By CAROLE BRESLIN
In the history of Christianity, as one pagan country after another was converted to Catholicism, a trail of saints could be found. St. Paul was followed by St. Timothy, and St. Cyril was accompanied by St. Methodius. Although Christianity had been brought to the British Isles many years before the time of St. Cuthbert, the people for the most part remained pagan. During the late seventh century, in the lowlands of Scotland, St. Cuthbert (whose feast was celebrated in March) was followed by other saints whom God had provided to bring people to His Church. One of these was St. John of Beverley.
Before the Protestant Reformation decimated the Catholic Church in England and Scotland, one of the most popular pilgrimages the faithful made was to the shrine of St. John of Beverley.
Who was this John and from where did he come? John was a young man born of a noble family in a small village of Yorkshire called Harpham, in about the year 650. At a young age John attended the school headed by St. Theodore. At this venue, John studied under another saint of the times, St. Adrian, who was then serving as abbot. He applied himself well, becoming one of the best graduates of that institution.
When John completed his studies there he returned to his native county and entered the double Abbey of Whitby under the rule of Hilda, who was abbess at the time. Hilda was widely known for her great knowledge and wisdom, as she was instrumental in the formation of several famous persons of that era. Once again, John applied himself well to both his spiritual and his doctrinal formation.
It was not long before he not only began to preach to the heathens, but also to take students under his wing. His great eloquence and love for the people attracted many to the Church. One of his students was St. Bede the Venerable, whom John ordained in 687 as well as another person whom John cured.
This miraculous cure happened to a young boy whom John had taken under his wing since he had quite a severe handicap — he was dumb from birth. Patiently, John worked with him, teaching him the alphabet. The lad then began to speak, at which point St. John also taught him the fundamentals of language.
By that point in his life, St. John had met up with St. Adrian, St. John Cuthbert, St. Bede, and Hilda, who, though not canonized, played an important role in the fledgling Catholic community. His reputation spread for being eloquent, studious, holy, and a friend to the poor.
His legacy was not yet complete, though.
He removed himself to the hermitage at Harneshow, which was across the river from Hexham, on the left bank of the Tyne River. It is not uncommon, in fact, it is nearly universal, that every saint has at one time or another spent much time either in seclusion or has developed a daily routine of quiet and meditative prayer. So did John who spent several years at the hermitage.
Likewise, this common element of a deep prayer life leads to a busy life of apostolic and pastoral endeavors. Around the same time, 687, John was ordained bishop of the Hexham Diocese, which had only recently been formally established by the Church in Rome — in 681. Although little is recorded of the details of his work and accomplishments, he served for 18 years. He became known for eloquence, deep prayer, attention to the poor and the disadvantaged, as well as for giving sound instruction on the teachings of the Catholic Church.
About 18 years later, St. John transferred to York, where he became a close friend of the youthful King Osred. While in York of Northumbria, St. John attended a major synod for the Church in Northumbria, overseeing many of the enactments of that synod.
During his tenure, he became the owner of a small village known as Inderawook, which is the site of the present-day town of Beverley. He enlarged the small chapel dedicated to St. John the Evangelist while bishop there, and then established a monastery. According to the custom at the time, this monastery was built for both sexes.
His success with the faithful there was so great that many more churches were built in the surrounding forests to attend the people. He continued his work with them until 714 when he retired and returned to his native city of Beverley. Six years later he died on May 7, 721.
Yet even then his legacy was not yet complete. So many miracles were attributed to this man that even the kings dedicated lands and ascribed victories of war to his intercession. King Athelstan, who ruled from 924 to 939 — reputed to be the king who united England as a kingdom and considered one of her greatest rulers, turned to the saint when going to battle.
In 935 Athelstan headed to Scotland to battle, stopping first at the shrine of St. John of Beverley where he collected the banner from the shrine and promised that he would bring it back if he was victorious. He not only returned the banner but gave the shrine the first claim of sanctuary and deeded much land to the church as a result. He also established a college of secular canons to serve the church in Beverley.
Centuries later, during the Hundred Years War, King Henry V would attribute his great victory in France at Agincourt to the intercession of St. John of Beverley. He and his queen returned to England to visit the shrine and give honor to St. John.
St. John of Beverley was canonized by Pope Benedict IX in 1037. That same year Bishop St. Alfric transferred his remains and encased them in a shrine of gold. During the ravages of the Protestant Reformation, the remains were removed and encased in lead to protect them. Since that time they have only been exposed two times: once in 1664 and again 1736.
Even to this day, the residents of Beverley honor their centuries-old saint. On the Thursday and again on the Sunday closest to May 7, his feast day, processions are held, with many hymns sung and a plethora of flowers placed around his remains.
Dear St. John, you have done so much to establish the Catholic Church in England and Scotland. Through the centuries your legacy has been honored. Remember us as we seek to re-establish Christ’s Church once again in this world that has lost touch with its Creator. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. Mrs. Breslin’s articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review and in the Marian Catechist Newsletter. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)