomings and sought the means to overcome them. He brought glory to the Church at a time when half of Europe became estranged from it. He did this, not by scholarship, preaching or teaching, but by giving his life totally to following in the footsteps of Christ the Good Samaritan. His life is relevant today because it helps us more clearly and happily identify and understand the splendor of humanity. John of God did not live a life of mere humanism or naturalism, he was not just a ‘do-gooder’. He saw Jesus Christ in the person of those he served. He served God and humanity simultaneously, seeing one in the other. This put him in a different sphere to the mere humanist, it made him a Christian humanist and that made all the difference.
Often the lives of saints devote much space to the circumstances of the birth and childhood of their subjects. St. John of God is a notable exception, for many simple questions remain unanswered when his origin is investigated.
John was born in 1495 in the little Portuguese town of Montemor 0 Novo, to humble peasants, Andrew and Teresa Cidade. Apart from that, little more is known of his early childhood until the age of eight. Then an extraordinary event occurred. A pilgrim, some say a priest, visited the town and stayed overnight as a guest of the Cidades. The next morning he left for Spain and took the young Cidade boy with him. This episode is shrouded in mystery, and in spite of much conjecture, has to be left at that.
We next hear of young John Cidade at Oropesa in Spain, where he was adopted by a good Christian man named Francisco Cid Mayoral. This kind man was of some means, being the overseer of the flocks of don Juan Ferruz, captain of the troops of Count Francisco Alvarez of Oropesa.
The circumstances which prompted Mayoral to adopt the boy are also not known. Did John “spin him a yarn” about being an orphan or abandoned? Such a conjecture would certainly throw grave misgivings on the boy’s home life and upbringing. Again the mystery persists. Whatever the circumstances, Mayoral was impressed by the little boy from Portugal and became his protector and patron. Young Cidade studied his school lessons at home with Mayoral’s only other child, a daughter. But John was more inclined by nature to an outdoors life rather than to study. When his formal schooling ended, Mayoral allowed him to attend the flocks. Already in his late adolescence, John was content to be a shepherd. He loved life in the open air, it was uncomplicated, healthy and peaceful. As Mayoral’s adopted son he had security, yet in spite of this he showed little ambition to take on Mayoral’s responsibilities. He also showed little interest in taking a wife and raising a family. This worried the good Mayoral who nurtured the desire that his daughter might one day become John’s wife.
The young shepherd was to know many happy years in the Mayoral household, and in the solitude of the Toledo hills and the company of his flocks, he grew to manhood. Like that other shepherd David, John was close to nature, close to God. Like David, the shepherd of Oropesa would one day have to leave his flocks to take up the sword. Like David he would lose his innocence. And like him, he would repent.
John Cidade was in the church to hear Father Avila on January 20th. As the famous preacher told the story of St. Sebastian’s martyrdom and his loyalty to Christ, all John’s remorse for his early life and his past neglect of his religious duties burst into a great emotional upheaval. He realized that he could no longer remain in his comfortable complacency. Somehow he felt that God had used the words of Father Avila to awake in him a new conversion of spirit. Then an extraordinary thing happened. The preacher’s words triggered something in Cidade’s psyche. Falling to his knees he groaned and sobbed and began telling everyone what a great sinner he was.
People began to gather about him, some were amused, others annoyed. Leaving the church, he continued to shout aloud his sins and threw himself to the ground. At first it seemed nothing more than an embarrassing spectacle, but when the apparently demented bookseller refused to cease his strange antics, the crowd’s sympathy turned to ridicule. In minutes a rabble was at John’s heels, bawling that he had gone mad and showering him with stones and the filth of the gutters. Only when a few of his patrons managed to fight their way through the brutal mob was he finally snatched to safety and taken to meet Father John of Avila.
Alone with the priest, John calmed down and told him the story of his life. The learned and holy priest saw how genuine he was and promised to give him spiritual direction. But no sooner was the interview over and John was once again out on the streets, that he once more started to act as before. Running towards his shop, John was pursued by the howling mob. Arriving at his little business, the frenzied proprietor tore down the shutters and commenced to smash the fixtures and stock. The crowd emptied the shop of its contents in moments, then rushing into his lodgings, poor John re-emerged and gave away all his clothing and personal effects to the grasping hands of the mob.
