Talk about impulsivity! When St. John of God, whose feast we celebrate today, set his mind on something, he just did it. Immediately. Without looking back.
Here’s what I mean: When he was eight years old, he heard an itinerant priest talk about the adventure of spreading the faith in distant places. Late that night, John rose to follow the priest—and he never saw his parents again. [Children: Don’t try this at home.]
He worked as a shepherd, then joined the Spanish navy. At 38, John set off for the port of Gibraltar to rescue Christians held captive in Africa. But before he set foot on the ship, he met a tearful family at the dock who were, he learned, being exiled to Africa. He immediately changed his plans and became their servant—nursing them when illness beset the family, even working to buy food for them.
Not done yet, John hired on as a dockworker, unloading ships’ cargo. He loved to read—so he quit his job and began to peddle books, so that others could find the same pleasure in the printed word.
It was a dramatic homily by John of Avila that became the turning point for the younger John. Listening to the preacher talk about repentance, John of God became distressed about his sins and went on a rampage—tearing up any secular books in his shop, giving away all of his religious books and his money. He roamed the town, wearing shredded clothing and weeping in sorrow, until the townspeople thought him insane. Friends escorted him to the Royal Hospital, where he was housed with the lunatics.
John suffered ill treatment at the Royal Hospital for forty days. When that period came to an end, John of Avila visited, and was able to have the younger man transferred to a better section of the hospital. There, no longer tethered as he had been in the insane ward, he immediately began helping to care for the other sick people around him. He soon opened a hospital for the poor in Granada, which he supported by begging in the streets.
When the Royal Hospital caught fire, John burst into the blazing building to try to save the patients. During the rescue attempt, he once fell through a burning roof into the building—but, according to legend, emerged safe atop a puff of smoke. For this reason, John of God is honored as the patron of firefighters.
When John heard that a flood was approaching the town, carrying with it valuable driftwood, John hopped up and rushed to the river to gather the wood. When a friend fell into the river, John dove in after him, catching the pneumonia which finally took his life on his 55th birthday.
John of God, jack of all trades, has been called the patron saint of booksellers, printers, heart patients, hospitals, nurses, the sick, and firefighters. He is considered the founder of the Brothers Hospitallers.