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JOSE MANUEL BENGOA

JOHN OF SAHAGUN
SOWER OF PEACE

Our Augustinian Saints / 3

1. In Sahagun a. Birth The biography of Saint John of Sahagun is based on the writings of two Augustinian friars, both of whom, like our subject, were professed religious in Saint Augustine convent in Salamanca, Spain. Friar John of Seville, eyewitness of many of the events that the saint lived, is the first. Saint Alonso de Orozco, compiler and depository of the immediate oral tradition of those events, is the second. Neither one nor the other, though, has transmitted to us the exact date of the birth of our personage. This silence, notwithstanding, we can affirm that towards the year 1430, the couple Juan Gonzalez de Castrillo and Sancha Martinez is blessed with the birth of their firstborn, John. With complete faith, they had pleaded God through the intercession of our Lady, whom her devotees invoke in Sahagun as Holy Mary of the Bridge. After John would come Maria, Hernando, Juana, Luis, another girl whose name we ignore, and lastly, Martin. As we can see, they are a big and generous family, like the plain, that, presided over by the 3

tower of Sahagun, is watered by the Cea and Valderaduey rivers. But it is not only this ancient town of the kingdom of Leon that prides itself in having such a prominent son as protector. The universal and scholarly Salamanca, too, in public and solemn avowal made before a notary, received on the fifth day of this month of June 1622 the blessed and glorious John of Sahagun as its patron, protector and special advocate. It had reasons to do so, as we shall see. Moreover, by this time, Salamanca already knew of the beatification of the Augustinian friar by Pope Clement VIII on 19 June of 1601. Sahagun and Salamanca: two milestones that embrace the earthly pilgrimage of our saint. From the first he takes his own surname. To the second he belongs by predilection. If Salamanca chooses him for itself, it is because Friar John had first chosen the people of Salamanca.

b. Formation We will leave Salamanca for later. Let us talk first about Johns childhood and adolescence, sheltered in the cloister of the Benedictine monastery of Saints Facundus and Primitivus of his native town. Here the lad studied humanities, 4

which undoubtedly helped him decide to embrace the clerical life. In effect, he received the minor orders, and, having decided to become a priest, he began his theological studies. To finance the expenses these entailed, he accepted, on the advice and influence of his father, the ecclesiastical benefice of the neighboring town of Codornillos. But this setup which, in everyones opinion, was not only licit and normal but also perfectly appropriate, left John dissatisfied. And, not wanting to prolong it further, he left the ancestral home and sought the protection of the Bishop of Burgos.

2. In Burgos a. Canon and almoner The prelate of Burgos was Bishop Alfonso de Cartagena. He was endowed with such outstanding traits that, in the opinion of Hernando del Pulgar, he must be counted among the Eminent Men of Castile. John joined the house of such a personage as page. He was able to prove himself so well in this school of virtue and learning that Bishop Alfonso ordained him priest in the year 1453. 5

The aptitude of the young priest moved the prelate to grant him a canonry in the Burgos cathedral, aside from other benefices. In addition, others were granted John by the Benedictine abbot of the Sahagun monastery. The not insubstantial revenues from these sinecures canon John employed not for his own comfort, but as confirmed by many witnesses, to generously help the poor. b. He leaves everything in order to preach All this notwithstanding, John was not happy. That same impulse, which drove him to renounce his benefice in Leon, now made him free himself from what he considered hindrances to a more intimate relationship with God and a selfless commitment to people. He therefore decided to give up canonry and benefices, although for love and gratitude to his prelate he obliged not to leave him. He accepted the church of Santa Gadea in the city, a sacred precinct not unfamiliar to oaths and loyalties. There he would dedicate himself to the ministry of preaching. But the just fame that his sermons earned him, like the stir created by his renouncing of so many prebends, did not assuage John's spirit. 6

On 22 June 1546 his illustrious and generous protector, Alfonso de Cartagena, died, one of the most brilliant minds during the reign of the Castilian king John II. Now John could cut the last tie, which hindered him from following the inner movement of the Holy Spirit. He felt called to spread the Word of God through preaching. But he saw the need for a serious preparation in sacred studies, which would enable him to explain that Word with dignity and effectiveness, so as to move the hearts of sinners to conversion. For those reasons John transferred to Salamanca. There he frequented the university halls, enrolling in canon law in 1457. 3. In Salamanca a. City of gangs and clashes The Salamanca which John found in mid-15th century resembled an armed castle and square, rather than the home and seat of culture. The citys nobles had opted to employ their energies in intramural feuds. Not for them the business of the spirit. They did not realize that the channel for so much wasted energy was toward southern Spain, against the Moors. 7

