Carmona, in the Spanish providence of Andalusia, was the birthplace of John Grande. After his father’s death, when he was only 15, John was sent to Seville, learned the ways of the linen trade, and was set up in business in his home town, apparently by a Sevillian relative.
But John was anything but a born shopkeeper; his eyes were on more heavenly things. So when he was only 22, he gave his goods away to the poor and went to live in a hermitage outside Marchena. There he dedicated himself to seeking perfection. John was already noted for his goodness of character; he, on the contrary, claimed that he was monstrously unworthy. Playing on his own surname, “Grande”, he replaced it with the name “El Grande Pecador” (“the Great Sinner”) Ever after, Andalusia knew him by this substitute name.
His quest for perfection and his natural tenderness led him from prayer and penance into works of mercy. He once encountered two sick tramps along the highway. These he mercifully took into his little hermitage and nursed back to health, begging funds for them. Soon other such unfortunates pleaded for his assistance. It was now revealed to him that this was his vocation–to serve God in the persons of the needy.
On the strength of this conviction, he left his hermitage and went to the wine-making town of Xeres, Portugal. Here he obtained permission to serve those in jail. For the next three years he ministered to them in every way possible, working under wretched conditions. Though badly treated, he was able to move the hearts of many calloused criminals to repentance.
Then John moved into the hospital at Xeres. Because of his devotion towards the neglected patients, he incurred the jealousy and persecution of those in charge of the hospital. But others saw and appreciated what he was trying to do. Two wealthy admirers established a new hospital themselves and gave him charge over it. Many selfless young men offered to help El Grande Pecador. To ensure continuity in the hospital staff, John himself enrolled in the nursing Order of St. John of God. John of God had died in Seville when John Grande was a small child, but this nursing order was already becoming international.
Blessed John did not limit his attention to the sick and imprisoned. Whenever any need was perceived, he answered it. Abandoned kids, poor girls who needed dowries, fugitive soldiers. All these received-from him the gentlest and most helpful aid. He was also recipient of high mystical gifts: ecstasy (sometimes at unexpected and embarrassing times); prophet (he is said to have predicted the defeat of the Spanish Armada).
Yet solicitude for the sick was John’s most characteristic concern. In 1600 Xeres was stricken with a terrible epidemic. The Great Sinner sallied forth to do his part. He himself became a victim of this plague, dying of the infection at the age of 54.
John the Sinner had fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, sheltered the homeless, visited the ill and those in prison. He had gone still further in charity, laying down his life for his brothers. And all this he had done for Christ whom he saw mirrored in the eyes of the helpless. Thus he deserved more than many to be greeted at heaven’s gate by the welcome, “Come … Inherit the kingdom.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara