Saint John Berchmans: Becoming a Saint in a Short Time

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With admirable serenity he overcame all human disappointments and attained his noble supernatural ideal: sanctity, in the footsteps of his Founder.

Newsroom (13/08/2021 10:50,Gaudium Press ) The firstborn of five children, St. John was born in Diest, Belgium to a fervent Catholic family on 13 March 1599 and was baptized the very next day. The wars that wreaked havoc throughout the 16th century did not spare the illustrious Berchmans from poverty.

The father, a tanner, was forced to work in the humble trade of shoemaker, while the mother, suffering from paralysis, was bed-ridden. In light of those circumstances, the education of little John and his siblings was entrusted to the care of some religious aunts.

When he was only six years old, he entered the Klyne school, transferring a short time later to the Grande Ecole. Even at this young age, while traveling to school, his childish gaze contemplated a daily view of ruins all around him.

Near the old marketplace stood the imposing Church of Saint Sulpice, where John had been baptized, and every day the child went into the church to pray. A priest there invited him to become an altar server, and from then on little John’s enthusiasm for the service of the altar began to blossom.

When he was ten years old, his inclination for the priesthood was very clear. His mother accepted his separation from the family and he was entrusted to Canon Pierre van Emmerick, an excellent teacher and parish priest of Notre Dame de Diest, who provided him a very good intellectual and religious formation.

Encountering a religious vocation

At the age of 13, due to the family’s difficult economic situation, his father called him to return home to help with his work. The boy, however, begged him: “Father, do not prevent me from continuing my studies; I shall live on bread and water, but let me become a priest”.

Providence intervened on his behalf: at the request of his aunts, the Chaplain of the community received him into his home, although only for a short time. Canon Frans van Groenendonk, a friend of the family, thought that such a brilliant student should attend the Grande Ecole of Malines.

His parents agreed and so he went, lodging as a domestic servant in the house of the canon and great cantor of the Cathedral of Saint Rombaut, who generously covered the expenses of his studies.

During the day he served his master, and at night he studied by the light of a single candle, in the attic where he slept. By following this routine, he forged and tempered his will, without allowing the spontaneity of his innocent soul to be tarnished.

The opening of a Jesuit college in the city in 1619 caused a multitude of students to leave other educational institutions and enroll in the new school. This included John Berchmans, who enrolled in the course of rhetoric there.

Firm in the teachings received since childhood and eager for a disciplined life, he drew up for himself a program of conduct. This self-imposed routine consisted of: “Daily Mass, recitation of the Rosary and the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin; weekly Confession and – what was considered too much for that time – Communion every fortnight”.

Inspired by the life of Louis de Gonzaga, he decided to enter the religious life.

The First Great Trial

This decision tremendously disappointed Mr. Berchmans, who traveled to Malines to prevent the realization of his son’s resolutions. If only he had taken a doctorate at the University of Louvain, he could have helped the family!

Using his parental authority, he took John to the Capuchin fathers and asked them to examine the authenticity of his vocation. Those religious men could not fail to recognize the divine call in the young man and encouraged him in his efforts.

Time calmed his nerves. This great initial trial was over.

John became the first student in the course of Rhetoric and, at the age of 17, knocked at the door of the novitiate of the Society of Jesus. His heart beat with a missionary ardour: he desired to go and meet the sons of St. Ignatius in the far-off lands of India, Japan, China, and America.

Frère Hilarius

In the novitiate, the rigorous spiritual discipline sculpted and shaped his personality, putting the reins of his soul in his own hands. His intrepid faith and unshakeable fidelity to the Rule, united to a refined delicacy of heart, shone through his whole person.

After a year of novitiate, the Superior entrusted him with the post of Prefect of Novices. When it was necessary to impose an unpleasant task, he asked for it with such a kind word and such a frank smile that resistance became impossible; if he had a reprimand to make, he never approached his companion without first praying.

His brothers called him Frère Hilarius – Brother Joyful – because he vigorously rejected any shadow of sadness or melancholy. His great mortification consisted in common life, in the twofold sense of the word: daily life and outstanding fidelity to the Rule in all the acts of the community, in perfect and continuous obedience.

In September 1618 he took solemn vows.

Defender of the Immaculate Conception

Despite his steadfastness, he experienced the spiritual fear of not persevering in his vocation, which was in fact a distrust of himself. In turning to the Virgin Mother he found peace.

While still in the novitiate, he pronounced a vow of devotion to the Blessed Virgin, in accordance with the custom of the time. (In 1620, in the last year of his life, he handwrote a new vow in defense of the Immaculate Conception, signing it with his own blood.Today this document remains preserved in a reliquary in the College of St. John Berchmans in Brussels.)

