From many perspectives, it was a delicious time to be alive: Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci sculpting or painting their hearts out; Erasmus's proliferation; printers thrashing out books; scientific and theological boundaries pushed beyond the hem of imagination. And as an outward mirror of this expansion of mind and soul, an entire new world was opening up behind the ocean's horizons, whispering promises of glory and wealth to the venturesome. While Spain under Isabella and Ferdinand was the superpower of the early sixteenth century, it could in no way match the naval skill and genius of Portugal, which gained control of four critical ports in the East--Goa, Malacca, Aden and Ormuz.
In those days any young man, peasant or not, had at least one reliable commodity: sinew. Any man with a straight back, agility, flint eyes, arched feet and forbearance could become a soldier. Throughout the centuries, after all, becoming a soldier has been a means to respectability for those without means, a way to move up, marry into a different class, gain respect, better oneself.
And so John of God, born into Portuguese obscurity in Monte Mor-il-Nuovo in 1495 and raised a devout Catholic, left it all behind to become what was easy to become, a soldier. But not just any soldier. Unlike his contemporary Ignatius Loyola, who was groomed to be a courtier, John of God would become a mercenary. He was not fighting in defence of Portugal or his king; he killed for pay. He fought whoever needed fighting: the French for Spain; the Turks in Hungary. He sold slaves in Morocco. In fact, there wasn't much that he hadn't done by the time he had crested forty.
Then, as mysteriously as he chose the life of a soldier of fortune, John of God's troop was disbanded and he now put fighting behind him. It is said that he had offered to become a martyr by helping Christian slaves in Africa, but was talked out of this, likely by some prudent brother-in-law. Instead, his was a quiet transition; he exchanged weapons for commerce and drifted back into obscurity as a pedlar of religious goods, eventually opening a little book shop in Granada, selling holy cards and books.
One day he chanced to hear a sermon by a famous preacher, John of Avila. Whatever the content of the homily, whatever the state of his heart, it stirred him so deeply that he went spectacularly mad, right there in the church, then ran through the streets pulling his hair, perhaps not unusual behaviour for booksellers of any era. For days he roamed Granada giving away his books and screaming with sorrow for his sins. The authorities, fearing for his own safety, put him in an asylum for a time.
When John of Avila got word of what had come to pass, he visited John of God in the asylum. In the former mercenary, John of Avila thought he recognized a yearning for penance and absolution. He instructed John of God simply to do good works, and this was perhaps the more profound conversion, from madness, from despair, from burning remorse, from death to life. St. John of God somehow found within himself the will to begin to care for others, first in the asylum where he himself was confined, then later in a house he wangled in Granada in 1539, where he gave shelter to anyone who needed it: cripples, paralytics, lepers, the deaf and dumb, the insane, people with diseases, the old, pilgrims, prostitutes and vagrants. Initially John collected wood and sold it for money to feed and clothe his ragtag band. Later he begged rich women to support his work, a more profitable pursuit and much easier on his back. His care and devotion to the sick brought him the admiration of the townspeople and recognition from the bishop. One of his best-known miracles occurred during a fire at the Grand Hospital in Granada, when John rescued all the inmates by passing through the fire unharmed.
Eventually John was joined by others who wanted to emulate his dedication to the poor. In this way his work was carried on after his death, on his fifty-fifth birthday of a fever after rescuing a child from the Ximel River. In 1570 the Order of the Hospitallers was constituted and John of God would be considered its founder. He was canonized by Pope Alexander VIII in 1690, and two centuries later Pope Leo XIII made him the patron saint of hospitals and the dying. Hospitals throughout the world bear his name, including one in Montreal. And since one particular hospital for alcoholics was named after him in Dublin, John of God is also invoked against "the drink."
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld