Saint John of God's feast day is celebrated on March 8.
It is said that from the time he was eight to the day he died, John of God followed every impulse of his heart. But unlike many who act impulsively, when John made a decision, no matter how quickly, he stuck with it, no matter the hardship.
When John was eight years old, in 1503, a visiting priest spoke of the adventures that lay outside his home town in Portugal. That very night John ran away from home and followed the priest to Oropeza, Spain. There he fell sick and was nursed back to health by the manager of a large estate who adopted him. John stayed and worked as a shepherd in the mountains until he was 27. Feeling pressure to marry the manager's daughter, John took off to join the Spanish army in the war against France. As a soldier, he was hardly a model of holiness, taking part in the gambling, drinking, and pillaging that his comrades enjoyed. One day, he was thrown from a stolen horse near French lines. Frightened that he would be captured or killed, he reviewed his life and vowed to make a change.
When he returned John kept his spur of the moment vow, made a confession, and immediately changed his life. His comrades didn't mind so much that John was repenting, but hated that he wanted them to give up their pleasures too. In revenge, they used his impulsive nature to trick him into leaving his post on the pretext of helping someone in need. He was rescued from hanging at the last minute and thrown out of the army after being beaten and stripped. He begged his way back to his foster-home where he worked as a shepherd until he heard of a new war with Moslems invading Europe. Off he went. After the war was over, he decided to try to find his real parents. To his grief he discovered both had died in his absence.
As John was searching to discover God's call, he gave himself wholeheartedly wherever he saw someone in distress. He was a servant to a noble family in exile in Africa, earning money by building fortifications, which was grueling, inhuman work. Returning to Spain at the advice of a confessor, he unloaded ship cargoes during the day and spent his nights visiting churches and reading spiritual books. Reading gave him so much pleasure, he became a book peddler, traveling from town to town selling religious books and holy cards. A vision at age 41 told him to go to Granada.
After hearing a sermon from the famous John of Avila on repentance, John of God was so overcome by the thought of his sins that he gave away all his money and went about the town in loud weeping. The whole town thought the little bookseller had gone from simple eccentricity to madness. He was the target of insults, jokes, and even stones and mud slinging from the townspeople and their children. Finally he was brought to the Royal Hospital where he was interned with the lunatics. John suffered the standard treatment of the time -- he was tied down and whipped daily. John of God suffered this to be in union with the passion of Our Lord until John of Avila assured him his penance had gone on long enough and had John moved to a better part of the hospital. Although still a patient, John began to help the other sick people around him. Finally he realized God wanted him to start a hospital for the poor, so he left the hospital and began earning money by selling wood in the town square. At night he took what little money he earned and brought food and comfort to the poor living in abandoned buildings and under bridges. This was John's first hospital: the streets of Granada.
Finally obtaining a house, he begged for furnishings and medicine. Then he went out in the streets and carried his ill patients on his own shoulders to their new home. Once there he cleaned them, dressed their wounds, and mended their clothes at night while he prayed. He used his old experience as a peddler to beg alms, crying through the streets in his peddler's voice, "Do good to yourselves! For the love of God, Brothers, do good!" John was criticized because his impulsive love embraced anyone in need without asking for credentials. His urge to act immediately when he saw need got him into trouble more than a few times. Once, when he encountered a group of starving people, he rushed into a house, stole a pot of food, and gave it to them. He was almost arrested for that charity! But his impulsive will to help enabled him singlehandedly to save all the patients from a hospital that was on fire. Although he was seen to fall from the roof into the burning building he appeared miraculously out of the smoke.
Trying to save a young boy who fell into the river, John caught pneumonia and, kneeling in prayer, he died on March 8, his fifty-fifth birthday, of the same impulsive love that had guided his whole life. John of God is patron saint of booksellers, printers, heart patients, hospitals, nurses, the sick, and firefighters and is considered the founder of the Brothers Hospitallers.
Adapted from various lives of Saint John of God