March 28


CAPISTRANO is a little town in the Abruzzi, which of old formed part of the kingdom of Naples. Here in the fourteenth century a certain free-lance -- whether he was of French or of German origin is disputed -- had settled down after military service under Louis I and had married an Italian wife. A son, named John, was born to him in 1386 who was destined to become famous as one of the great lights of the Franciscan Order. From early youth the boy's talents made him conspicuous. He studied law at Perugia with such success that in 1412 he was appointed governor of that city and married the daughter of one of the principal inhabitants. During hostilities between Perugia and the Malatestas he was imprisoned, and this was the occasion of his resolution to change his way of life and become a religious. How he got over the difficulty of his marriage is not altogether clear. But it is said that he rode through Perugia on a donkey with his face to the tail and with a huge paper hat on his head upon which all his worst sins were plainly written. He was pelted by the children and covered with filth, and in this guise presented himself to ask admission into the noviceship of the Friars Minor. At that date, 1416, he was thirty years old, and his novice-master seems to have thought that for a man of such strength of will who had been accustomed to have his own way, a very severe training was necessary to test the genuineness of his vocation. (He had not yet even made his first communion.) The trials to which he was subjected were most humiliating and were apparently sometimes attended with supernatural manifestations. But Brother John persevered, and in after years often expressed his gratitude to the relentless instructor who had made it clear to him that self-conquest was the only sure road to perfection.

In 1420 John was raised to the priesthood. Meanwhile he made extraordinary progress in his theological studies, leading at the same time a life of extreme austerity, in which he tramped the roads barefoot without sandals, gave only three or four hours to sleep and wore a hair-shirt continually. In his studies he had St James of the Marches as a fellow learner, and for a master St Bernardino of Siena, for whom he conceived the deepest veneration and affection. Very soon John's exceptional gifts of oratory made themselves perceptible. The whole of Italy at that period was passing through a terrible crisis of political unrest and relaxation of morals, troubles which were largely caused, and in any case accentuated, by the fact that there were three rival claimants for the papacy and that the bitter antagonisms between Guelfs and Ghibellines had not yet been healed. Still, in preaching throughout the length and breadth of the peninsula St John met with wonderful response. There is undoubtedly a note of exaggeration in the terms in which Fathers Christopher of Varese and Nicholas of Fara describe the effect produced by his discourses. They speak of a hundred thousand or even a hundred and fifty thousand auditors being present at a single sermon. That was certainly not possible in a country depopulated by wars, pestilence and famine, and in view of the limited means of locomotion then available. But there was good evidence to justify the enthusiasm of the latter writer when he tells us: "No one was more anxious than John Capistran for the conversion of heretics, schismatics and Jews. No one was more anxious that religion should flourish, or had more power in working wonders; no one was so ardently desirous of martyrdom, no one was more famous for his holiness. And so he was welcomed with honour in all the provinces of Italy. The throng of people at his sermons was so great that it might be thought that the apostolic times were revived. On his arrival in a province, the towns and villages were in commotion and flocked in crowds to hear him. The towns invited him to visit them, either by pressing letters, or by deputations, or by an appeal to the Sovereign Pontiff through the medium of influential persons."

But the work of preaching and the conversion of souls by no means absorbed all the saint's attention. There is no occasion to make reference here in any detail to the domestic embarrassments which had beset the Order of St Francis since the death of their Seraphic Founder. It is sufficient to say that the party known as the "Spirituals" held by no means the same views of religious observance as were entertained by those whom they termed the "Relaxed". The Observant reform which had been initiated in the middle of the fourteenth century still found itself hampered in many ways by the administration of superiors general who held a different standard of perfection, and on the other hand there had also been exaggerations in the direction of much greater austerity culminating eventually in the heretical teachings of the Fraticelli. All these difficulties required adjustment, and Capistran, working in harmony with St Bernardino of Siena, was called upon to bear a large share in this burden. After the general chapter held at Assisi in 1430, St John was appointed to draft the conclusions at which the assembly arrived and these "Martinian statutes", as they were called, in virtue of their confirmation by Pope Martin V, are among the most important in the history of the order. So again John was on several occasions entrusted with inquisitorial powers by the Holy See, as for example to take proceedings against the Fraticelli and to inquire into the grave allegations which had been made against the Order of Gesuats founded by Bd John Colombini. Further, he was keenly interested in that reform of the Franciscan nuns which owed its chief inspiration to St Colette, and in the tertiaries of the order. In the Council of Ferrara, later removed to Florence, he was heard with attention, but between the early and the final sessions he had been compelled to visit Jerusalem as apostolic commissary, and incidentally had done much to help on the inclusion of the Armenians with the Greeks in the accommodation, unfortunately only short-lived, which was arrived at Florence.

