Sunday, March 10, 2013
Fr. Andersen: St. John of God
A homily by Fr. Eric M. Andersen, Sacred Heart-St. Louis in Gervais, OR
March 10th, 2013 Dominica IV Quadragesimae, Anno C
The parable of the prodigal son calls to mind the story of a particular saint. On Friday, the Church commemorated St. John of God, the founder of the Order of Friars Hospitallers. He was a prodigal son. At the age of nine, John Ciudad left home in Portugal and walked to Spain. It was the year of our Lord 1504. He accompanied a young seminarian. He did not mean to run away from home. He was not in trouble. He came from a good home, and he was a quiet, contented boy. He was not rebellious and he was not an adventurer. It is more that he just kept walking and found himself one hundred and twenty miles away from home in Oropesa, Spain. There, he ended up living and working as a shepherd. John grieved over the loss of his home and parents and dreamed of returning home to care for them. He would not forgive himself. He deserved nothing. He called himself “Brother Zero.”
At the age of twenty six, his master came to him with a proposal that John should marry his lovely young daughter. He did not wish to disappoint his master and he did not want to break the young lady’s heart, but he had made a secret vow at the age of twelve that he would belong to God alone. Her heart was broken. He grieved. The next morning, he left the estate and joined the local count’s army.
The army marched to the kingdom of Navarre to defend it against the French invaders. John spent his spare moments praying the Rosary. One night while John was praying, a fellow soldier “unexpectedly picked up (a) leather brandy flask, stumbled to his feet, flung an arm around John in a mock embrace and dared him, mumbling, ‘Put away your beads. Praying is for women. Be a man! Here, drink up!’
“John drank. He was accepted. A new devil-may-care attitude replaced the ruefulness of the man who had brooded on the pain he had caused those who were dear to him” (Newcomb, Brother Zero, p. 30). The brandy burned away his loneliness and his pain, but only temporarily.
At one point, John came into the possession of a French horse and was sent to get food and provisions for his troop. But the horse was loyal to its French masters and would not cooperate with John. He threw John off his back and John landed on a boulder. He was out cold. His head was wounded and his leg was seriously injured. When he awoke, he could not get up.
He cried out to the blessed Virgin to help him. Soon a soft footstep hushed his pleading. His heart fluttered. Turning his head, he saw a young woman close by. She wore the (dress) and starched square headdress of a Basque shepherdess. How beautiful she was in the moonlight! Was she real? She (bathed) the blood from head and face with water which she carried in a small jug. Then, with hands as cool and soothing as balm, she lightly touched his injured leg.
‘Señorita, who told you that I needed help?’
‘You,‘ she murmured, and continued to minister to his wounds.
‘I?‘ John looked at her through astonished eyes.
She stood. ‘I am she to whom you called for help. In future, my son, be more faithful to your prayers.’ Still holding the water jar, she smiled an irresistible smile and vanished” (cf. Newcomb 31-32).
John immediately stood up and he was healed. He never went back to the liquor and resumed his former prayerful way of life. He then fought in the Imperial army of Charles V against the Turks and made a fortune in gold. Finally, he returned to his home town in Portugal decorated with medals across his chest. But his parents had died shortly after he had run away and he now had only one remaining uncle to whom he gave his fortune and returned to Spain.
In Gibraltar, he began to sell holy books, rosaries, and religious articles from a cart in the plaza. On Wednesdays and Fridays, he took a pack upon his shoulders and walked to the neighboring villages to sell his wares. One hot summer morning, he was walking and he felt very weak, hot and thirsty. He was fully dressed as a gentleman with ankle boots, woolen stockings, velvet knee breeches and doublet, fine linen shirt and beret which a Spanish gentlemen never removed from his head except in the presence of the king. The heat was unbearable. He sat down on a boulder in the shade of an acacia tree.
A small boy suddenly appeared. He was dressed all in white like a small nobleman. His hair was in golden ringlets and butterflies hovered all around him. John removed his beret as for a king. “Little brother…Have you run away from home?” The boy shook his head. “Your mother knows where you are?” The boy nodded (cf. Newcomb 71). John needed to be on his way, but he could not abandon this tiny child. He told the boy that he would take him home, but where was home? The boy pointed toward the south. But was he pointing to earth or heaven? John could not tell. Then John looked down and saw that the boys tender little bare feet were cut, scratched, bruised and bleeding. The terrain was dangerous with snakes, stinging insects, stones and thorns.
Shamed, he vowed never again to wear shoes. He looked at the boy and smiled, saying to himself, ‘In imitation of you, little one, I will go barefooted and hatless for the rest of my days.” He lifted the child tenderly to his shoulders and carried him with his pack of religious goods, hat and shoes dangling, and he felt energetic again.
The child became heavy. They walked for what seemed an infinity. John’s feet were bloody and blistered. He thought of St. Christopher carrying the Christ child. They stopped to rest at a brook where he could drink and bath his bloody feet. The child was suddenly nowhere to be found. Then the boy suddenly reappeared in heavenly splendor and handed John a “pomegranate surmounted by a golden cross. The child spoke clearly saying ‘Juan de Dios, Granada será tu cruz’ (John of God, Granada will be your cross).’ [The pomegranate was] the floral emblem of Spain. In Holy Writ, the symbol of charity; in Christian lore, the symbol of Christ’s Passion. The cross atop the pomegranate signified sacrifice and salvation” (Newcomb 82).
