St. John Berchmans

(1599-1621)

The Jesuit Order has produced three admirable young saints: Stanislaus Kostka, Aloysius Gonzaga, and John Berchmans.

Unlike the other two, St. John Berchmans was not of noble rank. His father was a master shoemaker, a prominent citizen of Dienst, Belgium. John’s early schooling was in the hands of a layman and a religious-order priest, and he proved a bright student, especially gifted as an actor.

By the time he was 13, young Berchmans had already decided that he wanted to be a priest. That year his father, faced with financial problems, told him that he would have to leave school and learn a trade to help support their family. It was then that he confided his desire for the priesthood to his parents. They reached a compromise. He was hired to be the house servant of a prominent priest at Mechelen. This would give him a chance to attend the local seminary.

In 1615 the Jesuits opened a college at Mechelen. John was one of the first to enroll. A year later he joined the Jesuit novitiate, intent on becoming a member of the Society. This turn of events displeased his sponsors, and was accepted only reluctantly by his parents. But he lovingly assured them that they would simply be giving back to God the son that God had given to them. (When his mother died not long afterward, his father became a priest!)

Berchmans had clearly made the right choice. He was a perfect novice. Holiness was his primary aim. (“If I do not become a saint when I am young,” he once said, “I shall never become one.”) Yet his method of growing in sanctity was beautifully balanced. He did not aim at great deeds, but, like St. Therese of Lisieux in our times, he tried to do the little things as well as possible. Well-rounded and good-humored, he was admired and respected by all.

Because of his talents as a student, John was assigned to Rome in 1619 to begin his philosophical studies. He and one companion walked from Belgium to Rome in ten weeks. At Rome, too, his Jesuit professors and colleagues marveled at his diligence and his exemplary life. Because of his proficiency as a student he was chosen in 1621 to defend a thesis in an academic disputation. Unfortunately, soon afterward he contracted an infectious disease that would prove mortal. Since he had aspired to martyrdom anyhow, John accepted the trial with cheerful grace. As he grew worse, the great Jesuit scripture scholar, Father Cornelius a Lapide, in administering the last rites, asked him if he had anything on his conscience. “Nothing at all,” he replied.

John Berchmans died peacefully on August 13, 1621. Miracles were reported soon after his death, but he was declared “blessed” only in 1865. There was an American angle to his canonization in 1888. One of the miracles accepted by the Holy See as verified took place in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, at a girls’ academy founded in 1821 by the Religious of the Sacred Heart.

In 1862, Mary Wilson, a 16-year-old Canadian Presbyterian, had become attracted to Catholicism while visiting St. Louis, Missouri. Having asked for instruction, she was received in the Church by the Jesuits. Her family disowned her, but rejection did not keep her from joining the Sacred Heart nuns in 1866.

That October, however, on the day before Mary was to receive the habit, she was seized by a deathly ailment. After she had received the last rites, she prayed to Blessed John Berchmans for either cure or patience, as God willed. Then she placed on her tongue a holy card bearing his image. At once she felt a finger on her tongue and heard the words, “Sister, you will get the desired habit. Fear not.” Now she saw beside her bed a luminous figure. She asked him if he were Berchmans, and he said yes, he was sent by God’s order to tell her she was cured. To the amazement of all, she had completely recovered. The official report of the miracle was duly sent to Rome and filed in the dossier on the canonization of this young Jesuit who had won heaven by doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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