Saint John of Capistrano

Saint John of Capistrano
(St Jean de Capistran)

Feast Day – March 28

Toward the end of the fourteenth century the kingdom of Naples was the scene of many wars. Among those who had been drafted to serve in the army was a German knight – others say he came from France – who married a young woman of great piety in Capistrano and then took up his abode there. Saint John Capistran was born of these parents on June 24, 1385, and was later identified as Capistrano, from Capistrano, the place of his birth.

After Saint John of Capistrano had completed his studies in law at the University of Perugia, he became a lawyer in Naples, where he gained so admirable a reputation for his honesty and ability that King Ladislas frequently called him for advice.

John was not yet thirty years old when the king made him governor of Perugia. Having tasted of the good fortune of this world, he was soon also to experience its instability. He had repaired to a neighboring town, where war had broken out, in order to arrange for a peaceful settlement. He was treacherously seized, loaded with heavy chains, and thrown into prison. No one bothered about releasing him. Then, quite strangely, a Franciscan surrounded with light appeared to him, and invited him to leave this unstable world and enter his order.

Saint John of Capistrano replied: “I had never thought about embracing such a life; still, if God so will it, I will obey.”

At a great price he now obtained his freedom and begged for admission at the convent of the Franciscans in Perugia. After a rigorous trial of his humility, he received the holy habit on October 4, 1416. From the very first he was earnestly minded to put off the old man and to put on the new one in justice and holiness. Because of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding his call to the religious life, he was frequently subjected to severe trials; but his virtue and divine calling always shone forth with increased brilliance.

Rigorous mortification, perfect obedience, and a fervent devotion to the bitter Passion of Christ distinguished him among his brethren. Saint John of Capistrano was also a devout client of our Blessed Lady, and felt certain that without her assistance it would not be possible for him to obtain the palm of victory.

When he began the study of theology under St Bernardine of Siena shortly after he had pronounced his vows, it seemed as if he acquired this holy science more though divine inspiration than through human reflection, so that his saintly master once said: “John achieves more in his sleep than others who study day and night.”

St James of the March was one of his fellow students. It appears that God caused to be brought together these three great men, who were faithfully to join their forces throughout their lives to promote the perfect observance of the rule in the order, as well as to combat the immorality of that time. Capistrano was destined, however, to be the most conspicuous hero in this fight.

While still a deacon, Saint John of Capistrano was sent out to preach in 1420; but not until 1425 did he begin his apostolic ministry. He began in Italy by taking up the struggle against vice. His former position in the world made him acquainted with the enormity of the evil, against which he now rose like another Elias. His burning words, his ardent zeal, and the holiness of his life caused veritable miracles of conversion. People came from every side to hear him; soon no church was large enough to accommodate the crowds.

Sometimes 50,000, 80,000, and even more than 100,000 persons would gather about his pulpit in public squares and broad fields to listen to his sermons. His very appearance touched their hearts.

The holy orator could portray the glories of God and His justice, the depravity of vice and the beauty of virtue, the passion of Christ, the power of the name of Jesus, and the charity of our Blessed Lady so marvelously that the most hardened sinners were converted, while apostates and unbelievers turned to God and the Church. His presence was requested everywhere, and he was received like an angel from heaven. But amid the demonstrations of honor, the servant of God would always say: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Thy name give glory.”

The pope once entrusted Saint John of Capistrano with the mission against a certain heretical sect, and the eminent success of his labor caused him thereafter to be sent by Popes Martin V, Eugene IV, Nicholas V, and Callistus III as apostolic nuncio to northern and southern Italy, to Sicily, and other countries, to preach against the enemies of the Church.

The last five years of his active life were devoted to missionary labors in Germany. Emperor Frederick III begged the Holy Father in 1451 to send the renowned missionary to him to put a check on the scandalous advances of the heretical Hussites. Saint John of Capistrano wended his way through Carinthia and Styria to Vienna. From there his progress led him to Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Bavaria, and Thuringia; and then back again to Poland, Transylvania, and Russia.

The most astonishing miracles confirmed his words. Saint John of Capistrano cured innumerable sick persons, raised dead people to life again, and with only his mantle spread upon the waters, crossed rivers with several companions. Seeing these prodigies, some of the most obdurate heretics were converted, and hundreds of young people asked for admission into the order.

During this mission against the enemies of the Church at home, great dangers arose abroad, threatening Christendom itself. Mohammed II had captured Constantinople in 1453, and was determined to force all the Christians in the West to submit to Mohammedanism.

Saint John of Capistrano's first objective at this time was Germany. He had already reached Hungary and was advancing on the fortress of Belgrade. There seemed to be little chance of saving it; the only hope of salvation seemed to lie in the hands of Saint John Capistrano. He would have to rouse the princes and the people to a crusade against the Turks. Pope Callistus III proclaimed the crusade and appointed Capistrano to preach it.

Although Saint John of Capistrano was now seventy years of age, and so reduced by labor and austerity that he seemed to be nothing but skin and bone, the saint rushed, like the flying messenger of Christ that he was, about Germany and Hungary, summoning volunteers for the war against the enemy of the Christian name. With the troops he had assembled, he then hastened to Belgrade to aid the gallant warrior John Hunyadi. An army of several thousand Turks was encamped before the fortress, but Capistrano did not allow that to frighten him. Filled with confidence in the holy name of Jesus, which was given the soldiers as their standard, and holding aloft the cross with the banner on which was inscribed the holy name, while frequently calling on the holy name with a loud voice, he led the troops against the enemies, who were at least ten times stronger than the Christians. But the power of the Lord of Hosts and the efficacy of the holy name were to be marvelously manifested. More Turks were slain in the attack by the enthusiastic warriors of Christ than the number of the Christian soldiers, and the rest fled in panic. Once more Christian Europe was saved.

This glorious victory on the feast of St. Mary Magdalen in 1456 was destined to be the crown of John’s activities. Saint John of Capistrano fell ill soon afterwards, and died in the Franciscan convent of Illok in Hungary on October twenty-third. Glorified by God after his death with numerous miracles, Saint John of Capistrano was canonized by Pope Alexander VIII in 1690.

from: The Franciscan Book Of Saints, ed. by Marion Habig, OFM

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