St John of God (1495-1550), recognised as the founder of the Brothers Hospitallers, took a long time to discover his vocation.
Born in Portugal, he ran away from home at the age of eight and almost perished before being rescued by the manager of an estate in Castile. For many years he worked as a shepherd until the suggestion that he should marry the manager’s daughter inspired him to join the army.
Having enlisted in 1522, John saw action against France, and later fought in Hungary against the Turks. During this period he forgot all he had ever known about religion in favour of the soldierly vices.
Aged about 40, however, he had a narrow escape from death, and resolved to adopt a more godly way of life. Abandoning the military, he set out for north Africa with the aim of rescuing Christian slaves. The prospect of martyrdom was an additional encouragement.
At Gibraltar, however, he attached himself to a Portuguese gentleman who fell ill after crossing the straits to Ceuta. John nursed him and his family devotedly, earning money for them by working on a tough building site. He was disillusioned to discover, though, that those who mistreated him were Catholics.
He returned to Gibraltar, where he lived by selling sacred pictures and books. Eventually, at 43, he opened a shop in Granada. Soon afterwards John of Avila came to the town and preached a sermon which drove him into religious ecstasy. The victim was duly carted off to the local lunatic asylum.
When tranquility returned John determined to spend the rest of his life helping the sick and the poor. To that end he hired a house in Granada, where he devoted himself without stint to tending his patients.
The Bishop of Tuy was so impressed that he called him “John of God”, and prescribed for him a special habit. It was not until after his death, however, that formal vows were introduced among his helpers.
Because John could never turn down any cry for help his work rapidly expanded. His archbishop sent for him to answer charges that he harboured tramps and prostitutes.
“The Son of Man came for sinners, and we are bound to seek their conversion,” he replied. “I am unfaithful to my vocation because I neglect this, but I confess that I know of no bad person in my hospital except myself alone.”
When John died, the whole of Granada followed his coffin in procession. He was canonised in 1690 and in 1886 Pope Leo XIII declared him the heavenly patron of all hospitals and sick folk. He is also honoured by printers and booksellers.
The Brothers Hospitallers have also been charged with the medical and dental care of the Pope.