Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint John of God, Confessor, Founder of the Order of Charity

[Saint John of God holy card]Article

A.D. 1550.

Saint John, surnamed of God, was born in Portugal, in 1495. His parents were of the lowest rank in the country, but devout and charitable. John spent a considerable part of his youth in service, under the mayoral or chief shepherd of the count of Oropeusa in Castile, and in great innocence and virtue. In 1522 he listed himself in a company of foot raised by the count, and served in the wars between the French and Spaniards; as he did afterwards in Hungary against the Turks whilst the emperor Charles V. was king of Spain. By the licentiousness of his companions he, by degrees, lost his fear of offending God, and laid aside the greater part of his practices of devotion. The troop which he belonged to being disbanded, he went into Andalusia in 1536, where he entered the service of a rich lady near Seville, in quality of shepherd. Being now about forty years of age, stung with remorse for his past misconduct, he began to entertain very serious thoughts of a change of life, and doing penance for his sins. He accordingly employed the greater part of his time, both by day and night, in the exercises of prayer and mortification; bewailing almost continually his ingratitude towards God, and deliberating how he could dedicate himself in the most perfect manner to his service. His compassion for the distressed moved him to take a resolution of leaving his place, and passing into Africa, that he might comfort and succour the poor slaves there, not without hopes of meeting with the crown of martyrdom. At Gibralter he met with a Portuguese gentleman condemned to banishment, and whose estate had also been confiscated by King John III. He was then in the hands of the king’s officers, together with his wife and children, and on his way to Ceuta in Barbary, the place of his exile. John, out of charity and compassion, served him without any wages. At Ceuta, the gentleman falling sick with grief and the change of air, was soon reduced to such straits as to be obliged to dispose of the small remains of his shattered fortune for the family’s support. John, not content to sell what little stock he was master of to relieve them, went to day-labour at the public works, to earn all he could for their subsistence. The apostasy of one of his companions alarmed him; and his confessor telling him that his going in quest of martyrdom was an illusion, he determined to return, to Spain. Coming back to Gibralter, his piety suggested to him to turn pedler, and sell little pictures and books of devotion, which might furnish him with opportunities of exhorting his customers to virtue. His stock increasing considerably, he settled in Granada, where he opened a shop in 1538, being then forty-three years of age.

The great preacher and servant of God, John D’Avila, surnamed the Apostle of Andalusia, preached that year at Granada, on Saint Sebastian’s day, which is there kept as a great festival. John, having heard his sermon, was so affected with it, that, melting into tears, he filled the whole church with his cries and lamentations; detesting his past life, beating his breast, and calling aloud for mercy. Not content with this, he ran about the streets like a distracted person, tearing his hair, and behaving in such a manner that he was followed every where by a rabble with sticks and stones, and came home all besmeared with dirt and blood. He then gave away all he had in the world, and having thus reduced himself to absolute poverty, that he might die to himself and crucify all the sentiments of the old man, he began again to counterfeit the madman, running about the streets as before, till some had the charity to take him to the venerable John D’Avila, covered with dirt and blood. The holy man, full of the Spirit of God, soon discovered in John the motions of extraordinary graces, spoke to him in private, heard his general confession, and gave him proper advice, and promised his assistance ever after. John, out of a desire of the greatest humiliations, returned soon after to his apparent madness and extravagances. He was, thereupon, taken up and put into a madhouse, on supposition of his being disordered in his senses, where the severest methods were used to bring him to himself, all which he underwent in the spirit of penance, and by way of atonement for the sins of his past life. D’Avila, being informed of his conduct, came to visit him, and found him reduced almost to the grave by weakness, and his body covered with wounds and sores; but his soul was still vigorous, and thirsting with the greatest ardour after new sufferings and humiliations. D’Avila however told him, that having now been sufficiently exercised in that so singular a method of penance and humiliation, he advised him to employ himself for the time to come in something more conducive to his own and the public good. His exhortation had its desired effect; and he grew instantly calm and sedate, to the great astonishment of his keepers. He continued, however, some time longer in the hospital, serving the sick, but left it entirely on Saint Ursula’s day, in 1539. This his extraordinary conduct is an object of our admiration, not of our imitation: in this saint it was the effect of the fervour of his conversion, his desire of humiliation, and a holy hatred of himself and his past criminal life. By it he learned in a short time perfectly to die to himself and the world; which prepared his soul for the graces which God afterwards bestowed on him. He then thought of executing his design of doing something for the relief of the poor; and, after a pilgrimage to our Lady’s in Guadaloupa, to recommend himself and his undertaking to her intercession, in a place celebrated for devotion to her, he began by selling wood in the market place, to feed some poor by means of his labour. Soon after he hired a house to harbour poor sick persons in, whom he served and provided for with an ardour, prudence, economy and vigilance that surprised the whole city. This was the foundation of the order of charity, in 1540, which, by the benediction of heaven, has since been spread all over Christendom. John was occupied all day in serving his patients: in the night he went out to carry in new objects of charity, rather than to seek out provisions for them; for people, of their own accord, brought him in all necessaries for his little hospital.

