Saint John of Capistrano: a Lion at the Service of the Church

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São João de Capistrano, por Alonso del Arco - Museu do Prado, Madri - Foto: Divulgação

The Church remembers the memory of Saint John of Capistrano. An indefatigable preacher, missionary, and apostle, he stood out not only as an excellent jurist but also as a mystic, theologian, a wonder worker, and even as a warrior. He fought like a lion against the enemies of the Holy Church.

Newsdesk (24/10/2021 9:00 PM, Gaudium Press) John was born in Capestrano, in the Abruzzo region, part of the then Kingdom of Naples, on June 24, 1386. Having lost his father at an early age, he lived a calm and pure childhood with his virtuous mother.

When he reached adolescence, he left for Umbria, a neighboring province, settling in Perugia, where he studied Civil and Canon Law for about ten years.

At a little over twenty-five years of age, John was appointed governor of that city. Naturally upright, he exercised his new mission in an excellent manner: “The poor had in him a support, the good people a protector, the unruly a severe judge. Under his authority, the entire province regained security it had not known for many years. Theft disappeared, crime decreased, property and laws were finally respected. Nothing could make him compromise with injustice.”

On one occasion, he was promised a considerable sum of money if he won a case against a powerful lord of the region, giving a death sentence against an innocent man, his enemy. Even at the threat of a dagger, John was indignant at the proposal and seriously examined the case, finally declaring the innocence of the accused.

Despite such “small” setbacks, everything was smiling on the young governor. Success in life, fame in society, the promise of marriage to the only daughter of one of the richest men in town. But God had bigger things in store for him…

Failure and Conversion

Everything began to change color when dissension arose between the inhabitants of Perugia and some rulers of his native region and John was charged with negotiating peace. He spared no effort and travel to accomplish this task, but the Umbrians, assuming that John was betraying them, decided to arrest him.

Confined to the top of a tower, bound by heavy chains and having only bread and water for food, he thought of a way to escape death… John calculated the height of the building, cut a cloth into small strips and tied them together, forming a kind of rope by which he began to descend close to the outer wall. However, the strips broke, and he ended up breaking a foot in the fall.

The noise of the irons attracted the attention of the guards, who arrested him again, this time throwing him into an underground dungeon, where water reached his knees.

Seeing himself abandoned by everyone and meditating on the instability of human things, it was then that grace touched him deeply: Saint Francis of Assisi appeared to him, inviting him to join his Order. And John gives God his fiat.

“After this vision, his hair was miraculously cut into a tonsure, and he wanted nothing more than to execute the order of Heaven.” John had been transformed into a new man.

Entering the Seraphic Order, Hard Tests

He was released from prison after paying a large ransom, for which he had to commit most of his possessions, and he went to the Franciscan convent in Perugia, asking to be admitted into the Order. He was thirty years old at the time.

In order to assure himself of the authenticity of such a sudden vocation, the guardian of the community thought it necessary to submit the candidate to some tests.

In order to tread on human respect, he sent him through the streets of Perugia, where he had just received so much honor and praise, on a donkey, dressed in rags and carrying a sign which read his sins. The children threw stones at him, the crowd booed him, everyone despised him as a madman.

During this period, he was expelled from the convent twice but was readmitted under very harsh conditions.

Shredding his pride by such acts of humility, it is no wonder that he reached, in rapid flight, sublime perfection in the religious life. “The manner in which he endured all these trials enabled him to obtain a complete victory over himself. After that, there was nothing that seemed difficult to him.”

In the Hands of a Holy Novice Master

So, in order to elevate him and unite him more to God, Blessed Onofre of Seggiano tried to put him on the path of unpretentiousness by addressing him with severe reprimands every day.

Saint John would always keep a lively recognition, a deep affection, a true veneration to that master of novices.

The method obtained effective results. Learning to be a lion against himself, he became an apostle of fire, whose words would win over the crowds. His mere presence would shake away evil and would be a motive of dread for the wicked, yet for the good an encouragement, bringing enthusiasm and unity.

Franciscan Reformer and Inquisitor-General

Obedience led him to travel all over Europe, preaching the Gospel and carrying out tasks of the greatest responsibility within the Friars Minor or for the benefit of the Universal Church. He was Apostolic Commissary for years, Visitator General of the Order, Vicar General several times.

With Martin V he fought hard to harmonize the Observant Friars Minor and the Conventual Minor under one rule.

It was not only in his Order that division was spreading. A rising tide of new doctrines swept through the Church, constituting another battleground. Besides the existing Fraticelli, the partisans of John Wycliffe and Jan Hus appeared, each with his own theories, deviating from the sound teachings of ecclesiastical tradition.

