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  • Writer's pictureOmar Gutierrez

The Saint Maker: St. John of Avila

“Saints make saints,” is a truism when it comes to the work towards holiness, and today’s saint is a unique example of that truism.

 

John of Ávila was born either in 1499 or 1500 in a small town south of Toledo, Spain. The only son of a wealthy family, he was sent off to study law. He left school after a deep conversion and was insistent on becoming a priest. He was ordained in 1526.


Now, we may not appreciate it today, but this was an age of incredible change in Europe, and Spain was at the epicenter of a great deal of it. The invention of the printing press in the mid 1400’s meant that information could be shared cheaply and widely on a scale never before seen in human history. The Protestant Reformation had started in Germany and had begun to spread. Advances in shipbuilding made the discovery of the “New World” possible, and so a new world of resources and challenges lay before many.

 

In these tumultuous times, then, young Fr. John had decided that he was going to leave his homeland and serve as a missionary priest to the people of New Spain (Mexico). He gave all his inheritance to the poor and, with the permission of his bishop, travelled to Seville, Spain to await his transport ship to the Americas.

 

While he waited, he preached in the town and caught the eye and ear of the holy Fernando de Contreras. Fernando and the Archbishop of Seville convinced Fr. John to stay and to serve the people of Andalusia, which he did for a number of years. Fr. John was later brought to Córdoba and eventually to Granada where he finished his university studies and where he was recognized for his intellectual insights.

 

Over time, Fr. John’s accomplishments proved just what a remarkable man he was. He was an inventor in his own right, the author of a catechism for adults and children, and the founder of several colleges and a university. But it was his love for God, for bringing souls to the Lord and his deep spiritual insights that brought him wider acclaim.

 

His preaching was marked by a message of God’s deep and abiding love for us which ought to spur us toward seeking holiness even at the expense of “worldly honor.” This caught the attention of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (commonly known as the Jesuits), who sought out Fr. John hoping he would become one of those first Jesuits. Though John didn’t join, he sent 30 of his best spiritual mentees to the new order. In fact, it was Fr. John who helped convert St. Francis Borgia, who succeeded St. Ignatius as the head of the Jesuits.

 

St. John of God, founder of the Hospitilars, was converted to a life of piety by the preaching of Fr. John. St. Peter Alcántara, reformer of the Franciscan Order, was a friend as was St. John de Ribera. St. Thomas of Villanova distributed Fr. John’s catechism throughout his diocese. Finally, both St. Teresa of Ávila and St. John of the Cross, reformers of the Carmelite Order, actively sought out Fr. John for his spiritual wisdom. He also corresponded with many lay people and priests to whom he gave spiritual direction.


 After some illness and exhaustion led him to retire from preaching, Fr. John of Ávila died on May 10th, 1569. He was canonized in 1970 by Pope St. Paul VI and declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 for his tremendous insight and influence on Catholic spirituality during a critical time in Church history.

 

What was that insight? His work Audi, Filia or “Listen, O Daughter” is considered his spiritual masterpiece. In it he covers many matters but I’d like focus on his main theme of rejecting the passing “honor” of the world in favor of the glory of heaven. He wrote the following:

 

Dear brothers and sisters, I pray God may open your eyes and let you see what hidden treasures He bestows on us in the trials from which the world thinks only to flee. Shame turns into honor when we seek God’s glory. Present affliction become the source of heavenly glory. To those who suffer wounds in fighting His battles, God opens His arms in loving, tender friendship. That is why He (Christ) tells us, that if we want to join Him, we shall travel the way He took. It is surely not right that the Son of God should go His way on the path of shame, while the sons of men walk the way of worldly honor: “The disciple is not above his teacher, nor the servant greater than his master.”

 

In other words, aware of the Father’s deep love for us, we ought to shake off the fear of being thought weird or a “Jesus freak” or a religious nut. We cannot let some “shame” for being religious keep us from the pursuit of following Jesus in whatever he asks of us. Wear that cross around your neck. Say “God bless you” to the clerk at the counter. Be bold in the pursuit, not of “being right,” but of being holy. Love radically, and the Lord will bless you abundantly.

 

In a letter St. John once said, “Open your little heart to that breadth of love by which the Father gave us his Son, and with him gave us himself, and the Holy Spirit, and all things besides.” Through St. John of Ávila we are reminded of God’s infinite love for us, to which we need only surrender, for it is that love which transforms us and make saints of us all.

 

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