The archbishop of Granada, taking notice of so excellent an establishment, and admiring the incomparable order observed in it, both for the spiritual and temporal care of the poor, furnished considerable sums to increase it, and favoured it with his protection. This excited all persons to vie with each other in contributing to it. Indeed the charity, patience, and modesty of Saint John, and his wonderful care and foresight, engaged every one to admire and favour the institute. The bishop of Tuy, president of the royal court of judicature in Granada, having invited the holy man to dinner, put several questions to him, to all which he answered in such a manner, as gave the bishop the highest esteem of his person. It was this prelate that gave him the name of John of God, and prescribed him a kind of habit, though Saint John never thought of founding a religious order: for the rules which bear his name were only drawn up in 1556, six years after his death; and religious vows were not introduced among his brethren before the year 1570.

To make trial of the saint’s disinterestedness, the marquess of Tarisa came to him in disguise to beg an alms, on pretence of a necessary law-suit, and he received from his hands twenty-five ducats, which was all he had. The marquess was so much edified by his charity, that, besides returning the sum, he bestowed on him one hundred and fifty crowns of gold, and sent to his hospital every day, during his stay at Granada, one hundred and fifty loaves, four sheep and six pullets. But the holy man gave a still more illustrious proof of his charity when the hospital was on fire, for he carried out most of the sick on his own back: and though he passed and repassed through the flames, and staid in the midst of them a considerable time, he received no hurt. But his charity was not confined to his own hospital: he looked upon it as his own misfortune if the necessities of any distressed person in the whole country had remained unrelieved. He therefore made strict inquiry into the wants of the poor over the whole province, relieved many in their own houses, employed in a proper manner those who were able to work, and with wonderful sagacity laid himself out every way to comfort and assist all the afflicted members of Christ. He was particularly active and vigilant in settling and providing for young maidens in distress, to prevent the danger to which they are often exposed, of taking bad courses. He also reclaimed many who were already engaged in vice: for which purpose he sought out public sinners, and holding a crucifix in his hand, with many tears exhorted them to repentance. Though his life seemed to be taken up in continual action, he accompanied it with perpetual prayer and incredible corporal austerities. And his tears of devotion, his frequent raptures, and his eminent spirit of contemplation, gave a lustre to his other virtues. But his sincere humility appeared most admirable in all his actions, even amidst the honours which he received at the court of Valladolid, whither business called him. The king and princes seemed to vie with each other who should show him the greatest courtesy, or put the largest alms in his hands; whose charitable contributions he employed with great prudence in Valladolid itself and the adjacent country. Only perfect virtue could stand the test of honours, amidst which he appeared the most humble. Humiliations seemed to be his delight: these he courted and sought, and always underwent them with great alacrity. One day, when a women called him hypocrite, and loaded him with invectives, he gave her privately a piece of money, and desired her to repeat all she had said in the market-place.

