It is now five centuries since the birth of St. John of God. The example of his life is still inspiring people, his work has spread throughout the world. What was it about this man that led so many people to want to help him in his ministry in Granada in the 1540’s? What is it that still inspires the thousands of people who comprise the family of St. John of God today?
St. John of God was born John Ciudad in 1495 in a small village in the south of Portugal called Montemor-o-Novo. At the age of eight, in circumstances that are still a mystery, John left home. He was reared by a Spanish family in Oropesa. The greater part of his life was spent as a rootless wanderer, working as a shepherd, soldier, bookseller and labourer and covering in his travel the countries of Europe and North Africa.
When St. John of God finally settled in Granada around the age of forty he underwent a conversion experience so dramatic in its intensity that he was placed in a psychiatric hospital. His brief experience of the kind of treatment meted out to the afflicted gave him an insight into, and understanding of, the real needs of the sick. He decided to devote the rest of his life to caring for those in need.
John’s motivation was his great love of God and Our Blessed Lady. “Whatsoever you do to one of these the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to Me.” This was the yard stick by which John measured his service to others. His love encompassed everyone, the sick, orphans, widows, prisoners and the poor.
John was a warm and human person. In his hospital he created an atmosphere of welcome, peace and hospitality. When a patient was admitted he would first wash him and feed him and then pray with him. He was a great listener and had empathy with people which encouraged many to come to him with their problems. Even when he could not help, he would listen and give words of encouragement.
People were impressed by John’s sincerity and by the worth of his service to others. He was able, therefore, to tap their generosity and involve them in his work. They gave him food, they gave him money and many volunteered to help him with his work. They called him John of God.
John created an equal partnership between benefactors and those in need, each helping one another. To the benefactors he would say, “…who wants to do well for the love of God?” and he would ask the poor to “pray to the Lord for those who have been good to you”.
Because he believed that everyone was equal in the sight of God, John moved effortlessly across the social divide. He was as much at ease in the presence of the Duchess of Sessa as he was with the sick and poor in his hospital. He created a family of St. John of God which compromised the nobility, the middle-class, the poor, his volunteers and his paid staff, all with the one purpose of serving God by serving those in need.
John was a great advocate of those who had no influence. He used his contacts with the nobility and those in power to educate them about the conditions of the poor. He had an inquiring mind which was always searching for new ideas and better ways of doing things. He had a missionary spirit, traveling to beg for alms and then using what was collected to serve the people of the local area. Above all, John taught by example.
By faithfully following his example, the Order of Brothers formed after the death of St. John of God has passed on John’s way of serving those in need. It is called ‘Hospitality’ and after five centuries it remains the charism of the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God.
© 1996 The Brothers of St. John of God