Today is the feast day of Saint John Capistrano. Ora pro nobis.
St. John Capistran, Confessor
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
Among the Saints who glorified and illustrated the Church of Christ in the 15th Century, St. John was one of the most famous. He derived his surname from the place of his birth, Capistran, a town in the kingdom of Naples. After he had studied the liberal arts, he was sent to Perugia to study theology and law, in both of which he soon became so proficient, that he was made an officer at the Court of Justice, and gained the highest esteem of the whole city. One of the richest and first men gave him his daughter in marriage, together with a large fortune. Every thing seemed to smile upon John; but his good fortune lasted not long. Perugia refused to acknowledge Ladislas, King of Naples, as her rightful Lord, and revolted against him. John was secretly an adherent of the King, and stood well with the royal army. This no sooner became known, than he was put in prison. He expected surely that he, in whose service he had lost his liberty, would take his defence and set him free; but as this did not take place, John began to see how faithless the world is, and how changeable is all temporal happiness. About the same time, his young wife died, and he determined to leave the world and endeavor to gain, in a religious order, the grace of the Most High and eternal salvation.
To this end, he sold all his property and gave the money he received for it as ransom for his liberty, and then went to the convent of St. Francis, humbly praying to be admitted. The superior, fearing that John had made his resolution too hastily, and that he would not persevere, examined him very strictly, and tried his vocation with the greatest severity. John stood the test and was allowed to take the vows after the novitiate; and from that time, his life was a continual fast. He partook of food only once a day, and ate no meat for 36 years. Three hours was all the time he gave to sleep, and that upon the bare ground. Besides this, he scourged himself daily to blood, and endeavored to mortify himself in every possible manner. His heart was inflamed with love for God, and nothing was more agreeable to him than union with the Almighty in prayer, reading devout books and listening to the word of God. Before the Crucifix or in presence of the Blessed Sacrament, he passed whole hours on his knees, either with tears in his eyes or in deep rapture.
The name of John, said he, had been given him by the special design of God, in order that he should endeavor to become a favorite disciple of the Lord and a faithful son of the Blessed Virgin. He was zealous for the salvation of men, and travelled, for several years, through the principal cities of Italy, preaching everywhere the word of God. He had an especial gift to move the most hardened sinners; and the sighs and tears of his audience sometimes obliged him to interrupt his sermon. At that period lived St. Bernardine of Sienna, a holy missionary, who possessed the same zeal as John, but who had been accused at Rome, on account of his veneration for the most holy Name of Jesus, which to some seemed immoderate. St. John went to Rome to defend his friend, and thus his virtue and wisdom became known to the Popes, who employed him in many important affairs, all of which he conducted to their greatest satisfaction. Nicholas V. sent him as apostolic Legate to Hungary, Poland and Germany, which gave him an opportunity to do indescribable good in those countries. Many heretics, especially Hussites, were led back to the true Church; and in converting them, he heeded not the peril in which he placed his own life. Twice was poison given him by the enemies of the true faith, but God miraculously protected his life. Many other labors of the holy man for the benefit of the faithful we omit for want of space.
One deed, however, for which he deserved the thanks of the whole Christian world, must not fail to find a place in this work. Mahomet II. threatened to exterminate Christianity. He had put an end to the Greek empire in 1453, by taking Constantinople and more than 200 other Cities; and in 1456, with an immense army, he besieged the city and fortress of Belgrade, with the intention of becoming master of the entire Western Empire. The Pope, relying more on virtue and holiness than on the arms of the Christian princes, sent St. John to preach the holy war against the arch-enemy of Christianity, and to exhort all Christian princes to take up arms, and commanded him to be present in person with the Christian army during the campaign. The holy man executed the command, united the Christian powers and urged them to the battle. The two armies, the Turkish and the Christian, were arrayed against one another, but the former was far superior to the latter in numbers; and yet on the issue of this battle depended the fate of Christendom. St. John, with a crucifix in his hand, went from rank to rank, encouraging the soldiers to fight bravely, by repeating to them that it was Christ and His Church whom they were defending. The presence and the exhortation of so holy a man gave courage to the soldiers, and, at the first assault, they carried consternation into the army of the infidels. Mahomet himself was wounded, and his soldiers were lying in thousands on the field of battle in their blood. The victory was complete, and so visibly the fruit of a miracle, that neither the leaders of the Christian armies, nor the soldiers, ascribed it to the power of arms, but to the holiness and prayers of St. John. Thanking the Lord of armies for His protection, the Saint after the war, retired to the cloister of Villich, in Hungary, whence, after three months of a most holy life, he was called to receive the crown of everlasting glory, in the 72nd year of his age. The Almighty glorified His faithful servant, before and after his death, by many miracles. At Vienna, in the church of St. Stephen, is yet to be seen the pulpit from which St. John preached.
The nearer the Church approaches to the end of Her earthly existence, the more She seems to love to enrich Her cycle with Feasts that recall the glorious past. Indeed, one of the objects of the sacred Liturgy is to keep before our minds all that God has done for us. Remember the days of old: think upon every generation (Deut. 32: 7), said God to His people in the alliance of Sinai. It was a law in Jacob that the fathers should hand on these traditions to their children, who were in their turn to transmit them to their descendants (Ps. 77: 5). The Church has taken the place of the ancient Israel and Her annals speak, even more than those of the Jewish people, of the manifestations of Divine power. The children of the new Sion have more right than the sons and daughters of Juda to say, as they look back on the past: Thou art Thyself my King and my God, Who commandest the saving of Jacob.
