No doubt you’ve heard of San Juan Capistrano, perhaps the best known of the 21 California missions for the swallows that would migrate annually from Argentina and nest on the mission grounds each March.
What you might not know is that the mission’s namesake, St. John of Capistrano, was an important church figure of the 15th-century Catholic Church. Here are a few details of his life you may find interesting.
He had a promising career. He was born in Capistrano, as one might guess, in modern-day Italy in 1386. Capistrano was a town near Aquila within the Kingdom of Naples. He studied law in Perugia, was well connected, and had a bright future amid troubled times within the region and the Church itself.
He was married briefly, and did time too. John married a woman from a well-heeled family and became governor of Perugia in 1412. When Perugia went to war with neighboring Rimini, John went to negotiate peace but was taken prisoner. During his incarceration he had a religious experience and a vision of St. Francis of Assisi inviting him to become a Franciscan. Once freed, he had his marriage annulled on the basis that it had never been consummated, so he was released to enter consecrated life.
He made a bizarre penance. It was probably his own idea, but as penance John sat backwards on a donkey and paraded through Perugia while wearing a homemade hat that listed all his sins. (You should be pleased that your confessor lets you off with a few Hail Marys and an act of contrition.) Then he entered the Franciscans.
He was a uniter, not a divider. Along with St. Bernardino of Siena and St. Colette, St. John helped reform the Franciscan Order, whose members were bitterly divided. Together they negotiated a balance between between one faction that promoted extreme austerity and another that had gravitated toward laxity and worldliness.
He was a powerful preacher. St. John was a fiery homilist who succeeded in bringing about many conversions. Even miracles were reported as resulting from his preaching. Often he was sent to preach where heresies were popular, such as to face the Hussites in Austria.
He was a military leader. In 1456, after their conquest of Constantinople, the Ottoman Turks attacked Belgrade in hopes of taking Hungary. John preached a crusade and assembled many peasants to go into battle, many armed only with slingshots or farm implements, who collaborated with Belgrade’s more experienced army. When the peasants took it upon themselves to attempt a daring assault on the fortress the Turks were holding, John took to the front and led the charge. The Ottomans were caught by surprise and fled in retreat.
He died of the plague. That siege of Belgrade was John’s undoing. The battle was so bloody that corpses lay rotting everywhere, too many to bury. A plague struck as a result, and John was afflicted. He died on October 23, 1456, which is now observed as his feast day. He was canonized in 1630.
As for the swallows, they haven’t always returned. As Mission San Juan Capistrano underwent necessary renovations in the 1990s, the swallows lost their traditional nesting areas and stopped returning in large numbers. An ecologist was consulted, artificial walls and nests were constructed, and in recent years some swallows have indeed, as the Pat Boone song goes, come back to Capistrano.
St. John of Capistrano’s legacy is of particular relevance to members of the Knights of Columbus because of the Order’s long tradition of support for members of the military and their Catholic chaplains. Today’s chaplains do not lead soldiers into battle as St. John did, but they are often on the front lines, ministering to the spiritual and temporal needs of our fighting men and women in the midst of extreme danger. St. John serves as an apt intercessor as we remember these chaplains and service members in our prayers.
To learn more about the Knights of Columbus’ support for military chaplains and how you can help.
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