St. John of Capistrano

Most Americans know of San Juan Capistrano Mission, the religious center established in California by the Spanish Franciscans in 1776. To its ruins the migrant swallows return from the south each March 19th. Few know, however, of the versatile, zealous Italian Franciscan friar after whom the Spanish mission is named.

St. John was a native of Capestrano (or Capistrano) in the province of Abruzzi, then a part of the kingdom of Naples. His father was a certain Baron Anthony from above the Alps: a Frenchman or perhaps a German, who had come to Italy in 1382 with the army of Louis I of Anjou. Settling in the Abruzzi mountains, Anthony married a woman of the local Amici family.

Giovanni (to give him his Italian forename) had the misfortune, while still a child, to lose both his father and his brothers in the war of Louis of Anjou against Ladislas of Naples. But his mother saw to it that at age 15 he enrolled in the University of Perugia as a student of civil and church law.

Having made a brilliant course, John was quickly singled out for academic and political assignments. Appointed judge for one of the quarters of Perugia (some say, as governor of Perugia), he showed himself an able reformist. He also married the daughter of a Perugian nobleman – a further step in a promising worldly career.

In 1415, however, right after his marriage, war broke out between Perugia and the Malatesta family. Sent by Perugia to make peace with the enemy, John was jailed by them.

Now, while in prison, he began to ask himself whether, in his effort to win power, he was not paying sufficient attention to his soul. He had a dream, it is said, in which St. Francis of Assisi warned him to enter the Franciscan order. Since his marriage had not been consummated, John was able to obtain an annulment so that he might join the Friars Minor. On October 4, 1415, the feast of St. Francis, he was received into the Franciscans of the Strict Observance at Perugia.

His superiors, anticipating that such a secular man would find obedience difficult, did their best to humble him. (He had not even made his first Communion when he was received.) They need not have worried. Friar Giovanni’s docility proved that his conversion had been genuine.

Instructed in theology, he was ordained a priest in 1418, and sent out as a preacher.

John’s fellow student of theology was St. James of the Marches; their instructor was the great missioner St. Bernardino of Siena. Friar John later worked with St. Bernardino as a home-missionary up and down the Italian peninsula, preaching effectively to huge crowds.

In St. John’s day, the Franciscans were in disarray. One radical group, the Fraticelli, had broken loose from the order and were teaching false doctrines. John often had to preach against them. But the Franciscan order itself was sadly split into two factions, one of which wanted a more liberal interpretation of the vow of poverty, the other (the Observantines), a stricter interpretation. Because of his legal and administrative ability, Friar John was called on to defend the Observantine cause, and he held high offices in this reform movement. He founded several convents and monasteries and collaborated with St. Colette in the reform of the Poor Clares.

The popes, recognizing the executive talents as well as the holiness of this friar, employed him on embassies to Milan, to Burgundy, and to the king of France. Then in 1451, at the request of the Holy Roman Emperor, he was sent as apostolic legate to Austria. He visited all parts of the Empire, preaching renewal and repudiating the heresies of the Hussites. He did the same in Poland at the request of the Polish king.

In the mid-15th century, the Muslim Turks, under Mahomet II, were still trying to subjugate Europe. In 1454 the pope ordered John to preach a crusade against this dread enemy. Early in 1456 the friar rallied an army to defend Belgrade. It was led by him and the great crusading Hungarian general, John Hunyadi. Hunyadi conquered the foe by sea on July 14. Friar John, personally heading the troops on July 21, and invoking the Holy Name, was principally responsible for the land victory that day. And victory it was. Not for 70 years would the Turks again threaten central Europe. For this accomplishment Friar John was hailed in later years as the “apostle of Europe.”

Both Hunyadi and John of Capistrano took ill soon after the battle of Belgrade and died near there. This austere, tireless, charismatic Franciscan preacher, theologian and papal diplomat was canonized in 1690. The Spanish Franciscans in California were understandably proud of him.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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