Today is the feast day of Saint John Berchmans. Ora pro nobis.
Saint John Berchmans was born the eldest son of a shoemaker in 1599 at Diest, Belgium. At a very young age he wanted to be a priest, and when thirteen he became a servant in the household of one of the cathedral canons at Malines. After his mother’s death, his father and two brothers followed suit and entered religious life. In 1615 he entered the Jesuit college there, becoming a novice a year later. In 1618 he was sent to Rome for more study and was known for his diligence and piety, and his stress on perfection even in small things. That year his father was ordained and died six months later. John was so poor and humble that he walked from Antwerp to Rome.
John was a brilliant student from his most tender years, manifesting also a piety which far exceeded the ordinary. Beginning at the age of seven, he studied for three years at the local communal school with an excellent professor. And then his father, wanting to protect the sacerdotal vocation already evident in his son, confided him to a Canon of Diest who lodged students aspiring to the ecclesiastical vocation. After three years in that residence, the family’s financial situation had declined owing to the long illness of the mother, and John was told he would have to return and learn a trade. He pleaded to be allowed to continue his studies. And his aunts, who were nuns, found a solution through their chaplain; he proposed to take John into his service and lodge him.
What, however, distinguished him most from his companions was his piety. When he was hardly seven years old, he was accustomed to rise early and serve two or three Masses with the greatest fervour. He attended religious instructions and listened to Sunday sermons with the deepest recollection, and made pilgrimages to the sanctuary of Montaigu, a few miles from Diest, reciting the rosary as he went, or absorbed in meditation. As soon as he entered the Jesuit college at Mechlin, he was enrolled in the Society of the Blessed Virgin, and made a resolution to recite her Office daily. He would, moreover, ask the director of the sodality every month to prescribe for him some special acts of devotion to Mary. On Fridays, at nightfall, he would go out barefooted and make the Stations of the Cross in the town. Such fervent, filial piety won for him the grace of a religious vocation.
Towards the end of his rhetoric course, he felt a distinct call to the Society of Jesus. His family was decidedly opposed to this, and on 24 September, 1616, he was received into the novitiate at Mechlin. After two years passed in Mechlin he made his simple vows, and was sent to Antwerp to begin the study of philosophy. Remaining there only a few weeks, he set out for Rome, where he was to continue the same study. After the journeying three hundred leagues on foot, carrying a wallet on his back, he arrived at the Roman College, he studied for two years and passed on to the third year class in philosophy in the year 1621.
Although he longed to work in the mission fields of China, he did not live long enough to permit it. After completing his course work, he was asked to defend the “entire field of philosophy” in a public disputation in July, just after his exit examinations. The following month he was asked to represent the Roman College in a debate with the Greek College. Although he distinguished himself in this disputation, he had studied so assiduously that he caught a cold in mid-summer, became very ill with with an undetermined illness accompanied by a fever, although some think it now to have been dysentery, and died a week later. He was buried in the church of Saint Ignatius at Rome, but his heart was later translated to the Jesuit church at Louvain.
The story of his last days is touching indeed; in a residence of several hundred priests and students, there was none who did not follow with anxiety and compassion the progress of his illness. When the infirmarian told his patient that he should probably receive Communion the next morning — an exception to the rule prescribing it for Sundays only, in those times — John said, In Viaticum? and received a sad affirmative answer. He himself was transported with joy and embraced the Brother; the latter broke into tears. A priest who knew John well went to him the next morning and asked him if there was anything troubling or saddening him, and John replied, Absolutely nothing.
He asked that his mattress be placed on the floor, and knelt to receive his Lord; when the Father Rector pronounced the words of the Ritual: Receive, Brother, in viaticum, the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ, all in attendance wept. Their angelic, ever joyous and affectionate young novice was called to leave them; no clearer tribute than their tears could have been offered to the reality of his sanctity, his participation in the effusive goodness of the divine nature. Devotion to his memory spread rapidly in Belgium; already in 1624 twelve engraving establishments of Anvers had published his portrait. He was canonized in 1888 by Pope Leo XIII, at the same time as two other Jesuits who lived during the first century of that Society’s existence, so fruitful in sanctity — Peter Claver and Alphonsus Rodriguez.
John Berchmans was declared Blessed in 1865, and was canonized in 1888. His statues represent him with hands clasped, holding his crucifix, his book of rules, and his rosary.
He is the patron saint of altar servers.
Research by REGINA Staff