John of Capistrano: Lawyer, Governor, Warrior Priest

Saint John of Capistrano (1385-1456) was born in that city in Abruzzi, the son of a German-born Knight. His early career resembles that of Saint Ambrose. John studied at the University of Perugia, attaining degrees in both church and civil law. After graduation, he practiced law in the courts of Naples. He was well-regarded and was appointed governor of Perugia while he was still in his twenties.

In the course of attempting to end a regional war as a negotiator, he was imprisoned by enemy forces. During his captivity, he experienced a vision of Saint Francis, and radically changed his life. It is reported that in reparation for his sins, he chose to humble himself by riding backwards on a donkey, wearing a cap made of paper on which he wrote his gravest sins in a script all could read. ¬†After his marriage was annulled, he entered the Franciscan Order, learning how to preach from Saint Bernardine of Siena, who had a special devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. John was an ascetic, walking barefoot, wearing a hair shirt, sleeping little, and practicing a regimen of extreme fasting. Contemporary accounts described him as “a man small of body, withered, emaciated, nothing but skin and bone, but cheerful, strong and strenuous in labour.”

Saint John became a noted preacher, drawing hundreds of people to his sermons. After one sermon, it is claimed that 100 who heard him preach sought to enter the Franciscans.

He was a warrior for God, both figuratively and literally. Figuratively, he preached strongly against the heresies of his time in Italy, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Bohemia, and even Russia. He was named Inquisitor for Italy, Hungary and Bohemia. He was also commissioned by the Pope to preach a crusade against the Turks, who were then invading eastern Europe. Literally, he helped recruit and lead some of the Christian soldiers, mostly peasants, against the Turks in the Battle of Belgrade in 1456, armed only with a standard bearing the Holy Name of Jesus. He also served as a diplomat for the papacy, including service at the Council of Florence, which sought to, and temporarily was successful in, healing the rift between the eastern and western churches.

Saint John died on October 23, 1456, shortly after the successful defense of Belgrade, as a result of an epidemic which struck the area. His feast day is on the anniversary of his death, having been moved from the prior date of March 28. He is the patron saint of military chaplains. The mission and town of San Juan Capistrano in Orange County, California – famous for the return of the American cliff swallows each Spring – was named after him by his Franciscan Brothers in 1776, one of whom was Junipero Serra.






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