So much repressed energy piled up such a tension in the city that the kings, resolute patrons of the development of the university, permitted its transferto any town or city in their realm if its work was hindered by the clash of arms. Such foresight proved unnecessary. A factor of this happy outcome was, doubtless, the cleric who swapped the banks of Arlanzon River with the fertile valley by the Tormes River. b. At Anaya College Despite the precarious situation, John did not abandon the preaching ministry. The sermon he delivered at San Sebastian parish on its patronal feast paved his entry to San Bartolome College. This is the first college established around Salamanca University. Proof of its stature is that Cardinal Cisneros took it as model when later he founded his own college in Alcala. John of Sahagun was appointed as its chaplain, with the duty of celebrating Holy Mass every other day for its fifteen poor and devout scholars. Of his stay there, we can only affirm that his presence and activity sanctified the college. Some historians situate during this period numerous miraculous events related to the chaplain: the brilliant cypress that illumines him as he prays the canonical hours, the olive tree that 8

straightens up to let him pass Both traditions, posterior to the times of the saint, underscore, in his devotees eyes, the tender charity with which John conducted himself in favor of the young scholars of the college. c. Preacher of the city However, the secluded life of the scholar did not shield John of Sahagun from the events and disturbances that were rocking the city. The clatter of fights and brawls involving the nobles reached his ears. He had obtained a bachelors degree in theology and was now studying canon law. Those around him knew the many virtues that adorned his soul. For this reason, when he had to leave the college after finishing his studies, they sought his appointment as official preacher of the city. And they got it. Thus, the residents of Salamanca bolstered Johns poor and penitent life. For they not only followed his sermons with interest and enthusiasm, they were above all sensitive to the constant call to penance that through his life he preached everywhere. The city was in dire need of such preaching, divided as it was by the terrible conflicts among rival families. John became in word and in work the tireless apostle of reconciliation. He preached tirelessly. 9

He fearlessly castigated sin. He administered the sacrament of penance. He attended to the sick. He welcomed the disinherited. The people saw in him the providential saint and started publicly to attribute numerous miracles to him. 4. Back to the cloister for sickness a. The final crisis A grave illness, which brought John at deaths doors, forced him to end so many good works. In addition to works that wasted his body, he was also afflicted in spirit by great moral suffering. Of the former, stone sickness, or gall deposits, he was treated by doctors Medina and Recio the Elder. Of the latter, vowing to enter religious life saved him. In effect, he who renounced wealth in his early years and bade good-bye to honors in his youth was prepared to relinquish his free will to his religious superior. An observant community in Salamanca was Saint Augustine monastery. John felt drawn to it, and on 18 June 1463, before the whole community, he received from the Father Prior the black habit of the Augustinian Order.

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b. Observant and prudent novice John was now 33 years old. He was an exemplary priest. During the novitiate year his life of prayer, asceticism and commitment continued unchanged. Except for one detail, an important one: the widespread applause and public praise of his many virtues are replaced by the hidden observance of community obligations. Thus, the brilliant sacred orator now served his brothers by attending to the common refectory. And if the hand of God were not clearly visible in this conversion, adorning it is the pious tradition of the miracle of the cask that never ran out of wine. The Augustinian historian Vidal testified two centuries later that the cask of Saint John of Sahagun was still kept in the Salamanca monastery. Of greater import is the declaration of Antolinez, the saint's biographer; he wrote that John finished his novitiate not standing out nor practicing extreme fasting and other penances, but by observing exactly the rules of our Father and the practices of that monastery. We must add to this testimony that of another biographer, Camara, who wrote: Avoiding singularity and solitary and suspicious ways, and esteeming more than anything the practices of their own institute, is how religious persons will 11

progress and efficaciously encourage others to follow their steps. It is therefore no surprise that, with everyones concurrence, the novice John of Sahagun professed his religious vows on 28th August 1464, before the venerable father John of Salamanca. Friar John of Sahagun was now and for always a son of the Order of St. Augustine. 5. The pacifier a. In the city A simple glance at the map of 16th century Salamanca shows that some of its streets are named after miracles attributed to the saintly Augustinian friar. This detail makes us immediately infer John of Sahaguns connection to the city on the Tormes. That however is not what best proves the inseparable union between the two. The bonds that truly unite them, those of gratitude and devotion, are rooted in the great grace that God granted the city through the efforts and intercession of the saint: internal peace. Let us see how it came about. In the very days when John was enjoying the peace of his novitiate, the agitated residents of Salamanca only experienced disorders and 12

