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Saint John of Avila

The following story appeared in the April 30 Idaho Catholic Register.

by Emily Woodham

Staff Writer

Born on January 6, 1499, John of Avila, Spain, was the only son of his wealthy parents. Both of his parents were of Jewish descent. Although the conversion of his family from Judaism most likely happened a few generations before his birth, his family members were still considered to be “new Christians,” a term given to Jewish and Muslim converts. Prejudices against “new Christians” were strengthened by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s 1492 decree that Jews be expelled from Spain. John’s family and other converts were allowed to remain but, despite their wealth, they were not given the same privileges as “old Christians.”

John’s love for the Church began at an early age, but when it came time to pursue a career, his parents sent him to the prestigious University of Salamanca to study law. After four years of study, John felt called to return home and live a prayerful life of solitude. He left his room only to go to confession and daily Mass. His love for the Eucharist increased, and he would pray in the church for hours. After three years of spiritual growth at home, John met with a Franciscan who encouraged him to go to the newer University of Alcala to begin his studies to be a priest.

The University of Alcala emphasized the original languages of scripture and the duties of priests in their service to the laity. John’s parents died just before he was ordained in the spring of 1526. When he returned home for his inheritance, he held a lavish banquet for twelve poor people. Then he sold all he inherited and gave the money to the poor.

John went to Seville to join a missionary group that was going to the Spanish colonies of the New World, but the Archbishop of Seville was so impressed by his preaching that he was told to stay in Spain to preach in the newly conquered Muslim territories in the southern region of the country. Many converted because of his ministry. However, his honest preaching about sacrifice, charity and repentance angered other priests, who enjoyed licentious lifestyles apart from their duties at the altar. His enemies looked for holes in his teaching and reported him to the Inquisition, a group of clergy dedicated to rooting out heresy in the Church.

The Inquisition examined the testimony of the witnesses against John carefully. Through the course of a year, five witnesses said he was a heretic, but 55 others testified to his orthodoxy. John did not despair as he waited in prison for a verdict. Instead, he took the time to cultivate one of his favorite activities – writing. He translated the Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kemp-is and wrote the bulk of his masterpiece Audi, filia (“Listen, O Daughter”), written at the request of one of his female spiritual directees. He also composed numerous letters.

When he was released from prison, church bells rang out, and people flocked to hear him preach again. In 1535, the Bishop of Cordoba asked him to come to his diocese.

While there, he met Fra Luis of Granada, who would become one of his closest friends. A year later, he went to Granada to further his studies. In 1538, he was given the title “Master,” because his teaching was so effective in bringing under-standing to Christian belief and duty.

While in Granada, Joáo Duarte Cidade, a Portuguese soldier, (who later becomes St. John of God) and Francis Borgia (also later canonized) experienced conversions because of his teaching. John of Avila also became friends with St. Ignatius of Loyola and encouraged him in his formation of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits.

Time and again, the Vatican offered John bishoprics, and each time he refused, feeling called only to priesthood, teaching and spiritual direction. He had Franciscan, Dominican and Jesuit friends, but he maintained his commitment to his diocese, to be “in the world, yet not of the world” (John 17:14-16).

St. John of the Cross, St. Peter of Alcantara and St. Louis of Granada and many others received spiritual direction from him at some point in their journeys. St. John of Avila was also a spiritual director for St. Teresa of Avila. She entrusted him with edits and direction for her celebrated autobiography.

He established schools that became models for modern seminaries. (Up until the 16th century, most priests were formed through monasteries or universities.) News of the integrity of his program for priesthood formation spread throughout Europe. His popularity for directing priests and bringing revival to dioceses led leaders of the Council of Trent (which met from 1545 to 1563 to respond to the Protestant Reformation) to request his help in writing the council documents about diocesan priesthood.

Despite his influence, John remained humble. He insisted on a life of poverty and emphasized charity in his preaching. He said that he would prefer a seminarian who had worn out knees from praying, than one with worn out eyes from studying. He infused his ministry, however, with heavy doses of both. He prayed two hours each morning and two hours each night. Along with his writing for spiritual direction, he also wrote Biblical commentaries. His knowledge of scripture was so vast that St. Ignatius of Loyola joked that if all copies of the Bible were lost, John could recall each word from memory for the Church to record.

John suffered multiple health problems, including chronic pain. Despite that, his strong devotion to the Eucharist and the Blessed Mother remained to the end of his life. Friends noted that his vibrancy was fueled by his frequent reception of Communion and that his ministry was motivated by love.

He died on May 10, 1569. Several of his books were quickly translated and spread throughout Europe. His view of the priesthood especially influenced spiritual direction in France, and his writings were cherished by both St. Francis de Sales and St. Vincent de Paul.

St. John of Avila was canonized in 1970 by St. Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) who believed his intercessions would help the vocations crisis in the Church. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI declared him a “Doctor of the Church” – the first diocesan priest to be given that title.

Officially, St. John of Avila is a patron saint of Spain and Spanish secular clergy, but many see his intercessions as effective for all diocesan priests, seminarians and spiritual directors. His feast day is May 10.

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