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.  

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. 

Amazing preacher  

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).

Who are the Doctors?

From time to time, the pope formally declares a saint a Doctor of the Church. This title is granted to a saint whose writings have advanced the Catholic Church’s understanding of the mysteries of God. 

In the early Middle Ages, the Church identified four saints as Doctors: St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and Pope St. Gregory the Great. The Church in the East venerated three saints as Doctors: St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil and St. Gregory Nazianzus. The Church in West added St. Athanasius, the great champion of the doctrine regarding the Holy Trinity, as the fourth Doctor of the East, to complement the four Doctors of the West. 

Over the centuries the popes have added other learned and holy men to the list, including St. Thomas Aquinas, for both his magisterial works on Catholic theology as well as his sublime hymns in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. 

In 1970, Pope Paul VI, for the first time in the Church’s history, granted the title Doctor of the Church to two female saints — Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Ávila. In 1997 Blessed Pope John Paul II declared St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, a Doctor of the Church. The decision took some Catholics by surprise, since St. Thérèse’s writings are not on the same high intellectual level of St. Thomas Aquinas or of the profound mystical depth of St. Teresa of Ávila. “In the writings of Thérèse of Lisieux we do not find perhaps, as in other Doctors, a scholarly presentation of the things of God,” Pope John Paul acknowledged, “but we can discern an enlightened witness of faith which, while accepting with trusting love God’s merciful condescension and salvation in Christ, reveals the mystery and holiness of the Church.” 

As of 2011, the Doctors of the Church are: 

St. Ambrose
St. Jerome 
St. Augustine 
St. Gregory the Great 
St. Basil 
St. Gregory Nazianzen 
St. John Chrysostom 
St. Athanasius 
St. Cyril of Jerusalem 
St. Thomas Aquinas 
St. Bonaventure 
St. Anselm of Canterbury 
St. Peter Chrysologus 
St. Isidore of Seville 
St. Leo the Great 
St. Peter Damian 
St. Bernard of Clairvaux 
St. Hilary of Poitiers 
St. Alphonsus de Liguori 
St. Francis de Sales 
St. Cyril of Alexandria 
St. John Damascene 
St. Bede the Venerable 
St. Ephrem the Syrian 
St. Peter Canisius 
St. John of the Cross 
St. Robert Bellarmine 
St. Albert the Great 
St. Anthony of Padua 
St. Lawrence of Brindisi 
St. Teresa of Ávila 
St. Catherine of Siena 
St. Thérèse of Lisieux 
St. John of Ávila