scandals. The protagonist was Dame Maria de Monroy, a noble widow in whose care were left three sons, practically only boys, offspring of her brief marriage with the lord of Villalba, Enrique of Enriquez. The noble lady herself witnessed how the Manzano brothers, their friends and playmates until then, killed the two youths. The murderers fled to Portugal. Maria coldly plotted revenge. She carried it out with thorough cunning, her long arm crossing the border of the neighboring kingdom to deal a grisly end to the life of the Manzano brothers. Such was the impact of this event that history since then remembers Maria de Monroy with the label of the Ferocious. The king intervened, but warnings and punishments proved futile. Emotions went fever pitch as the masses rallied behind either the Manzanos or the Monroys. The parishes of Saint Benedict and Saint Thome served as assembly points of the former and the latter, respectively, as well as password of the order for vengeance. The poet Armendariz accurately described the tense atmosphere reigning in the city: Manzanos, Monroys. 13 To Saint Benedict came the proud And to Saint Thome the riotous

he guards

Each one with his emblem his turf

And in the public square, desolate, the grass grows. How could Friar John remain indifferent to his brothers affliction? The prophetic spirit, always present in the Church of Christ, took flesh in the fragile and unarmed person of the Augustinian friar. Love for peace led him to preach the Law of God in the houses of the prominent leaders, now stoutly admonishing them now speaking gently, pleading from the grieving families forgiveness of the enemy. b. Around the towns The peacemaking preaching of the Augustinian friar was not confined to the city of Salamanca. The evil weed of violence and injustice had spread all over the province. The town of Alba de Tormes also heard Friar John. Its first duke, Garcia of Toledo, resented the diminutive friars admonitions. He was so shamed and angered by the scathing truths that he schemed to punish the bold friar. Providentially, however, Friar John came out unharmed from the ambush prepared for him on his return to Salamanca. His reaction was so evangelical that the duke was converted 14

and thereafter became the saints friend and penitent. On another occasion the saint of Sahagun experienced anew how a preachers Spirit-filled words do not earn royal prerogatives. Biographer Camara described what happened in the town of Ledesma thus: The fervent preacher had to reprehend vehemently the excesses of the knights and nobles who, abusing their power and wealth, maltreated the hapless tenants and dependents, mindful neither of their difficulties and abasement, nor that as Christians, they shared the same heavenly Father. In addition to this coarse treatment, they also scandalized the populace with their libertine ways. Friar John's listeners were so vexed that they had the authorities immediately and angrily expel him from the town. c. The dawning of peace Good seed sown on soil that is fertile always produces fruit. It was the Word of God that Friar John spread among the furrows, and the heart of the residents of Salamanca was the good soil. Though they were violent and impulsive, not unlike the age in which they lived, their faith however was robust. For this reason success crowned the labor of those who, amidst this 15

disorder, were moved by the Spirit to construct peace. In the end, forgiveness was achieved. In the year 1476, the undersigned knights, shield-bearers and other people of the Saint Benedict and Saint Thome gangs of the city of Salamanca committed themselves to all form one and the same kindred and true friendship and accord and union. They firmly resolved to do whatever they could to quash any question or litigation that might arise among the signatories; and that, should one arise, they wanted it to be resolved by the decision of the judges, who shall punish whomever should break the agreed clauses. As a perpetual memorial of such a happy event, what was till then called House of Battles, the residence of Alvaro de Paz, where tradition says this armistice was signed, would thereafter be known as the House of Concord.

6. The Augustinian Friar a. Activities The information we have about Saint John as Augustinian friar is unfortunately scanty. This scarcity can be explained satisfactorily. The assertion made by Antolinez about John the 16

novice also applies here: he is neither outstanding nor outlandish, but is a faithful and exact observer of the rule of Saint Augustine and the practices of his monastery. We do know that in 1471, seven years after his profession, Friar John was appointed councilor of the Province of Castile and prior of his monastery in Salamanca. Then followed a period during which, freed from high positions, he worked to achieve and consolidate the aforementioned concord. But in 1477 he was again assigned the same posts that years earlier had been imposed on him. b. His spirituality Of his interior life we know less still. Nevertheless, with the aid of his first biographers, we can detect two traits that, among others, somewhat clearly plot the progress of his spiritual life. His intense love for the mystery of the Eucharist is a known fact. He is most frequently portrayed holding the host and chalice. According to eyewitnesses, Friar John celebrated the mass amidst raptures and consolations; these increased so much that the delay upset those assisting him. He would apologize and explain away the inconvenience by assuring that in the holy 17