“Nevertheless, in the midst of this night of darkness and blood, in the face of these fanatical insurgents and these prophets of hell, Saint John of Capistran stood as the advanced sentinel of the Papacy, as the scourge of hypocrisy and rebellion, as the impregnable wall of Catholic truth. The Pope had appointed him general inquisitor for all Christendom.

Using a sapiential method, Saint John of Capistrano tried to clarify Catholic doctrine to his opponents, organized public discussions that allowed everyone to expose their ideas and to know the truth of the Church, and finally forgave all those who showed repentance. Extremely kind, he knew how to combine justice with common sense.

Two Facets of his Approach

John was in Breslau, Poland, when some heretics, wanting to mock him, set up a parody: pretending to be Catholics, they put a living boy in a coffin, in order to “perform the miracle” of his resurrection.

Divinely instructed, John told them with a terrible accent: “May your inheritance be forever with the dead…” They tried in vain to revive the young man: divine vengeance had struck him.

Quite different was what happened in the village of Lach, in Moravia, four days away from Vienna, where the Saint was once preaching. A couple had had the misfortune of losing their daughter Catherine, found drowned in a well after two days of searching.

Hearing rumors of the miracles performed by the wonder worker, they did not hesitate to set out on their journey, taking the corpse with them. When they arrived at the man of God, they prostrated themselves at his feet begging for mercy. All John had to do was touch her and the girl came back to life!

However, all his power of word and attraction, all his ability to unite, reconcile and attract, which he had demonstrated over the years, seemed to have been granted to him by Providence with a view to a peak moment in the history of Christianity: the siege of Belgrade.

In Hungary

In early 1455, the Hungarians were determined to sign a truce with the Ottomans who were threatening to invade Europe. They felt abandoned by the rest of the continent.

God had revealed to Capistrano that his life would not be crowned by the martyrdom of blood, but by that of work and suffering. One day, “while he was celebrating Mass and asking for light to know where new Maccabees would come from for the salvation of Europe, he heard mysterious voices shouting: ‘In Hungary! In Hungary!’ These same voices would also resound in his ears while he was preaching in a public square.

In May 1455 he set out for Budapest, where he managed to attract to his cause one of the bravest captains of the time: the Governor of Transylvania, John Huníades.

An Unusual Army Accompanies Him

As news spread that a formidable invading fleet was heading against Belgrade, John of Capistrano set out in its defense, accompanied by Huníades and a multitude of people: peasants and farmers, poor people and students, monks and hermits.

A bizarre army surrounded him. They possessed no horses, spears, or armor. “One carried a sword, another the sickle and the rake or an iron-covered stick; but in all there was self-denial and contempt of death.

They put all their trust in the holy friar, who exhorted them to constancy, to fight for the Faith, and to martyrdom: “Whether in victory or defeat, whether struck or beaten, call on the name of Jesus, for in Him alone is salvation.

With John Huníades as head and strong arm, and the holy friar as heart and soul, the bizarre militia managed to win a first battle on the Danube, but soon the Ottomans regrouped and attacked with a redoubled effort the walls of the city of Belgrade.

The sight of the immense army assembled by the enemy was so overwhelming that Huníades himself had a moment’s hesitation: “My Father, we are beaten… we will infallibly succumb.” But the Capuchin, interrupting him, replied in an indignant voice, “Fear not, illustrious Lord; God is mighty!”

The Enemy Flees from the Battlefield

In the early hours of July 21-22, 1456, after heavy fighting the decisive moment came. The Christians, who until then had defended the city with stones and arrows, were seized by a sudden inspiration: they gathered wood and brambles, set them on fire, and threw flaming torches at the assailants. Blinded by the smoke and burned by the flames, the assailants retreated, running away and falling into the ditches.

Then, at Capistrano’s command, they all acclaimed the name of Jesus and rushed toward the enemy ranks, while the friar repeated his battle cry: “Victory! Jesus, victory!” Wounded and seeing his army dispersed, the sultan fled the battlefield, leaving behind him twenty-four thousand dead, three hundred cannons, and many spoils.

A short time later St. John fell ill. On Saturday, October 23, 1456, in complete serenity, with his eyes fixed on heaven, he delivered his soul to the God of victories at the age of seventy. Centuries later, already raised to the honor of the altars, the Church would declare him patron of military chaplains.

A Marion Saint

A Marion saint of battle, John of Capestrano was an excellent reflection of She who is qualified by Scripture as “Awesome as an Army Arrayed” (Ct 6, 3). Working against the internal laxity in his Order, he became its reformer; confronting the heresies that ravaged the Church, he became a theologian and inquisitor; against the danger of the invading Crescent, he became an intrepid fighter. Challenging, by his ardent word, the vices of society, he was like a new Apostle.

And, above all, fighting against himself, he won a struggle superior to all others: the Church today recognizes him as a Saint, and the faithful, together with Mary, will honor him for all eternity!

Compiled by Camille Mittermeier

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