Many a saint has had to defend his or her vocation to the religious life against a parent who had more worldly plans. Parental pressure is all the more understandable when the parent is a king and the child in question is in the line of succession to the throne.
Jane of Portugal (or Joan, or Joanna, as she is also called) found herself in this position. From early childhood she had desired to become a “bride of Christ.” But she happened also to be a princess, the daughter of Alfonso V of Portugal, who might become queen if her frail brother did not survive, or at least a mother to his successor in case he himself had no offspring.
From 16 on, Jane’s conviction of her own religious vocation to the Dominicans increased rather than diminished, and she engaged in more intensive practices of penance and prayer. Alfonso and her brother now became more insistent that she marry. The king was not unappreciative of her religious disposition, and was willing to permit her to live a secluded life in the palace. But for her to become a nun, it was out of the question.
In 1471, Alfonso and son embarked on a military expedition against the Moors in Africa. The king appointed Jane to rule the country during his absence. Apparently she handled the task very capably. On his victorious return, she ventured to ask him once more for permission to enter the Dominican “Convent of Jesus” at Aveiro, a religious house noted for its strictness of life. This time he did make a minor concession. She might indeed go to Aveiro to live, but she could not take vows or give up control of her properties.
Jane accepted the arrangement as dutifully as ever. At least part of her desire had been granted. The rest she left up patiently to divine providence. Giving up her personal possessions in 1472, she entered the Dominican “Convent of Jesus.” She did not take vows or even receive the habit at that time, but lived a simple, prayerful life according to the stringent rule of the monastery. One good thing about her not taking the vow of poverty at once was that she was able to devote her personal income to worthy causes. A charity that appealed to her particularly was the redemption of Christians who had been enslaved by the Muslim Moors.
Even now, however, family pressure to marry for dynastic reasons did not cease. Among the suitors who proposed with special earnestness was the controversial Richard III of England. It is ironic to visualize them as a couple: Jane, handsome and judicious, and Richard “Crouchback,” whom Shakespeare represents describing himself as “deform’d, unfinished, sent before my time / Into this breathing world, scarce half made up, / And that so lamely and unfashionable / That dogs bark at me.” (Richard III) The Portuguese princess was fortunate not to have wed the English monarch, although, if she had, he might have turned out less a rascal. But of course her heart was set on no man, as she was called to be a spouse of Christ and Him alone.
Bl. Jane’s patience eventually triumphed. Alfonso died in 1461, and was succeeded by his son John II, who ruled until 1496. John had no children, but other means were found to continue the dynasty. Meanwhile, the royal princess had finally been able to take her vows in 1485. The remaining five years of her life were characterized by such prayerfulness, mortification, and heroic humility that at her death she was venerated as a saint. Miracles confirmed that conclusion. In 1693 Pope Innocent XII confirmed the title of “blessed” that popular piety had bestowed on her.
The era of absolute monarchies and, even to large extent, dynastic marriages is over, but Blessed Jane of Portugal remains relevant in our day when few women are entering religious orders. Jane’s experience confirms that there are true, permanent, religious vocations. So, let undecided women not hesitate to listen to God’s call, and let their parents and friends encourage rather than discourage them to accept. It is a sublime summons!
–Father Robert F. McNamara