At the time when the defeat of the Iconoclasts was being completed in the East, a new and most terrible war was beginning in which the West was to fight for the sake of civilization and for the cause of the Incarnate Word of God. Like a sudden torrent, Islam overwhelmed Eastern Europe, reaching even to Gaul, and for a thousand years it disputed, foot by foot, with Christ and His Church, the land occupied by the Latin races. The glorious Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries, which attacked this power in its very center, only succeeded in paralyzing it for the time being. In Spain the struggle continued until the triumph of the Cross was complete, but in other parts of Europe Christian princes forgot the traditions of St. Karl the Great (Charlemagne) and St. Louis, grew weary of the holy war, and gave themselves up to the pursuit of their private ambition, so that the Crescent was able once more to defy the Christian powers and renew its plan of universal conquest.
In 1453 Byzantium, the captial of the Eastern empire, fell before the Turkish janissaries, and three years later Mahomet II invaded Belgrade on the very outskirts of the Western empire. It might have been expected that all Europe would hasten to the aid of the besieged fortress, for if this last dyke were to fall, Hungary, Austria and Italy would be overwhelmed and the peoples of the North and West would share the fate of the East—that life in death, that irremediable sterility of soil and intelligence which still holds captive the once brilliant Greece. But this imminent danger only resulted in deepening the breech in Christian unity, and the Christian nations were at the mercy of a few thousand infidels. Only the Papacy was true to itself in the midst of all this egotism and perfidy. Truly Catholic in its thoughts, its labors, its sufferings, as in its joys and triumphs, it took up the common cause which had been basely betrayed by kings and princes. The powerful were deaf to the Pope’s appeals, but he turned to the humble, and trusting more in prayer to the God of armies than in military tactics, he sought for the deliverers of Christendom among the poor.
It was then that the Saint of today, John Capistrano, attained the consummation of his glory and his sanctity. At the head of a few poor men of good will, unknown peasants gathered together by the Franciscan Friars, this “poor man of Christ” undertook to defeat the strongest and best organized army of the century. On July 14, 1456, he broke through the Ottoman lines with John Hunyades, the only one of the Hungarian nobles who would accompany him, and resupplied Belgrade; and on July 22, feeling that he could no longer endure the defensive, he threw himself, to the stupefaction of Hunyades, on the enemy entrenchments. His troops were armed with flails and pitchforks, and their only strategy was the Name of Jesus. St. John had inherited this victorious battle-cry from his master, St. Bernardine of Siena. The Psalmist had said: Some trust in chariots and some in horses: but we will call upon the Name of the Lord our God (Ps. 19: 8). This Name, so holy and so powerful, proved once more the salvation of the people. At the end of that memorable day 24,000 Turks lay dead on the field of battle; 300 cannon and all the spoils of the infidels were in the hands of the Christians, and Mahomet II was seeking a distant hiding-place for his shame. The news of this victory, so like that of Gedeon, reached Rome on August 6, and Pope Callistus III decreed that thenceforth the Universal Church should keep a solemn commemoration of the Transfiguration of Our Lord on that day, for it was with the soldiers of the Cross as with the heroes of Israel: they got not the possession of the land by their own sword: neither did their own arm save them, but Thy right hand and Thy arm and the light of Thy countenance, because Thou wast pleased with them (Ps. 43: 4-5), as with Thy Beloved Son on Mount Tabor (Matt. 17: 5). (1)
Let us read the life of St. John Capistrano as related in the Liturgy:
St. John was born at Capistrano in the Abruzzi. He was sent to study at Perugia, and made such progress in learning, both sacred and profane, that on account of his eminent knowledge of law, he was made governor of many cities by Ladislaus, King of Naples. He was laboring piously to restore peace to these troubled states when he was kidnapped and put in chains. He was miraculously delivered from this captivity and made his profession according to the Rule of St. Francis of Assisi among the Friars Minor. He devoted himself to the study of Divinity and had as master St. Bernardine of Siena, whom he zealously imitated in spreading devotion to the Most Holy Name of Jesus and to the Mother of God. He refused the bishopric of Aquila, and is most famous on account of his mortified life and his writings on the reformation of morals.
He zealously devoted himself to preaching the Word of God and travelled throughout nearly all Italy, where he recalled countless souls to the way of salvation by the power of his words and the number of his miracles. Pope Martin V made him Inquistor against the sect of the Fraticelli and Pope Nicholas V appointed him Inquistor-General in Italy, against Judaism and Mohammedanism. He converted many souls to the Faith of Christ. He did much good in the East and at the Council of Florence, where he shone like a sun, he brought the Armenians back to the Catholic Church. The same Pope, at the request of the Emperor Frederic III, sent him into Germany as Nuncio of the Apostolic See, in order that he might bring back heretics to the Catholic Faith, and the minds of princes to peace and unity. He did a wonderful work for God’s glory during the six years of his mission, and brought back to the Church by the light of his teaching and miracles almost countless numbers of Hussites, Adamites, Thaborites, and Jews.
It was mainly at the entreaty of St. John that Pope Callistus III proclaimed a crusade, and St. John hastened through Pannonia and other provinces where by his words and letters he so roused the minds of princes that in a short time 70,000 Christians soldiers were enrolled. It was mainly through his advice and courage that a victory was gained at Belgrade, where 120,000 Turks were either slain or put to flight. The news of this victory reached Rome on the 6th of August, and Pope Callistus consecrated this day forever to the solemn commemoration of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. When St. John was seized with his last illness and taken to Illak, many princes came to see him, and he exhorted them to protect religion. He piously yielded up his soul to God in the year of salvation 1456. God confirmed his glory by many miracles after his death, and when these had been duly approved, Pope Alexander VIII enrolled his name among those of the Saints. 200 years later Pope Leo XIII extended his Office and Mass to the Universal Church. (3)
Image: L’Aquila, Museo Nationale, Maestro di San Giovanni da Capistrano (Giovanni di Bartolomeo dell’Aquila), cc.1480-1485. (9)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff