When we see others doing wrong, should we be silent or speak out? We can always speak out to God, of course, and ask Him to enlighten the wrongdoers. Cases differ, also, and in particular instances where our intervention may accomplish nothing, we may keep silence so long as our silence cannot be interpreted as giving approval. But there are some occasions when duty demands that we confront our neighbor, whatever the cost to ourselves. John of Sahagun, as a reforming missionary, had a particular obligation to call a spade a spade, as we shall see.
John was born at the town of Sahagun (also spelled San Fagondez) in the ancient Spanish kingdom of Leon. His father, a man of influence, had him educated by the Benedictine monks of the town. Then, when he was still a young boy, he secured for him a small church benefice. A benefice was a church position that had an endowment attached, so that the holder of the benefice would receive its annual income. Benefices might be chaplaincies, pastorates, abbacies, and even bishoprics; and to win such appointments a man did not need to be a priest, only a lesser cleric.
How, then, you will ask, could these beneficed clerics carry on their job as chaplains, pastors, abbots, or bishops? They couldn’t, by themselves; they would have to pay priests or bishops to do the spiritual work in return for a slight salary. As you can see, this was a regrettable financial abuse, and one fully corrected only during the Catholic Reformation.
John received several other such benefices; but he was an earnest young man, and after ordination to the priesthood in 1445, he gave up all but one small chapel benefice. Furthermore, in that chapel he did all the work himself; he said daily Mass, and devoted himself to teaching and preaching, meanwhile living a life of austere self-denial and prayer.
After a while, realizing his need for a better education in theology, he took a four year course at the University of Salamanca. Once he had his theological degree, he began a campaign of preaching that quickly won him a reputation as a spiritual guide. Along the line, however, he was stricken with gallstones. Facing an operation, he vowed that if he recovered he would join the Augustinian friars. The operation was successful, and the Augustinians welcomed with open arms this very promising candidate.
Father John then launched a reformist program in Salamanca that proved very successful. It succeeded, not simply because he himself was well informed, wise, and eloquent, but because he upheld in his own life the high ideas that he preached to others. God granted to him also many striking spiritual gifts: an almost ecstatic devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, for instance; and an ability to read the consciences of those who confessed to him.
Here, then, was a man whose duty, like that of St. John the Baptist, was to tell off sinners for their waywardness. As we recall from the case of St. John the Baptist, straight talk can win enemies, and Friar John found this out in more than one instance. But he was no respecter of persons, and when there was need to tell off, he told off.
Preaching once at Alba, for example, he denounced rich landlords who oppressed their poor tenants. The Duke of Alba was so infuriated by the sermon that he sent two men to kill St. John. When the pair met the preacher, however, they suddenly felt remorse, told him of their awful assignment, and begged his forgiveness. At another place, where he rebuked some women for their loose life, the women started to stone him. Fortunately, he was rescued by a troop of police. At Salamanca itself, John succeeded in persuading a prominent man to break off a sinful alliance. The woman scorned would not be appeased, although the charge that he died from poison administered by her was never proved.
Yes, we do have a duty in charity at times to correct evil in others, come what may. We will not normally succeed, however, unless we have first corrected the evil in ourselves.
–Father Robert F. McNamara