Lifelong CatechesisForming Catholic identity across generations
The twofold character of Advent calls us to prepare for the remembering of the Word made Flesh at Christmas, and directs us to wait with alertness for Jesus’ second coming.
John of the Cross, Priest and Doctor, 1542-1591
Juan Yepes was the youngest of three sons born to Gonzalo and Catalina Yepes. Gonzalo had come from a wealthy Spanish family, while Catalina, an orphan, had been taken into the home of a widow. The Yepes family objected to the marriage of these two and warned Gonzalo that he would be disinherited if he went through with it. The two young lovers ignored the warning and were married in about 1529.
As threatened, Gonzalo was cut off from his family and the family business which he had been a part of. This made the young family largely dependent on Catalina’s embroidery and those odd jobs which Gonzalo could perform, all of which provided meager support.
The situation for the family worsened when Juan was about two. The strain of trying to support his family and the sorrow at the loss of contact with the relatives he had known in his youth caused Gonzalo to become ill, a condition which worsened until his death about two years later. While the brothers tried to help, Juan, at his young age, was capable of only the simplest chores.
When Juan was about nine years old, his family moved to Medina del Campo where the young boy worked at a hospital and began his studies at a Jesuit school. The hospital administrator, Don Alvarez, noting the boy’s sincerity and eagerness to help, offered Juan the opportunity to become a nurse at the hospital. Juan quickly jumped at the chance, believing it would allow him to provide more help to his mother and family.
The hospital handled many incurable patients and those with contagious diseases. Where other workers tended to shy away from these cases, Juan did his best to provide them with the care that they needed. Juan had a special affinity for those patients who had no close family to comfort them. He would tell stories and sing songs to the patients to bring some cheer into their lives.
All of this, while giving Juan a taste of how harsh life can become, also brought him quickly to maturity. But, as might be expected, he treasured the times when he could retreat to a loft of a barn on the hospital grounds where he could study. Don Alvarez, having observed Juan’s intensity and eagerness to learn over several years, offered to put him into a new Jesuit school where he found a new mentor.
Fr. Juan Bonifacio, a young Jesuit, introduced Juan to Latin and Spanish classics and planted the seeds of a vocation during Juan’s four years of study which began in 1559. Upon graduating from the Jesuit school, Juan decided to join the Carmelite order.
Ordained in 1567, Juan elected to join the Carthusians, a very strict order that emphasized solitary and silent contemplation, but before he could do this, he returned to Medina del Campo where a companion introduced him to Saint Teresa of Avila. This future saint told Fr. Juan of her efforts to introduce reforms into the Carmelite order which had become very lax over time and persuaded him to delay his move to the Carthusians.
Fascinated by the saint’s plan for reform, something he had tried unsuccessfully to do within his own community, Juan remained in the Carmelite order and worked at introducing similar change. Over the next ten years, Juan traveled around Spain founding monasteries and establishing the rules under which they would be governed. Those Carmelites who followed the revisions brought about by these two saints became known as Discalced (barefoot) Carmelites. It was during this period that Juan became known as Juan de la Cruz (John of the Cross).
While many Carmelites joined Fr. Juan with the discalced group, there remained much dissension. In 1577, his superiors ordered him to return to his original posting, but, having been assigned to his mission by the Apostolic Nuncio, Fr. Juan refused. The superiors then had him abducted and carried to Toledo where he was imprisoned. During his nine month imprisonment, he received public whippings at least weekly. This humiliation inspired some of the poetry which he wrote later in his life.
Escaping from his small cell in August 1578, Fr. Juan went on with his mission and continued to establish new monasteries for the Discalced Carmelites, but the controversy persisted. He became ill and as this illness worsened, he was moved to the monastery at Ubeda. Even there, he was treated cruelly which was the answer to his prayer, “to suffer and be despised.” In the waning days of his life, even his adversaries recognized the holiness of their founder and, upon his death, the order celebrated his life of saintliness.
Saint John of the Cross was canonized in 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII. He was named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI in 1926. This saint is the patron of contemplatives, mystics and mystical theology, and Spanish poets. He is honored by a memorial on December 14.
John’s message today: Early in his life, John of the Cross learned to deny himself in order to bring himself closer to God. Few of us have had the experience of poverty and hardship experienced by John, but all of us can bring ourselves closer to God by prayer and self-denial.