Feast Day : March 8
Patronage: alcoholics; booksellers; the dying; firefighters; heart patients; hospitals; nurses; printers; the sick
John of God was born March 8, 1495, in Montemor o Novo, Portugal, to devout Christian parents. Tradition holds that at the time of his birth, the church bells in town rang of their own accord, heralding the arrival of a saint. His early life was checkered, however. He ran away from home at age eight or nine, following a Spanish priest to Spain, and never saw his parents again. He and the priest subsisted by begging. John fell ill, and was taken in by the manager of a large estate. After he regained his health, John worked for the man as a shepherd tending cattle and sheep. He was obedient, pious and good-natured. When he grew up, his boss tried to press him into marrying his daughter. At age 27 John escaped by joining the Spanish army, and then a regiment that went to Austria to fight the Turks. As a soldier, John fell into immoral and dissolute ways. One day he was thrown from a stolen horse near the French lines, and feared capture. The experience shook him up, and he resolved to mend his ways. He returned to his birthplace and sought to atone for his sins. He went to Africa to aid Moorish captives, and fully expected to be martyred. A confessor told him that martyrdom was not God’s plan for him. John went to Gibraltar, selling religious books and pictures at barely above cost. John had a vision of the infant Jesus, who gave him his name of John of God and told him to go to Granada. There he continued his activities of selling religious books and pictures, making scant profit. He became impressed with the preaching of Blessed John of Avila, but also was plunged into deep remorse over his sinful past. John went about the streets beating his breast and crying out to God for mercy. His behavior was so extreme that he was placed in an insane asylum for a time, and was subjected to the standard treatment of daily whippings and being tied down to a bed. John of Avila counseled him to stop the lamentations and find a more productive way to atone for his past. John made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, where he had a vision of what he was to do with himself. Returning to Granada, he rented a house and began to nurse the sick and care for the poor. If the sick did not come to him, he searched them out, even carrying them to the house. He was aided in this work not only by charitable people but also by angels, including the archangel Raphael. It was John’s custom to impulsively help people, including giving his cloak to any beggar he met. Don Sebastian Ramirez, bishop of Tuy, wisely ensured that the saint would retain his own clothing by designing for him a habit. This habit was adopted by those who became followers of John. John did not intend to found an order, but one grew up around his work. It became known as the Brothers Hospitallers, and also the Brothers of St. John of God. After John’s death, the order was given approval by Pope Pius V (r. 1566–72) in 1572. John’s death resulted from his impulsiveness to help others. He was ill in bed when he heard that a flood was bringing driftwood near town. Impulsively, he got up and gathered friends and went to the swollen river to gather pieces for firewood. One of the companions fell in, and John immediately dove into the water in an effort to save him. He was unable to do so, and caught fatal pneumonia. He died on Saturday March 8, 1550, in Granada in an unusual manner, kneeling before the altar in the sickroom in his rented house. His body remained in that position for some time and exuded a sweet perfume that filled the entire house. When the archbishop called to pay his respects, church bells tolled once again of their own accord. For a short time, the kneeling body was placed on a platform in front of the house so that others could pay their respects as well. John was buried in the vault in the church of Minims, Our Lady of Victory, in a ceremony befitting a prince. A large procession followed him to his resting place—the homeless and poor whom he had helped, and the rich who had aided him. His body was left exposed for veneration for nine days, and it exuded the perfume throughout the entire time. The room where John had died was converted into a chapel. Every anniversary of his death for at least 50 years, the same perfume filled the house from Friday through Saturday evening. In 1570 John was exhumed and his body was found to be incorrupt, save for the tip of his nose. At a later date, only bones remained. These were distributed as relics to churches around the world, and especially to churches and hospitals of the order. The skull and major bones were sent to the Basilica of St. John of God in Granada, where they are housed in a wooden chest inside a silver urn, atop a golden altar. It is interesting that John died in the same year that St. Camillus de Lellis was born in Italy. Camillus also was devoted to caring for the sick, and founded an order, the Ministers of the Sick, which became known as the Camillians.