John moved to Granada and spent his days in the public square barefooted, bareheaded, having given his velvet doublet and fine linen shirt away to a crippled beggar. He sold his rosaries, books, medals and crucifixes and gave all the money away to the poorest of the poor. He had nothing to show for his work. What a failure!
On the feast of St. Sebastian in the year 1537, he had listened to Father John of Avila preach that “Heaven…was not to be had for the taking. One must earn it by service to God. The Christian who hoped to reserve for himself even the least place on the outermost rim of Heaven must repent and atone, repent and atone, again and again and again” (Newcomb 87). John heard this and took it to heart. He ran to the square sobbing and crying out to the townsfolk that they must repent and atone. Now the beggars spat upon him and threw pebbles at him, calling him the most foul names. John of God was beaten up by the crowd and cried out for mercy to God for his sins. He sobbed convulsively and finally was left for dead among the stones of the river bank. Two hidalgos (i.e., noblemen), rescued him and brought him to the Hermitage of St. Sebastian where St. John of Avila was staying. Father John of Avila saw in John of God a holy man who wished to embrace the Cross of Jesus Christ. He took him on as a spiritual son.
John of God asked permission of his spiritual father to be admitted to the Royal Hospital into the ward for the insane as a form of penance. He was not insane, but the townspeople believed him to be so. He was admitted for 8 months and treated cruelly with whips and branding irons which were thought to beat insanity out of a person. John was covered with lesions that were opened up by whipping before they ever had a chance to heal. He identified with the scourged Christ. When Fr. John of Avila went to visit him, he found John of God radiant and glowing with heavenly light and the most beautiful purity shining forth from his eyes. The priest used his influence to have John of God released from his treatment as one who was cured. At that point, John worked at the hospital as a nurse, caring for the most despicable and hopeless patients. One day a patient called him a saint and John was so horrified by this honor that he quit the hospital that day and retreated to the Hermitage with Fr. John of Avila.
He knew that God wanted him to serve the sick poor. He was resolute that he must open a hospital in Granada but he had no money. Fr. John of Avila told him it was impossible. Who would give him property for free? Still, John of God was absolutely confident that if it was God’s will, then it would happen. First, he received permission from his spiritual father to make a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Guadalupe, Spain. It was winter and he wore nothing but a coarse twill tunic and a knotted rope. He was emaciated from fasting and penance, his head was shaved, and he was barefoot, but he radiated peace and holiness. Fr. John of Avila knew that it was useless to command his spiritual son to dress warmly and take money for his travels. The penitent would take nothing because he trusted in the providence of God and the kindness of rustics along the way.
The rustics were not kind along the way. He was turned away at every door and spent one night in jail because the villagers did not trust a man who appeared so very pious. The saint was extremely pleased to be treated with such disdain. Upon arriving at the miraculous Spanish shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, he spent hours upon hours gazing upon the miraculous image at the shrine. In obedience to his spiritual father, he “desperately…implored the Mother of God to show him what her Divine Son wanted him to do with his life. Then one day she answered his appeal” (Newcomb 159). A cloud of blue fumes descended upon the altar and Our Lady appeared holding the Christ child. She handed the baby to John and instructed him to dress the child. He “rightly understood this to mean that henceforth he was to care for Christ’s poor” (170).
Upon returning to Granada, he could not believe his eyes. “It can’t be!” he murmured and moved a step or two closer to examine a signboard that hung across a grilled door. The (writing) on the board said: House to let for the Lodging of the Poor. He was unable to secure the property because he had no money. He went to the church to pray his Rosary and beg our Lady for assistance. While others looked on, another blue cloud descended and our Lady of Victory appeared and said to John: “It is by thorns, labors and sufferings you must earn the crown my Son has prepared for you” (178). She then placed a crown of thorns on his head granting him the invisible gift of the stigmata.
It was the talk of the town. After this event, the owner of the property granted its use to John without any money. The pain in John’s head from the invisible stigmata was the payment he would render for the rest of his years. From this hospital he sought out the poorest of the poor, the sick and the abandoned and he cared for them with a gentle love. He did so alone with limited resources at first. Then he was joined by two companions. They were given a religious habit by the Bishop of Tuy who vested John and officially gave him the name received by the Divine Child: John of God. The Religious Order was officially called the Order of Friars Hospitallers to care for the sick poor. At the age of 55 he attempted to save a drowning boy. He himself died from the ensuing illness. He received the burial worthy of a prince and was canonized a saint in 1690 by Pope Alexander VIII.
He was a prodigal son who spent his whole life doing penance so that he could truly be his Heavenly Father’s son, in the likeness of the Son of God in His suffering on the Cross. He sought to be a failure in life and called himself Brother Zero. By that disdain for worldly recognition, and a tender love for Christ’s poor he gained a crown in heaven and made this world a better place.