May 10 marks the 450th anniversary of the death of John of Ávila.
A saint who is a virtual unknown to most Catholics, his influence was widespread in his own time — and has a great importance for our time.
Saint Pope Paul VI canonized Saint John of Ávila in 1970, and he was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 — the first diocesan priest to hold such a distinction.
Even before that, Pope Pius XII had declared him the patron of Spanish secular priests.
And in these challenging days for the priesthood and the Church, John can still provide a shining light to point the way back to faithfulness and holy living.
In his day, he was called a “Master,” and was a spiritual guide for such saints as Teresa of Ávila, Ignatius of Loyola, Peter of Alcantara and John of Ribera.
The saints John of God and Francis Borgia owed their conversion to him and turned to him constantly for spiritual direction.
Saint Francis de Sales and the Curé of Ars, Saint John Vianney, said they benefited from his writings. It is likely also that the 20th-century Spaniard, Saint Josemaria Escrivá, drank from his spiritual fountain.
Ordained in 1526, only nine years after Martin Luther had broken away from the Church, John’s initial plan was to sail off for the “New World” as a missionary.
But with the threat of Protestantism looming in Spain, John’s superiors decided his pastoral zeal and spirituality would better serve his home country. He began preaching and catechizing adults and children throughout the cities of the southern Iberian peninsula, eventually earning the title, the “Apostle of Andalusia.”
Mindful that he could only do so much on his own, he surrounded himself with other diocesan priests who wanted to defend and spread the Catholic faith.
They started calling him “Master Ávila,” and he founded colleges and residences that formed generations of preachers and confessors who evangelized throughout Reformation-era Spain and beyond.
He was so inspiring and effective that Saint Ignatius of Loyola tried to woo him over to the Jesuits. But it was not meant to be.
Master Ávila’s zeal proved to be contagious.
In Cordoba, more than 20 diocesan priests followed his lead and began living together as a community, inspired by John’s simplicity of life and commitment to the gospel.
As John’s health began to decline, many of his disciples did join the Jesuits and the Carmelites. Others moved to new dioceses where they could continue to sow the seeds of sanctity and faith, as they had learned from him.
In his later years, Church leaders turned to John for help in the long-term renewal of the priesthood.
While he could not attend the Council of Trent due to his poor health, John contributed two important treatises that guided the conversations of the Council Fathers and proved fruitful for the future of the Church.
His work was instrumental in the establishment of seminaries to form future priests, and in the shaping the ministry of bishops in their dioceses. Building on his own experience, John also emphasized the importance of catechisms and religious education for children and adults.
His main recommendation, though, was the reform of the Church through holiness, starting at the top.
John did not hesitate to lovingly and respectfully recommend that the pope lead renewal through his own witness, to set an example that would inspire bishops, priests, and faithful alike. He was onto something here.
It is well-known that Martin Luther left the Church because of the decadence he saw in it. The popes known to Luther and John seemed more focused on buildings and administration than on spiritual matters and care of souls. The last pope to be canonized before the Reformation lived more than 200 years earlier, Saint Pope Celestine V.
But in the wake of the Council of Trent, a new springtime was soon felt in the universal Church, beginning with the saintly Pope Pius V, who began implementing the Tridentine reform.
In Italy, the great archbishop Saint Charles Borromeo made a deep mark with his teachings on holiness and renewal and his founding of multiple seminaries. In France, besides Saint Francis de Sales, there were Saint Vincent de Paul, Saint John Eudes and others who brought about lasting reforms through holiness and commitment to the gospel.
In Peru, Saint Turibius of Mogrovejo called synods to plant the true Faith in the newly discovered continent. In Asia and other mission territories, the Jesuits threw themselves to evangelize and make converts for the Lord.
In some way, we can see all of this as building on the bricks that John had laid for the renewal of the Church. Even in generations to come he would continue to find admirers in pioneering and reform-minded leaders, such as Saint Alphonsus Liguori and Saint Anthony Mary Claret.
In difficult times, it is wise to turn to credible witnesses for guidance and renewal.
As he noted, John was a pioneer in highlighting the universal call to holiness, developing an authentic spirituality for priests, and advocating for true reform in the Church.
In declaring him a Doctor of the Church in 2012, Benedict was aware that he was lifting up a saint who guided many souls to a deeper relationship with the Lord and to conversion of life and an outstanding model of the diocesan priesthood.
The fact that John turned down several opportunities to become a bishop and even a cardinal, shows him to be the kind of humble evangelizer that Pope Francis wants to hold up in our times.
This jubilee year of the Master’s death is a great opportunity for the shepherds in the Church today to renew themselves under the guidance and inspiration of this great spiritual master.
Father Gustavo Castillo is a Los Angeles priest and director of spiritual formation at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo. His book, “Shepherding the Family of God: The Spirituality of Diocesan Priests in St. John of Ávila,” will soon be published by the Institute of Priestly Formation.
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