According to Cardinal Juan de Lugo, a Jesuit and eminent theologian who was a contemporary of the Saint: “Without the supernatural influence of this young Jesuit student from Rome”, the promulgation of the decree of 24 May 1622 would not have been possible, in which Pope Gregory XV declared: “Let no one affirm, verbally or in writing, in public or in private, under pain of the gravest censure, anything contrary to the Immaculate Conception”.

This was an important step towards the Solemn Proclamation of the Dogma, made two and a half centuries later by Blessed Pius IX.

At the Roman College

In the same year he made his solemn vows, the Father Provincial transferred him to the Collegio Romano, now the Gregorian University.
There, a great joy filled his soul: the cell of Blessed Luigi di Gonzaga had been assigned to him. Coincidence… or Providence? His arrival made a strong impression on the teachers and students. His only obligation now was to study, and to this he devoted all his energies.

Encouragement and joy in sickness

At the beginning of his religious life, he asked himself: “With so many means offered to me, how can I not reach the highest holiness?” And, prophetically, he said: “If I do not sanctify myself in my youth, the years will not bring me sanctity.”

The Lord granted him the grace of reaching the a level of heroic virtue when he was only 22 years old.

He thought of himself as a sinner and submitted to austere privations in matters of food. One wonders if this, added to so many intellectual and moral efforts, weakened his health, for at the end of 1620, John found himself facing illness.

While illness undermined his body, he fought a great inner struggle to maintain his serenity. His journal of intimate notes reveals the tremendous aridity he was experiencing.

In mid-December, God rewarded his severity towards himself by granting him a great consolation, “a river of peace”.

On the last day of the year, he recognized his progress in complete abandonment into the hands of the Creator: “I do not think I am attached to anything any more”.

The following April, he manifested his completely impassive attitude regarding his physical health: “I would rather die – than be forced by worry for my health – to renounce anything of the ideal of holiness to which God calls me.”

In July, even though he was weak, he took the final public examination for the year of Philosophy with great success. In early August, appointed by his superiors, he represented the Collegio Romano in the defense of his thesis at the Collegio Grego. He performed so brilliantly that the audience happily acclaimed him.

The following day, stricken with a dangerous fever, he was taken to the infirmary, never to be released.

Integrity of soul until the end

There was great concern in the Collegio Romano: teachers, students and doctors alike were deeply moved.

On 10 August Berchmans’ condition worsened. Visits followed one after the other, and the sick man consoled the visitors by telling them of the joys of Heaven.

The next morning, he received Holy Viaticum and made an impromptu Profession of Faith. He was given Extreme Unction and, according to the custom of the Company, he publicly accused himself of his faults against the Rule, remaining calm and unperturbed.

In the ears of the Father Rector he confided that his great consolation was that he had never committed a deliberate venial sin during his life as a religious.

As his last night of earthly life approached, the sick Saint began to shake, a powerful change coming to his face, and suddenly exclaimed, : “No! No! I will not do it! A thousand times, no! Satan, get out!”

All those present redoubled their prayers and sprinkled the bed with Holy Water. Wielding his Rosary and his Crucifix, John said: “Here are my weapons!”

He then opened the book of the Rule and recited with piety the formula of the vows, omitting the words “in order to spend the rest of my days in it.” He was in full possession of his conscience.

As 13 August 1621 dawned, the Father Rector was preparing to go out to celebrate the Holy Mass. Visiting the bedside of the sickly man, he asked him not to die before he returned from Mass. Brother John nodded in obedience.

When he returned, the Saint again expressed his joy at having obeyed, and asked those present to recite the Litany of Our Lady. It was about eight o’clock in the morning, and his last words were “Jesus and Mary.

At the invocations ‘Sancta Virgo Virginum’ and ‘Mater Castissima’, he bowed his head in veneration and expired, his eyes fixed on the Crucifix.

A crowd flocked to the Collegio Romano to pay him homage. In the desire of the people to have a relic of the young Jesuit Saint, his cassock was torn to pieces and twice his body had to be clothed again! A blind man recovered his sight and the graces multiplied.

Pope Leo XIII canonized him on 15 January 1888.

St. John Berchmans passed with admirable serenity through everything that can be called human disappointments: he did not have time to be a missionary, nor was he the great theologian he had longed to be. But he fully achieved his supernatural ideal: “I want to be a Saint, a great Saint, and in a short time”!

Text extracted, with adaptations, from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel n. 140, August 2013.

Compiled by Sandra Chisholm

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