St. John of God was born in Portugal in 1495. When he was eight years old he disappeared and never saw his parents again. Little is known about what actually happened in the years following his disappearance except that he ended up on the opposite coast of the Spanish peninsula from where he was born.
St. John of God lived a solitary life until he joined the army when he was 22. As a soldier he enjoyed the vices his fellow soldiers enjoyed; revelry, drinking and cruelty. After being thrown off a stolen horse near French lines he was in danger of being killed or captured. He reviewed his life and decided to change. John made a pilgrimage on foot to St. James of Compostella. At the shrine he made his confession, and determined that in some way the rest of his life should be spent in atonement for his sins.
After being discharged from the army John went in search of his parents only to learn that they had both died. John found work in Spain unloading ship cargoes and visited churches at night. He spent his spare time reading religious books. He enjoyed reading so much that he began selling books and holy cards.
When John was 41, he had a vision of the Infant Jesus. Tradition tells us that in this vision he found a small child on the roadside, ill-clad and barefooted, who asked John to carry him part of his way. John lifted the child on his shoulders, and trudged along with his double burden. But the weight was heavy, and John was none too strong; when he reached a drinking fountain on the road John proposed to the child that they should stop and rest. The child came down from his shoulders but was suddenly transformed. “John of God,” he said, “Granada shall be your cross,” and immediately disappeared.
After the vision, John went to Granada and opened a small book shop. After hearing John of Avila preach one day, he was overcome with grief over his sins. He gave away all his religious books and money. John was so overcome that he behaved like a lunatic and was put in a hospital. The traditional treatment for lunacy was whipping. He was tied down and daily beaten and whipped. John of Avila visited him and said his penance had been long enough…40 days…and had him moved to a better part of the hospital.
John of God began helping the sick in the hospital. He decided to start a hospital of his own. When he was released he earned money by selling wood. The money he earned he used to feed the poor and homeless. He rented a house which he turned into a shelter and hospital. Eventually, he moved his hospital into an old Carmelite monastery and opened a homeless shelter in the monastery hall.
St. John of God was known for impulsively helping anyone who needed help. When he heard that the Royal Hospital was on fire, he ran to help. While other people looked on, he rushed into the hospital and began carrying patients out. After the patients were all safe, he began to throw mattresses and sheets out the windows. He continued doing all he could do until he fell through the burning roof. It was feared he was dead, but he miraculously appeared out of smoke. This is why he is the patron of firefighters.
St. John of God came down with pneumonia after trying to rescue a boy who had fallen into the river. When he was near to death, he requested to be alone with God. He died on his birthday, March 8, 1559, kneeling before a crucifix. He was 55 years old.
St. John of God is considered the founder of the Brothers Hospitallers who were inspired by his example and are the fruit of his work.
Lord, Your thorns are my roses and Your suffering my paradise.
Quote of St. John of God
St. John of God in Art