On a business trip, I was fortunate to visit Mission San Juan Capistrano, of swallows fame, in California. A married saint, sort of.
It has been said the Christian saints are the world’s greatest optimists. Not blind to the existence and consequences of evil, they base their confidence on the power of Christ’s redemption. The power of conversion through Christ extends not only to sinful people but also to calamitous events.
Famous as a preacher, theologian, and inquisitor, he earned himself the nickname ‘the Soldier Saint’ when in 1456 at age 70 he led a crusade against the invading Ottoman Empire at the siege of Belgrade with the Hungarian military commander John Hunyadi.
Imagine being born in the 14th century. One-third of the population and nearly 40 percent of the clergy were wiped out by the bubonic plague. The Western Schism split the Church with two or three claimants to the Holy See at one time. England and France were at war. The city-states of Italy were constantly in conflict. No wonder that gloom dominated the spirit of the culture and the times.
John Capistrano was born in 1386, the son of a German knight, his father died when John was still young. His education, however, was thorough. His talents and success were great. The young man studied law at the University of Perugia, and worked as a lawyer in Naples. He became a highly successful judge and magistrate in Perugia.
In 1412, when he was 26 he was made governor of Perugia by King Ladislaus of Naples, and was a great political reformer of that city. War broke out between Perugia and the House of Malatesta from Rimini in 1416. John tried to broker a peace, but when his opponents ignored a truce and he was betrayed, John was imprisoned after a battle against the Malatestas.
During his imprisonment, John resolved to change his way of life completely. He had married just before the war, but the marriage was never consummated, and with his bride’s permission, it was annulled. He joined the Franciscans at Perugia on 4 October 1416. At the age of 30 he entered the Franciscan novitiate and was ordained a priest four years later.
His preaching attracted great throngs at a time of religious apathy and confusion. He and 12 Franciscan brethren were received in the countries of central Europe as angels of God. They were instrumental in reviving a dying faith and devotion.
The Franciscan Order itself was in turmoil over the interpretation and observance of the Rule of St. Francis – the Fratricelli. Through John’s tireless efforts and his expertise in law, the heretical Fraticelli were suppressed.
John helped bring about a reunion with the Greek and Armenian Churches, unfortunately only a brief arrangement. As the Eastern Church began to realize the Turks would triumph, it sought reconciliation with Rome – its only possible hope. It is conjectured by scholars that the genesis of the Renaissance was the flight of Eastern Christian scholars, artists, and thinkers to the West occasioned by the final collapse of the Eastern Byzantine Empire, direct descendant of the ancient Empire of Rome itself. Two thousand years – not a bad run, actually.
When the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, Mehmed II threatened Vienna and Rome. John was commissioned to preach a crusade for the defense of Europe. Gaining little response in Bavaria and Austria, he decided to concentrate his efforts in Hungary. He led the army to Belgrade. Under the great General John Hunyadi, they gained an overwhelming victory, and the siege of Belgrade was lifted. St John of Capistrano led his own contingent of soldiers into battle. Worn out by his superhuman efforts, Capistrano was an easy prey to the infection bred by the refuse of battle. He died October 23, 1456 of bubonic plague.
John Hofer, a biographer of John Capistrano, recalls a Brussels organization named after the saint. Seeking to solve life problems in a fully Christian spirit, its motto was: “Initiative, Organization, Activity.” These three words characterized John’s life. He was not one to sit around, ever. His deep Christian optimism drove him to battle problems at all levels with the confidence engendered by a deep faith in Christ.
On the saint’s tomb in the Austrian town of Villach, the governor had this message inscribed: “This tomb holds John, by birth of Capistrano, a man worthy of all praise, defender and promoter of the faith, guardian of the Church, zealous protector of his Order, an ornament to all the world, lover of truth and religious justice, mirror of life, surest guide in doctrine; praised by countless tongues, he reigns blessed in heaven.” That is a fitting epitaph for a real and successful optimist.
“Those who are called to the table of the Lord must glow with the brightness that comes from the good example of a praiseworthy and blameless life. They must completely remove from their lives the filth and uncleanness of vice. Their upright lives must make them like the salt of the earth for themselves and for the rest of mankind. The brightness of their wisdom must make them like the light of the world that brings light to others. They must learn from their eminent teacher, Jesus Christ, what he declared not only to his apostles and disciples, but also to all the priests and clerics who were to succeed them, when he said, “You are the salt of the earth. But what if salt goes flat? How can you restore its flavor? Then it is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” Jesus also said: “You are the light of the world.” Now a light does not illumine itself, but instead it diffuses its rays and shines all around upon everything that comes into its view. So it must be with the glowing lives of upright and holy clerics. By the brightness of their holiness they must bring light and serenity to all who gaze upon them. They have been placed here to care for others. Their own lives should be an example to others, showing how they must live in the house of the Lord. – from the treatise Mirror of the Clergy by Saint John of Capistrano