When the Emperor Frederick III, finding that the religious faith of the countries under his suzerainty was suffering grievously from the activities of the Hussites and other heretical sectaries, appealed to Pope Nicholas V for help, St John Capistran was sent as commissary and inquisitor general, and he set out for Vienna in 1451 with twelve of his Franciscan brethren to assist him. It is beyond doubt that his coming produced a great sensation. Aeneas Sylvius (the future Pope Pius II) tells us how, when he entered Austrian territory, "priests and people came out to meet him, carrying the sacred relics. They received him as a legate of the Apostolic See, as a preacher of truth, as some great prophet sent by God. They came down from the mountains to greet John, as though Peter or Paul or one of the other apostles were journeying there. They eagerly kissed the hem of his garment, brought their sick and afflicted to his feet, and it is reported that very many were cured... The elders of the city met him and conducted him to Vienna. No square in the city could contain the crowds. They looked on him as an angel of God." John's work as inquisitor and his dealings with the Hussites and other Bohemian heretics have been severely criticized, but this is not the place to attempt any justification. His zeal was of the kind that sears and consumes, though he was merciful to the submissive and repentant, and he was before his time in his attitude to witchcraft and the use of torture. The miracles which attended his progress wherever he went, and which he attributed to the relics of St Bernardino of Siena, were sedulously recorded by his companions, and a certain prejudice was afterwards created against the saint by the accounts which were published of these marvels. He went from place to place, preaching in Bavaria, Saxony and Poland, and his efforts were everywhere accompanied by a great revival of faith and devotion. Cochlaeus of Nuremberg tells us how "those who saw him there describe him as a man small of body, withered, emaciated, nothing but skin and bone, but cheerful, strong and strenuous in labour... He slept in his habit, rose before dawn, recited his office and then celebrated Mass. After that he preached, in Latin, which was afterwards explained to the people by an interpreter." He also made a round of the sick who awaited his coming, laying his hands upon each, praying, and touching them with one of the relics of St Bernardino.

It was the capture of Constantinople by the Turks which brought this spiritual campaign to an end. Capistran was called upon to rally the defenders of the West and to preach a crusade against the infidel. His earlier efforts in Bavaria, and even in Austria, met with little response, and early in 1456 the situation became desperate. The Turks were advancing to lay siege to Belgrade, and the saint, who by this time had made his way into Hungary, taking counsel with the great general Hunyady, saw clearly that they would have to depend in the main upon local effort. St John wore himself out in preaching and exhorting the Hungarian people in order to raise an army which could meet the threatened danger, and himself led to Belgrade the troops he had been able to recruit. Very soon the Turks were in position and the siege began. Animated by the prayers and the heroic example in the field of Capistran, and wisely guided by the military experience of Hunyady, the garrison in the end gained an overwhelming victory. The siege was abandoned, and western Europe for the time was saved. But the infection bred by thousands of corpses which lay unburied round the city cost the life first of all of Hunyady, and then a month or two later of Capistran himself, worn out by years of toil and of austerities and by the strain of the siege. He died most peacefully at Villach on October 23, 1456, and was canonized in 1724. His feast was in 1890 made general for all the Western church, and was then transferred to March 28.

The more important biographical materials for the history of St John of Capistrano are printed in the Acta Sanctorum, October, vol. x. See BHL., nn. 4360-4368. But in addition to these there is a considerable amount of new information concerning St John's writings, letters, reforms and other activities which has been printed during the present century in the Archivum Franciscanum Historicum edited at Quaracchi; attention may be called in particular to the papers on St John and the Hussites in vols. xv and xvi of the same periodical. This and other material has been used by J. Hofer in his St John Capistran, Reformer (1943), a work of much erudition and value. English readers may also be referred to a short life by Fr V. Fitzgerald, and to Léon, Auréole Séraphique (Eng. trans.), vol. iii, pp. 388-420.

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(Butler's Lives of the Saints, Christian Classics, 1995)