Saint John of Capestrano: Franciscan Preacher, Reformer

Saint John of Capestrano: Franciscan Preacher, Reformer

On October 23, the Church remembers Saint John of Capestrano [John Capistran] (1386-1456), a Franciscan friar who had a prominent and multifaceted ministry as a preacher and reformer in 15th-century Europe.

Walking line between zeal and fanaticism

Several years ago, Fr. Steve Grunow accurately described him: “John was a Franciscan friar and priest, but not of the good-natured variety of Franciscans that holds the popular imagination. To describe John as zealous would be an understatement. He walked the fine line between zeal and fanaticism, allowing God to write straight with the crooked lines he drew throughout his life."

Young life scarred by violence

Born in 1386 in Capestrano in the Abruzzo region of Italy, John lived a young life scarred by violence. His father, a knight, and all his brothers were killed in one of the bloody civil conflicts so common in Italy at the time. He later spoke of the thirst for revenge that consumed him as a young man.

St John of Capestrano Capestrano town 700pxlsThe town of Capestrano, Abruzzo, John's birthplace, is dominated by its castle.

Tough, honest, impartial magistrate

He studied law at the University of Perugia and soon entered politics and became a legal counselor at the court of King Ladislaus of Naples. In 1413 he returned to Perugia and was named a judge in that city, gaining a reputation as a tough but honest and impartial magistrate. The next year, still not 30, he was named governor of the city and in 1415 was married to a wealthy young woman from Capestrano.

Reevaluating his life

John’s life, however, took a dramatic turn later that year. While outside Perugia, he was captured by rebel forces and imprisoned. He was treated horribly but eventually managed to buy his ransom. This prison stay caused him to reevaluate his life; he dramatically renounced his political career and his marriage (which had never been consummated) to join the new Observant Reform of the Friars Minor on October 4, 1415.

Celebrated popular preacher

John’s legal background and activist temperament continued to mark his life and ministry as a Franciscan. Like his close friend, Bernardine of Siena, he became a celebrated popular preacher, but John’s legal background meant that he quickly became prominent on a practical level, promoting the cause of the Observant reform, drawing up reform statutes under Pope Martin V.

St John of Capestrano Bamberg painting 700pxlsThis painting by a local artist about 1470 shows John preaching in Bamberg, Germany, on a mission tour in 1452. A woman in the foreground is throwing her elaborate headgear into a "bonfire of the vanities" in response to his preaching.

Reforming Franciscan communities

He also was deeply involved in efforts to reform contemporary Franciscan women's communities, writing an influential commentary on the Rule of St. Clare and defending the rights of emerging Third Order Regular Franciscan communities.

Inquisitor against heretical movements

John was also engaged by the Papacy as an inquisitor, preaching against heretical movements in Italy and Central Europe. In these tasks, as Fr. Grunow says, “He brokered no compromise and had no patience for opposition.”

Workaholic, author, mediator

John was what we would call today a “workaholic.” He needed only 3 to 4 hours of sleep a night and managed, in the midst of all his other activities, to be a prodigious author in all branches of theology, leaving behind a considerable body of written works. He served too as a mediator in a number of conflicts.

Patron of military chaplains

When John was old and frail, the Pope commissioned him to preach a Crusade against the Ottoman Turks who had been emboldened by the capture of Constantinople in 1453 and began threatening Hungary and the Balkans. John joined up with the Hungarian general, John Hunyadi, and personally led forces to relieve the siege of Belgrade in 1456. Shortly afterward, John fell victim to the plague and died in Ilok, Croatia. He was canonized in 1690; in 1984 Pope John Paul II named him the patron of military chaplains.

St John of Capestrano soldier saint painting at Mission CA 700pxlsThis image of John depicted as a “soldier saint” can be found at Mission San Juan Capistrano in California.

Now a light does not shine for itself, but it spreads its rays and shines upon everything that comes into its view. So it is with the glowing lives of upright and holy clerics. . .they must bring light to all who see them.—Treatise, “Mirror of the Clergy”

St John of Capestrano Mission San Juan Capistrano 700pxlsMission of San Juan Capistrano, California

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Main image: Saint John of Capestrano, painted only a few years after his death (1459), by Bartolomeo Vivarini (The Louvre)

Dominic Monti

Written by : Dominic Monti

Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. A native of nearby Bradford, PA, he was educated at St. Bonaventure (BA); after joining the Order, he attended the Catholic University of America (STB), Union Theological Seminary, NY (STM), and the Divinity School of the University of Chicago (PhD). He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor. He is spiritual assistant to a federation of Poor Clares and the Franciscan Secular Institute, the Missionaries of the Kingship of Christ.
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