St. John of God

(1495-1550 A.D.)

Portuguese-born John Ciudad floundered his way to sainthood as John of God. It is encouraging to watch a sinner become a saint. Most of us sinners need that example.

After moving to Spain as a youth and earning his keep as a shepherd, John signed up in 1522 with a local company of soldiers. He fought first against the French, then, in Hungary, against the Turks. Army life is not the best laboratory for holiness. While in the service, Soldier John gave up what religious practices had been his and became an immoral roisterer. Fortunately, his term of enlistment finally ran out. He returned to Spain; to shepherding; and, as it happened, to his senses. A complete change of heart inspired him to make reparation for his sinful years. But how was he to do this?

John was naturally compassionate toward the suffering, and this compassion was to govern his spiritual development. First he attached himself to a family that was obliged to move into Muslim Africa. They needed his help, and he also had the hope that he might become a martyr at the hands of the Moors. Ultimately, however, his confessor told him to forget martyrdom and return to Spain.

When John landed at Gibraltar, the thought occurred to him that he might help people by peddling religious books and pictures. Before long he enjoyed enough success to warrant his opening a religious book shop.

Not long afterward, however, John experienced a new spiritual crisis. While attending a powerful sermon by the great home-missionary Saint John of Avila, peddler John was so struck with his own unworthiness that he beat his breast and wailed out in church for God’s mercy. Next, he got rid of his business stock and for a while wandered about the city crying out for forgiveness, so wild in his ways that citizens stoned him as a madman and committed him to an asylum. Here John of Avila visited him and talked turkey. He told him that he had done enough of this singular penance, and should now look for some constructive way to help others. Ciudad at once calmed down.

Now John turned to the needy. First he began to peddle wood in order to earn money for the poor. Then he rented a house which he turned into a hospice for the sick poor. He had finally found his niche. Not only did his patients increase; all observers noted his skill as an organizer. The success of his hospital prompted him to set up other hospices and charitable institutions of various sorts throughout the province of Granada. The Bishop of Tuy, who called him “John of God,” urged him to establish the order of nursing brothers known today as the “Hospitallers of St. John of God” (1537). This brotherhood soon became international. They made a foundation in Rome in 1571, where they are still called the “Fate bene fratelli” because their founder always used to exhort his brethren: “Do everything well, brothers.” In the 17th century the order had 70 hospitals in South America. Their first United States hospital was inaugurated in 1941. Nor was this religious congregation simply activistic. St. John, growing constantly in spirituality, made his community’s service deeply spiritual. They were taught to see Christ in those whom they took care of.

After ten years of utter dedication to his poor, John of God took fatally ill. The cause was literally overexertion in trying to save the victims of a bad flood. Try as he might thereafter, he could not conceal his growing weakness. One day Lady Osorio, a staunch benefactor, found him lying in his cell, weak and frail, with an old coat for a blanket and a basket for a pillow. She firmly ordered that he come to her home to be cared for. The saint was embarrassed by this attention, for he claimed that he was now enjoying good food, although Jesus, in his last hours, had been offered only gall to drink. At least he was able to force himself upon his knees at the moment of death.

All Granada attended this nursing saint’s funeral in 1550. He was canonized in 1690. In 1886 Pope Leo XIII named him and another converted sinner and nursing founder, St. Camillus de Lellis, as joint patron saints of hospitals and the sick. Pius XI, in 1930, declared St. John patron of nurses.

Today many men and women are obliged to give practical nursing care to sickly and aging members of their own families. Even though they are not professional nurses, I am sure that the generous founder of the Hospitallers would be quick to answer their prayers for his aid and encouragement.

--Father Robert F. McNamara