Saint John of God, like many saints, was often viewed by his contemporaries as a bit odd. In fact, his religious fervor once landed him in an insane asylum. Insanity was the only explanation secular authorities could offer for his extreme devotion. But John wasn’t insane. He simply took the Gospel seriously.
Saint John was born João Duarte Cidade in Portugal in the late 15th century. He was taken from his home at a very young age, apparently kidnapped (the details of his early life aren’t clear). He ended up an orphan in Spain where he scavenged and begged for food on the streets. Eventually, John was taken in by a farmer who hired him as a shepherd. He later joined the army in the Spanish war against France, left the army after being falsely accused of theft, and then returned to war against the Turks.
After his military career, in his late thirties, John again took up pastoral life as a shepherd in rural Spain. But he began to feel strongly that something was missing and deeply desired a deeper spiritual life. He entertained ideas of martyrdom and traveled to Muslim Africa where he cared for the family of an exiled Christian knight. Upon returning to Spain, John continued to travel somewhat aimlessly in search of God’s will. Around this time, the infant Jesus appeared to John in dreams, bestowing on him the name he would bear into sainthood, John of God. Despite this weighty gift of a name, John’s major “conversion” would come some years later.
Working as a book seller peddling devotional material, John of God chanced to hear a sermon by another great 16th century saint, St. John of Ávila. This Saint John, today a Doctor of the Church, was well known even in his own day as a powerful orator and an effective teacher of lay people. So moved by his preaching, John of God began to loudly and publicly repent of his past sins. He gave away the religious books he had been selling. He gave away all his money as well. He tore his clothes as a sign of remorse. He even took to publicly flogging himself. This extreme penance was viewed with great suspicion, even in a nominally Catholic society, so John of God was arrested and thrown into an insane asylum where he suffered starvation and beatings. John of Ávila visited John of God in the asylum and became his spiritual director. He advised the enthusiastic penitent to rein in his displays of faith and instead channel his devotion to help the poor.
As ardent as St. John of God was in his public repentance, he was still more fervent in his care for the poor. He ended up aiding those who were still locked away in the same insane asylum that he had been locked away in himself. He devoted himself fully to the care of these outcasts, tending their needs during the day and spending his nights begging for supplies and money to continue his work. Despite the exhausting, thankless, and unglamorous nature of his work, St. John of God was eventually joined by many priests and lay people. This group of Christ followers were able to found a hospital for the care of the mentally and physically sick. These selfless and devout men would become a new order, the Brothers Hospitallers of St. John of God. Their work continues today across dozens of countries.
Even after John of God was released from the asylum, he was still leered at with suspicion by many people. Just as they are today, the homeless and mentally ill were often viewed as untrustworthy and unwanted blights on society. So St. John’s willingness to help and feed them didn’t always earn him friends. John of God was also clearly willing to sacrifice his time, money, and personal well-being for the poor of the poor. He even once ran into a burning hospital to save patients when everyone else was too afraid. After rescuing all the people, he returned to retrieve mattresses and supplies, knowing how important they were in caring for the sick. At age 55, John jumped into a raging river to save a drowning boy. After this he caught pneumonia and soon died.
Saint John of God obviously lived the self-sacrificial love Christ calls us to. But his devotion was not always appreciated by a society that viewed his devotion as a bit too extreme. This view is common today and we are often told that “extremism” in any religion is harmful and results in violence. “Moderation!” is the cry of an increasingly pluralistic and secular society. “Religion is fine,” we are told, “so far as it keeps us occupied on Sundays and tells us to obey the law. But don’t take it too seriously.” While this may be true of other faiths, moderate or half-hearted Christianity is no Christianity at all. To follow Christ is to take seriously his call to feed and clothe the poor, to heal the sick, and to put everyone else’s needs before our own. If we do this wholeheartedly, we will inevitably look like eccentrics and extremists in a society that values wealth and appearances over people. But we Christians don’t belong principally to this society or even to this world. We belong to God. Saint John of God is a wonderful saint to remind us of this both in his life and in his beautiful name.