Summary: St John of Capistrano, Priest. Born in Capestrano (Italy) in 1386; died on this day in 1456 at Ilok (Croatia). Though a married man and governor of Perugia, he decided to join the Friars Minor and was released from his marriage vows. Professed as a Franciscan at the age of thirty and ordained a presbyter three years later. A successful preacher, committed Franciscan reformer, zealous inquisitor in Vienna, and spiritual leader of a victorious crusade against the Ottoman forces. Noted for his preaching and austerity of life.
Patrick Duffy tells his story.
John of Capistrano was a leading figure in the Observant (strict observance of poverty) movement in the Franciscan Order in the fifteenth century. Because he rallied an army to defend Belgrade against the Turks, he is the patron of military chaplains. His zeal in persecuting Hussites and his anti-Semitic sentiments have been points of criticism of him by later historians.
Early career as lawyer and governor of Perugia
John was born in Capestrano, a medieval fortress town in the Abruzzo region, east of Rome. His father was possibly a French or German knight who came to Italy with the army of Louis I of Anjou, but he died when John was still young. John studied law at the University of Perugia and worked as a lawyer in Naples. In 1412 he was appointed governor of Perugia by King Ladislas of Naples and married the daughter of a Perugian nobleman. When war broke out between Perugia and Sigismundo Malatesta of Rimini in 1416, John tried to broker a peace, but his opponents ignored the truce, and took John as a prisoner of war.
While in prison, John had a conversion experience in which St Francis appeared to him in a dream telling him to enter the Franciscan order. His marriage had not been consummated, so with his wife’s consent John got an annulment. On the feast of St. Francis, October 4, 1415, he was received into the Franciscans of the Strict Observance at Perugia.
Although he had been a successful secular man, John cultivated extraordinary asceticism and genuine humility. A disciple of St Bernardine of Siena, after his ordination in 1418 both worked successfully as itinerant preachers throughout the Italian peninsula and later in Germany, Bohemia, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and Russia, preaching to tens of thousands.
Observants and Conventuals
At this time there was a split in the order between the Conventuals and the Observants about the interpretation of the rule of St Francis. The Conventuals stressed the value of community life and choral recitation of the Divine Office; the Observants stressed the strict observance of poverty. Bernardine and John were on the Observant side.
Accused to Rome of heresy for preaching devotion to the Holy Name, John in speaking in his defence so impressed the commission of cardinals that from then on he was frequently employed as a papal legate and as an inquisitor by Popes Eugene IV and Nicholas V, visiting all part of the empire.
As legate or inquisitor John went into action against heretical groups in Italy – the Fraticelli of Ferrara, the Jesuati of Venice – and around Europe – especially the Hussites of Germany, Hungary and Bohemia. He is also accused of anti-Semitism. His methods and attitudes were those of his time, but would not be condoned today.
Crusade against the Turks
In 1454 Pope Callistus III ordered John to preach a crusade against the Muslim Turks who under Mahomet II were then outside Belgrade. Early in 1456 he rallied an army led by the Hungarian general, John Hunyadi, to defend Belgrade. Hunyadi conquered the foe by sea on July 14. Friar John, personally headed the troops on July 21, and, invoking the Holy Name, was principally responsible for the land victory and was hailed as the “apostle of Europe.”
Death, influence and patronage
However, soon after the battle of Belgrade he took ill and died. He was canonised in 1724. Two missions of San Juan Capistrano were founded by Spanish Franciscans in the 18th century – one in California and one in San Antonio, Texas. It is the one in California that inspired the popular song When the swallows come back to Capistrano. St John of Capistrano is the patron saint of jurists and military chaplains.