St. John Masias

(1585-1645)

Some saints have been brilliant leaders who steered their way through complicated courses. Others have been renowned rather for their childlike simplicity. St. John Masias of Lima, Peru, a friend and fellow Dominican of St. Martin de Porres, was like Martin, truly a “child of God.”

John, a native of Rivera, Plasencia, Spain, is said to have been descended from a noble family that had become impoverished. Whatever his lineage, he was orphaned at an early age, and raised by an uncle, who made him tend sheep to support himself and his brothers and sisters. With no opportunity for schooling, Juan grew up illiterate. The solitude of shepherding, however, gave him, as it has given to other saints, ample opportunity for recollection and prayer. Sometimes as he recited the rosary, he sensed the presence of Our Lady and St. John the Evangelist.

When he was 21, he felt inspired by St. John the Evangelist to migrate to South America–a popular choice of many Spaniards in those days when Spain was colonizing Latin America. The merchant who took him across the Atlantic abandoned him at Cartagena, Colombia, because he could neither read nor write. Making his way gradually to Lima, John entered the employ of a landholder who assigned him to work with his cattle and sheep. “On retreat” again among the animals, Masias resumed his old devotional schedule.

Around 1621, Juan decided to apply for entry into the Dominicans as a lay brother. Giving away what remained of his savings, he was clothed in the Dominican habit at the Lima convent of St. Mary Magdalen. During his Dominican career Brother John held only one post, that of porter of the convent, but it was in this role that he earned heaven.

The monastic life suited John to a “T”. He embraced penitential practices so harsh that his prior ordered him to tone them down. Though he had lost the sheepfold as a favored place of private prayer, he found a hidden corner in the monastery garden that he called his Gethsemane.

But John became noted particularly for his works of charity. Every day the poor, the sick and the abandoned would come to the door to receive bread from him. (The convent still preserves the basket he used to hold the loaves.) If his beloved poor were too shy to come begging at the convent, he would search them out in their own homes.

Collecting the food to give was his preliminary duty.

To save himself time in begging door to door, he trained the priory’s donkey to go about town alone with baskets on its back. When the people saw it coming, they would put food and clothing into its baskets for Brother Juan to distribute. Nor did John content himself with silent almsgiving. His contact with the needy gave him an opportunity to advise them and encourage them to love God and live good lives. There is no doubt that Blessed Juan copied this style of apostolate from his good friend, fellow-Dominican lay brother and fellow townsman, the holy mulatto St. Martin de Porres. Many miracles were attributed to Brother John.

Historians have often criticized the Spaniards who colonized Peru and other parts of Latin America for greed and harshness. But we must not forget the bright side, the holy side of their colonial efforts.

Thus, Lima itself could boast of two saints early canonized: St. Rose of Lima and Archbishop St. Toribio de Mogrovejo. More recent popes have added to that calendar two more, saints of simplicity and charity: St. Martin de Porres (canonized in 1962 by Pope John XXIII) and St. John Masias (canonized in 1975 by Pope Paul VI). Of such is the kingdom of heaven.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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