8 March, Feast of St John of God
When I was in my first year in the seminary in Ireland, back in 1961-62, our director, Fr Ronan McGrath, one of three brothers who became Columbans, spoke to us one day of his awe for religious brothers such as the Hospitaller Brothers of St John of God and the Alexian Brothers who take care of the sick. Today is the feast of St John of God, born in Portugal in 1495 and who, after a colourful life, experienced a conversion in Granada, Spain, at the age of 40 after hearing a sermon by St John of Avila. This conversion led people to believe that he was mad and he was put in an asylum until St John of Avila obtained his release. He was to devote the rest of his life to the care of people who were poor and with mental illnesses.
One of the websites of the Order of the Hospitaller Brothers of St John of God gives an outline of the order's origins:
In 1537, John Ciudad (later known as St. John of God), was a little-known bookseller in the city of Granada, Spain. He was struggling to put his life back together again after spending a period as a patient in the psychiatric wing of the Royal Hospital, where he was placed after experiencing a religious conversion so dramatic that many people though he was insane.
He was homeless and disillusioned, yet he felt a strong attraction to improve the situation of the many men, women and children, who like himself, were homeless and marginalized from the mainstream of society. John was fortunate that he had friends who respected him. One of these friends allowed John to shelter from the bitter cold of winter nights in the porchway of his house.
Sensitive to the suffering and pain of the many homeless people and travellers who sought shelter in doorways of where they could find it, John began to bring those who were sick and weak and those unable to cope, to share his accommodations in the porch of the house of his friend, Venegas. This was the stark and simple, yet profoundly beautiful beginning of the work that today still bears his name.
The man, John, huddling with his cold, hungry and weary companions in one corner of the porchway of Venegas’ house had no idea of the movement he was founding. St. John of God Services has continued to strive to carry this love, care and compassion to people down the centuries.
The modest porch of the home of the Venegas family was the first place where John gave shelter to the poor and rejected.
Hospitality is the name given to the great gift of care and welcome which John gave to the poor, the homeless, the sick and the dying and many others in the city of Granada over 460 years ago. After his death in 1550, a group of his closest companions continued the work he had begun. (The Order came into being some years after the saint's death).
The website of the Order's Province of Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea has a good account of the life of St John of God here.
That account describes the Granada of his day in these terms: 'a tense, turbulent, dangerous city. A constant stream of travellers passed through it en route to the colonies of the new Americas via the ports of Seville and Cadiz. The streets teemed with mercenaries, adventurers, beggars, prostitutes and petty thieves. It was only a few years since Granada had been taken by the Spanish from the Moors ...'
I know the connection is tenuous but I can't resist including a video of Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez singing 'Granada' by Mexican composer Agustín Lara. Flórez has a glorious voice and he's backed here by a full orchestra. And it's Shrove Tuesday, so we can celebrate. We can also thank God that this year's very late Easter enables St John of God to have his feast day to himself instead of being hidden away in Lent.