Nobody hated the ‘poor bookseller, they could not understand his strange behavior, so what they could not understand they feared. In their ignorance they attacked the cause of this fear. Cidade did not conform to normal behavior and as a consequence he bore their wrath. Finally, a few kind friends forced their way through the crowd and rescuing John, they had no alternative than to take him to the Royal Hospital where a special section was reserved for the insane.
3—HOUSE OF HOSPITALITY
John Cidade was determined to go ahead with his resolve to devote the remainder of his life to serving the under- privileged and the sick. However, before attempting to put his plan into practice, he set out to see Father Avila at Baeza for spiritual direction and then went on to make a pilgrimage to the famous Marian shrine at Guadalupe in Extremadura.
This pilgrimage had a twofold purpose for John. Firstly, the spiritual experience of visiting the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and secondly, to learn from the Jeronymite monks who conducted it, the techniques of medicine and nursing the sick. John spent three months learning as much as possible from the monks at Guadalupe and returned to Granada at the end of 1539.
Although he had Father Avila’s full support, John had no money to start his enterprise of charity. However, he did have some influential friends, thanks to Father John of Avila, and among them was Archbishop Gaspar de Avalos of Granada and Bishop Sebastian Ramirez of the Royal Chancellery. Father Avila introduced John to a wealthy merchant, don Miguel de Venegas, who permitted him to use the courtyard of his villa as a temporary refuge for the destitute. Soon John brought so many sick and derelicts there that Venegas offered to pay the rent for some suitable premises.
John was able to rent a large house in the Calle Lucena near the fish markets and he moved his guests there just before Christmas 1539. The Archbishop of Granada and Bishop Ramirez both gave John their blessings and the latter gave him enough money to buy forty beds to furnish his house of hospitality. The building had two levels with a courtyard containing a fountain. From the very beginning it was a self-help institution under the guidance of John. With the money given by Bishop Ramirez, John installed single beds for he would not tolerate the evil communal beds used in other hospitals at that time. This was only one of many hospital reforms that John was to undertake. Another innovation in hospital care was the custom John introduced at Lucena, of insisting that each patient had to be received with kindness and given a foot bath. He was able to employ some help with the money his benefactors gave him, and he told them that this cleansing had a twofold purpose. Apart from making the guest welcome, the washing, symbol of physical cleanliness, also symbolized the importance of the Sacrament of Penance, spiritual cleanliness. John had the physical welfare of his guests at heart and he also had their spiritual welfare in mind, for he said that the way to reach the soul was through the body.
John had that wonderful gift which brought out the best in people, a gift which four centuries later would become a recognized science. John Cidade was practicing applied psychology. This washing exercise had yet another purpose. John used it to make his helpers recognize the importance of human dignity even in the most degrading cases. He explained that it was really the feet of Jesus Christ that they washed. So great was his personal belief in this, that he always sought to render this service himself where possible. “Through the body to the soul” became John’s motto. This was a sound theological maxim and clearly showed this great Christian humanist had more than the mere physical welfare of his guests at heart.
John’s hospital was a real house of hospitality, where the poor helped the poor and the infirm aided those in greater need than themselves. His hospital received anyone who was sick or destitute, and it was especially the mentally disturbed who had the greatest cause to be grateful to John far his Christian love and understanding. At John’s hospital there were no bleeding backs or tortured screams.
The impetus behind the enterprise of charity came from John, who personally saw to it that the fifty or more guests had enough to eat and ample bedding and clothing. From the beginning of his hospital in January 1540, the people of Granada became familiar with the sight of its founder going about the city each evening begging for his guests. John’s catch-cry was “Do well for yourselves brothers, do well for yourselves!” John reasoned that whoever gave generously to the poor sick would receive spiritual benefits in return. “I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:40). John adopted this injunction of Christ’s to remind the citizens of Granada of their duty as Christians to help the poor and needy.
Imprimatur: James R. Cardinal Knox
Archbishop of Melbourne 1st July, 1973