sacrament he learned the things about which he preached afterwards. The frequent, even daily, reception of the sacrament of penance is a second fundamental trait of Saint John of Sahaguns spirituality. He would ask for it so assiduously to the point of being irksome. I ask the father confessors these are his words, recorded by Saint Alonso de Orozco to forgive me, for I can bear it no longer. Confession quietens my soul, since I know not whether I am worthy of Gods abhorrence or love. And because penance is the sure way to heaven, I use it for that purpose. I use it often so as to guarantee my salvation. From these witnesses we deduce that Friar Johns personal way of living his Christian vocation in religious life was one befitting a friar docile to Church teaching on the sanctifying efficacy of the sacraments. He saw in the sacraments of the real presence of Christ and the reconciliation with God and with the Church the solid pillars on which to construct his spiritual edifice. Around these pillars and as their natural outgrowth would blossom constant prayer and a prudent and generous asceticism. Thus our saint was able to live with a liberated heart, always ready to help and assist the most needy, moved 18

by zeal that people might fully possess the God who is in Christ and saves through Christ. 7. Death of Friar John In May of 1479, Friar John became seriously ill. Nobody could say certainly, but there was common rumor in the city that his sickness was caused by poison. It was said that his compelling preaching had convinced a young man to end a sinful relationship. The spurned lady swore revenge and she did not stop, it was said, until death sealed the lips that spoke clearly and vigorously to thwart her seductive cunning. What is certain is that the saint died on 11 June. With Friar Johns voice silenced, numerous miracles that occurred at his grave, which was left open under the choir of the monasterys church, started to speak for him. Collected in a most truthful report by the venerable priest John of Seville, those miracles were the basis of the processes commenced and carried on in Rome. The outcome was Clement VIIIs brief, which allowed public veneration of blessed John. His Augustinian brothers continued working to achieve the canonization of the humble Salamanca friar and sought and obtained the mediation of kings and cardinals, bishops and universities. 19

As the years went by, the juridical difficulties increased. But all were successfully surmounted, and the canonical process progressed. Finally, Pope Alexander VIII, with the unanimous consent of his consistory, decided on 16 October 1690 to raise the Augustinian Blessed to the sainthood. It fell, however, on his successor Innocent XII, to promulgate the bull of canonization, on 15 July 1691. 8. Saint John of Sahagun and Salamanca From the date of Friar John of Sahaguns death to the day his glorious canonization was communicated to the Catholic world, more than two hundred years had passed. When the news reached the banks of the Tormes River, Salamanca's joy knew no bounds. The city inhabitants reveled in religious and popular festivities. The city, cradle of arts and letters, is now also hailed as home to saints. Such were the solemnity of the religious acts, the brilliance of the academic events and the enthusiasm of popular rejoicing that in that year, 1691, more than two hundred thousand visitors came to town. Even the students skipped their vacations and stayed in the city to join and enjoy the festivities, which they had organized in the saint's honor. 20

Thus did the people of Salamanca honor him who, through word and example, was able to pacify hearts and rectify comportment. John of Sahagun was able, simply by following the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth, to usher Salamanca society out of the night of hatred into the dawn of forgiveness. As perennial memorial of the perpetual bond between the saint from Sahagun and Salamanca, his relics, kept in a silver urn, are piously venerated in its new cathedral. For this reason, the city on the Tormes commemorates the humble religious every 12th of June. And it commends itself to his protection before almighty God.

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Principal dates 1430 Saint John was Sahagun, province of Leon, Spain 1453 Burgos born in

He was ordained priest in

1457 He transferred to Salamanca to study in the university 1463, 18 Jun He received the Augustinian habit at Saint Augustine monastery, Salamanca He made his religious He was appointed councilor of the province of Castile and prior of Saint Augustine monastery city of

1464, 28 Aug profession 1471

1476 Pacification of the Salamanca, thanks to the saints efforts 1477

He was appointed councilor of the province of Castile and prior of the Salamanca monastery for the second time

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1479, 11 June by poisoning 1601, 19 June

He died, most probably He was beatified by Pope Clement VIII. The city of Salamanca named him its patron and protector He was canonized by The bull of canonization was promulgated. Salamanca celebrated it with splendid festivities.

1690, 16 Oct. Alexander VIII 1691, 15 July

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