John of Capestrano (1386-1456) was a great preacher, administrator and diplomat, posthumously known as “the soldier priest” after leading troops into battle against the Turk.
Capestrano is about 90 miles east of Rome, in the Abruzzi mountains. In the 14th century the area was part of the Kingdom of Naples.
John’s ancestors, though, may have been French. It seems likely that his father had arrived in Italy as a supporter of Louis I of Anjou’s claim to the Kingdom of Naples.
As a child John’s ambition appeared entirely worldly. Having studied law at Perugia, he built up a successful practice. In 1412 he was appointed governor of Perugia. In 1416 he married. Soon afterwards, however, his life changed dramatically when he was thrown into prison by a local condottiero, with whom he had been trying to negotiate peace.
When John was freed he cast aside his wife – explaining carefully that the marriage had not been consummated – and immediately entered the Franciscan order at Perugia, where he adopted a life of rigorous asceticism, and studied theology with St Bernardine of Siena.
Ordained in 1420, he proved an inspiring preacher, taking his message throughout central Europe and even into Russia.
Wherever John encountered heresy, he would compose a tract setting forth the orthodox Catholic doctrine. Tirelessly energetic, he also established many Franciscan communities and played an important part in the reform of the order.
His talents became so highly regarded that successive popes were eager to employ him in diplomatic missions. In 1439 he was sent to Milan and to Burgundy to oppose the claims of the anti-pope Felix V. In 1446 he led negotiations with King Charles VII of France.
Then, in 1451, John was appointed inquisitor and apostolic nuncio in Vienna. From there he sallied forth to combat heresy wherever he found it, proving especially fierce against the Hussites in Hungary and Bohemia.
John also specialised in fiery sermons against the Jews. Indeed, he has been accused of worse – of encouraging German princes to drive Jews out of their kingdoms; and, in Breslau, of causing some 40 Jews to be burnt at the stake after reports that the Host had been desecrated.
In 1455, two years after the Turks had captured Constantinople, Pope Callistus III commissioned John to preach a Crusade for the defence of Europe.
Though now approaching 70, John did more, raising an army in Hungary and then plunging into battle himself to help raise the Siege of Belgrade (July 1456). “The Lord who made a beginning will take care of the finish!” he told his men.
The Turks were scattered; on October 23, however, John died of a fever that had been engendered amid the detritus of the battlefield.