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Catholic Heroes… St. John Of Capistrano

September 27, 2016 saints No Comments


In Texas there is an old building that is part of the Missions National Historical Park of the National Park Service near San Antonio, Texas. This restored mission was founded in 1731 on the San Antonio River by the Franciscans and named after the soldier saint, St. John of Capistrano.
In San Juan Capistrano, Calif., the Franciscans founded another mission that is the oldest “still in use” building in California. This was a church where the recently canonized saint, Fr. Junipero Serra, celebrated Mass.
For centuries, the swallows would nest in the buildings of this mission which was one of the most ornate missions in the state. Every March 19, on the Feast of St. Joseph, the migratory birds would return to build their nests in the ruins of the chapel which had been destroyed in the 1812 earthquake.
Who is this saint after whom these Franciscan missions were named? St. John, the son of a German knight who had come to Italy in the court of Louis I of Anjou, was born in 1386 in Capistrano, Italy, of the Kingdom of Naples. When John was very young his father died, leaving his mother to tend to his education.
After this education at home, he left to enter the law school at Perugia. Here he made rapid and remarkable progress under the tutelage of Pietro de Ubandis. Ladislaus, the King of Naples, noted the young star and named him to be governor of Perugia at the age of 27. Immediately, John worked to rid the territory of bribery and corruption, winning praise from some and criticism from others.
After four years of his service as governor, the Perugians and the House of Malatesta went to war. The King of Perugia sent John as an ambassador to the House of Malatesta, seeking peace. However, they threw John into prison.
While languishing in the cell, John underwent a conversion which ended his civil career. He had a dream during which St. Francis of Assisi ordered him to join the Franciscans. Although John was married at the time, he received a dispensation to join the religious order since the marriage had not been consummated. He then entered the order officially on the feast of its founder, October 4, 1416. At the age of 30 he began his life of work for the Catholic Church.
Having entered the Franciscans, John embraced their life with great zeal. He followed a rigorous practice of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience with much prayer and many penances. With this spiritual foundation he began his preaching.
He became well known throughout Italy and Europe, traveling to Austria, Hungary, Croatia, and Poland. His popularity necessitated preaching in town squares because none of the churches were large enough to hold the enormous crowds. In fact, in Brescia, Italy, one crowd consisted of over 126,000 persons.
In addition to preaching, John of Capistrano worked closely with St. Bernardine of Siena to reform the Franciscan order. Together they encouraged more disciplined observances as well as urging the friars to practice devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus.
In 1429, the Observant friars with whom John and Bernardine were associated were called to Rome to answer accusations of heresy — one of which was the use of the devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. However, John, who had been selected to represent the friars, pled the case successfully and they were acquitted of all charges.
Even though he was accused of heresy, John preached passionately against all heretical teachings, including those of the Hussites. Between 1450 and 1453, he so enflamed the hearts of the faithful that they would go out and attack all non-Christians or those thought to be heretics.
If not preaching against heresy, John would write against it, one of his special subjects being the supremacy of the Pope over the theological wrangling of general councils.
His reputation soon brought him to the attention of the Popes who called on him to serve as their ambassador. He went to the King of France in 1446 and then in 1451 he visited the emperor of Austria. Likewise, Casimir IV Jagiellon called him to Poland.
Then in 1453, he began his new occupation within the Church which would cause him to be called the soldier saint — fighting the Turks. In that year, Constantinople fell to the brutal Muhammad II, the sultan of Adrianople. Although Pope Nicholas V tried to arouse Europe to fight a crusade against the invaders, hardly any countries saw the need.
Only Hungary understood that the Turks would not settle for conquering only Constantinople. They rightly thought their kingdom would be the next target and gave John Hunyadi the responsibility of defending their land.
When news came to Belgrade of Muhammed II’s approach with 80,000 men, the 16-year-old king of Hungary and his nobles fled the city, leaving Hunyadi with 16,000 men to defend it. John of Capistrano, who had been preaching the crusade in Hungary, soon arrived with 8,000 men who were ill equipped and untrained. Effectively, the odds were 4 to 1 in favor of the Muslims.
The new Pope, Calixtus III, called for all the hierarchy to lead the people in prayer, fasting, and penance for victory. After celebrating Mass, John instructed all priests to avoid fighting in any way. Only after John refused to leave Belgrade, saying he would fight till the last man, did Hunyadi agree to stay and defend the city.
As fighting commenced on July 4, 1456, John raised the crucifix given to him by Pope Calixtus III until the battle was over. The Hungarians repulsed the invaders liberating the Danube River so that the city could be re-supplied.
On July 21, another assault began with Muhammed’s men breaking into the city. The Christians continued to fight and hold firm while John once again held up the crucifix. Through the night the fighting continued, filling the streets with the blood of the dead and dying as John continued to hold his treasure.
The Turks were discouraged and exhausted by the strong Christian resistance of more than 24 hours. John still held the crucifix aloft as the Turks were finally driven from the city. Into the fields beyond they chased the Muslims and captured a few of the 300 cannons that the Turks had brought for the siege and turned them on the enemy.
By evening the Turkish army was retreating from the city and abandoning its camps, saving Hungary. When the Pope heard the news he declared that it was “the happiest day of my life.”
The city of Belgrade was in ruins with thousands of dead to be buried. Disease spread, killing Hunyadi in three days and John three months later. He died in Croatia on October 23, 1456. His feast is celebrated on October 23.
Dear St. John, give us confidence when facing evil. Help us to repulse the attacks on Christianity through prayer, penance, and fasting as well as through strong and wise leaders. 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. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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