St. John of God was born in Portugal in 1495. He was kidnapped by a stranger when he was eight, and was later abandoned to live on the streets in a remote part of Spain.
John worked as a shepherd until he was 22, when he joined the army of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. For 18 years, he served as a foot soldier, fighting against the French and then the Turks. He began to lose the piety of his youth. Although he had occasional twinges from his conscience, he continued to live a life of violence and plundering, but he continued to have a love for the poor and distressed.
On two occasions, John was saved from imminent death, once after praying instinctively to the Virgin Mary after he was wounded in enemy territory, and once when he was falsely suspected of theft and nearly executed.
When his regiment was disbanded, he took a pilgrimage to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela Cathedral along the Way of St. James. He confessed his sins, and began living a life of repentance. John returned to Portugal, and learned that his mother had died, brokenhearted from his loss, and his father had become a Franciscan monk.
At age 42, John returned to Spain, again working as a shepherd, and living out his faith. He went to North Africa, helping Christians who had been enslaved by Muslims. But he returned to Spain, selling religious books and goods, encouraging his customers to live their faith.
After this, John gave himself entirely to the poor and sick. He opened up his house, establishing a hospital, homeless shelter, and halfway-house, which he ran himself. He begged to raise money for the poor he took care of. The bishop of Granada approved of his work, calling him “John of God.” A group of volunteers joined him.
When his past sins came to light from those who resented him, John acknowledged them humbly and called his life a testament to God’s grace.
For 15 years, John served the poor and sick, before dying through an act of charity. He saved a drowning man in a freezing river, but was weakened from the ordeal. The bishop of Granada administered last rites to John in his own hospital bed, then John knelt before the cross and died in prayer, with his face pressed against the figure of Christ, on March 7, 1550.
St. John of God was canonized in 1690, and is the patron saint of booksellers, hospitals, and the dying.
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