Pope Benedict XVI surprised and delighted a World Youth Day congregation gathered at Madrid’s cathedral when he announced, “I will shortly declare St. John of Ávila a Doctor of the universal Church.”
In his Aug. 20 declaration, the pope said that he was acquiescing to a petition from the bishops of Spain, led by Cardinal Antonio María Rouco Varela, archbishop of Madrid, as well as from many lay Catholics. Then, speaking of St. John, Benedict said, “I would hope that the word and the example of this outstanding pastor will enlighten all priests and those who look forward to the day of their priestly ordination.”
Reviving Catholic life
St. John of Ávila (1500-1569) is a popular figure in Spain, but less well-known elsewhere in the Catholic world. Yet he deserves more attention, not to mention religious devotion, because he was one of the most important saints of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, particularly in Spain.
|Wisdom of St. John of Ávila|
“Your teaching on prayer is correct, and you may safely trust to it and practice it. The raptures too afford proof of being genuine. What you say about God teaching the soul without the use of the imagination, that is by interior or exterior, is safe, and I can find no fault with it.”
— Letter to St. Teresa of Ávila on her autobiography.
“Meditate on the fact that our Lord, with whom we are about to treat, is both God and man, and think over the reasons for which he comes down upon the altar. Surely such a stroke of love should be enough to awaken anyone from the slumber of indifference.”
— Letter to a Priest on How to Prepare to Celebrate Mass.
“Whatever our suffering may be, we must not let it overwhelm us. Remember our Lord’s anguish, which wrung from him a sweat of blood, and made him cry out: ‘Father, not my will but thine be done.’ If we would be known as his disciples we must say the same, for as his servants on earth, and his companions in heaven, he will have none but those who pick up their cross and follow him.”
— Letter to a Widow
“How long will you continue your minute self-examinations? It is like raking up a dust heap from which nothing can come but rubbish and unpleasantness. Feel sure of this, it is not for your own merits, but for those of Jesus crucified, that we are loved and made whole. ...”
— Letter to an Excessively Scrupulous Lady
He was a close friend and adviser of St. Teresa of Ávila (she asked him to critique her mystical works). He persuaded St. Francis Borgia to turn way from the life of grand Spanish nobleman to serve God as a Jesuit priest. He counseled the confused and emotionally unstable St. John of God to serve Christ by serving his neighbors, which led to John of God founding in Granada a free hospital for the care of the poor and the abandoned.
John’s parents were well-to-do; his ancestors had been Spanish Jews who converted to Catholicism. Originally he went to the university at Salamanca as a law student, but in time he realized that he had a vocation to the priesthood. After his ordination as a diocesan priest, he planned to travel to the New World as a missionary, but his superior, the archbishop of Seville, insisted that John remain in Spain to defend Catholic doctrine and religious practices against the attacks of Protestant critics, and revive religious life among Spanish Catholics who had lost their zeal for the faith.
At age 29 he preached his first public sermon, and caused a sensation among the congregation. Inspired, eloquent, convincing, John animated his hearers; he had an especially profound effect on sinners who had stayed away from confession, or had been too ashamed to confess certain sins. From that day, John’s assignment was to travel from town to town in the southern Spanish province of Andalusia, preaching what we would call today parish missions. Crowds thronged the churches to hear him.
Yet his success earned him the enmity of certain members of the clergy who were jealous of John, as well as members of the aristocracy who objected to John’s scorn for wealth and rank. These adversaries denounced John to the Inquisition; he was arrested and imprisoned on the false charge of heresy, for preaching that God excluded the rich from heaven. But the charge could not be proved, and John was set free. The emperor, Charles V, invited John to celebrate his release by preaching before the royal court in the Church of San Salvador in Seville. The congregation did not know John was free, and his sudden appearance in the pulpit caused a sensation.
John’s preaching mission lasted for 40 years, and took him throughout southern Spain. For the last 18 years of his life he suffered from a malady the doctors could not diagnose, but which kept him in constant pain. This unknown illness carried John off when he was 69 years old. St. John of Ávila’s feast day is May 10.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of “Saints Preserved” (Image Books, $16).
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