Worn out at last by ten years’ hard service in his hospital, he fell sick. The immediate occasion of his distemper seemed to be excess of fatigue in saving wood and other such things for the poor in a great flood, in which, seeing a person in danger of being drowned, he swam in his clothes to endeavour to rescue him, not without imminent hazard of his own life; but he could not see his Christian brother perish without endeavouring, at all hazards, to succour him. He at first concealed his sickness, that he might not be obliged to diminish his labours and extraordinary austerities; but, in the mean time, he carefully revised the inventories of all things belonging to his hospital and inspected all the accounts. He also reviewed all the excellent regulations which he had made for its administration, the distribution of time, and the exercises of piety to be observed in it. Upon a complaint that he harboured idle strollers and bad women, the archbishop sent for him, and laid open the charge against him. The man of God threw himself prostrate at his feet, and said: “The Son of God came for sinners and we are obliged to promote their conversion, to exhort them, and to sigh and pray for them. I am unfaithful to my vocation because I neglect this; and I confess that I know no other bad person in my hospital but myself; who, as I am obliged to own with extreme confusion, am a most base sinner, altogether unworthy to eat the bread of the poor.” This he spoke with so much feeling and humility that all present were much moved, and the archbishop dismissed him with respect, leaving all things to his discretion. His illness increasing, the news of it was spread abroad. The lady Anne Ossorio was no sooner informed of his condition, but she came in her coach to the hospital to see him. The servant of God lay in his habit in his little cell, covered with a piece of an old coat instead of a blanket, and having under his head, not indeed a stone, as was his custom, but a basket, in which he used to beg alms in the city for his hospital. The poor and sick stood weeping round him. The lady, moved with compassion, despatched secretly a message to the archbishop, who sent immediately an order to Saint John to obey her as he would do himself, during his illness. By virtue of this authority she obliged him to leave his hospital. He named Anthony Martin superior in his place, and gave moving instructions to his brethren, recommending them, in particular, obedience and charity. In going out he visited the blessed sacrament, and poured forth his heart before it with extraordinary fervour; remaining there absorbed in his devotions so long, that the lady Anne Ossorio caused him to be taken up and carried into her coach, in which she conveyed him to her own house. She herself prepared with the help of her maids, and gave him with her own hands, his broths and other things, and often read to him the history of the passion of our divine Redeemer. He complained that whilst our Saviour, in his agony, drank gall, they gave him, a miserable sinner, broths.

The whole city was in tears; all the nobility visited him; the magistrates came to beg he would give his benediction to their city. He answered, that his sins rendered him the scandal and reproach of their country; but recommended to them his brethren the poor, and his religious that served them. At last, by order of the archbishop, he gave the city his dying benediction. His exhortations to all were most pathetic. His prayer consisted of most humble sentiments of compunction, and inflamed aspirations of divine love. The archbishop said mass in his chamber, heard his confession, gave him the viaticum and extreme unction, and promised to pay all his debts, and to provide for all his poor. The saint expired on his knees, before the altar, on the 8th of March, in 1550, being exactly fifty-five years old. He was buried by the archbishop at the head of all the clergy, both secular and regular, accompanied by all the court, nobles, and city, with the utmost pomp. He was honoured by many miracles, beatified by Urban VIII in 1630, and canonized by Alexander VIII in 1690. His relics were translated into the church of his brethren in 1664. His order of charity to serve the sick was approved of by Pope Pius V. The Spaniards have their own general; but the religious in France and Italy obey a general who resides at Rome. They follow the rule of Saint Austin.

One sermon perfectly converted one who had been long enslaved to the world and his passions, and made him a saint. How comes it that so many sermons and pious books produce so little fruit in our souls? It is altogether owing to our sloth and wilful hardness of heart, that we receive God’s omnipotent word in vain, and to our most grievous condemnation. The heavenly seed can take no root in hearts which receive it with indifference and insensibility, or it is trodden upon and destroyed by the dissipation and tumult of our disorderly affections, or it is choked by the briers and thorns of earthly concerns. To profit by it, we must listen to it with awe and respect, in the silence of all creatures, in interior solitude and peace, and must carefully nourish it in our hearts. The holy law of God is comprised in the precept of divine love; a precept so sweet, a virtue so glorious and so happy, as to carry along with it its present incomparable reward. Saint John, from the moment of his conversion, by the penitential austerities which he performed, was his own greatest persecutor; but it was chiefly by heroic works of charity that he endeavoured to offer to God the most acceptable sacrifice of compunction, gratitude, and love. What encouragement has Christ given us in every practice of this virtue, by declaring, that whatever we do to others he esteems as done to himself! To animate ourselves to fervour, we may often call to mind what Saint John frequently repeated to his disciples, “Labour without intermission to do all the good works in your power, whilst time is allowed you.” His spirit of penance, love, and fervour he inflamed by meditating assiduously on the sufferings of Christ, of which he often used to say: “Lord, thy thorns are my roses, and thy sufferings my paradise.”

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint John of God, Confessor, Founder of the Order of Charity”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 7 March 2013. Web. 24 September 2014. <>