Monday, October 23, 2006

St. John of Capistrano: A (Saint's) Tale that's Easy to "Swallow"

Today's entry could easily be entitled "A Tale of Two St. Severinus's," because despite odds greater than winning the lottery, two distinct saints with the odd name of Severinus (St. Severinus of Bordeaux, died 420, who distinguished himself as a bishop who fought the Arian heresy, and St. Severinus Boethius, died 524, who was a noted author and nicknamed "the last of the Roman philosophers, and the first of the scholastic theologians") are both celebrated on October 23rd. But I'll leave Ripley's to tackle that one, for it's time this "Juan" got his due.

Actually, most Americans probably know more about the San Juan de Capistrano Mission Church in California, due to the admittedly cool story of how the swallows return there every year on March 19th, St. Joseph's Day, than the saint himself. Born in Capistrano, Italy in 1386, John, in rapid succession, was a successful lawyer, then became governor, then married the daughter of one of the leading Abruzzi families. But his fortunes changed when, after being thrown in jail during a civil war, he had a vision of St. Francis of Assissi and was instantly converted.

Upon his release from prison, Butler's Lives contains a passage that Jeanette, my spouse of 22 years (and a lot of other wives too, I'm sure!) might find a little disconcerting. "It is not known what happened to his wife," but "he obtained a dispensation from the impediment of matrimony to enter the monastery."

While that last decision (even if it was by mutual consent) was definitely pre-Vatican II, his next move (although still a little extreme), I can somewhat relate to due to my experience as a substitute teacher. Before entering the Franciscan monastery, John rode through the streets of town sitting backwards on a donkey wearing a sheet on which were written his sins, and he was promptly pelted with dirt and garbage by the town's youth.

But things got better once he became a Franciscan Friar. Under the tutelage of St. Bernadino, John again met with instant success, becoming an overnight sensation as a preacher. His sermons attracted thousands, and many were converted by his sincere austerity. (John rarely slept and always went around barefoot and with a hair shirt.) "The life of good and upright clergy is a light which casts its rays of holiness upon all who see them," John wrote, and with this light John went on to successfully oppose the claims of anti-pope Felix V, convert the Hussites, and (with his prayers) defeat the Islamic Turks in Hungary. Unfortunately, the diseases that spread from the thousands of unburied dead in that war also lead to John's demise in 1456, but it is only fitting that his spirit lives on in the most famous missions in America. And, as a disciple of St. Francis, you know John must be happy in heaven to see that the mission that bares his name converts sparrows as well as humans.

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