St. John of Ávila Speaks to Newly Ordained Priests
In a season of ordinations, what can we learn from this saint’s example and his writings
The jubilee year for St. John of Ávila will end on May 31. Over the last few months, different festivities have marked this year celebrating the 450th anniversary of his death (1569) and the 50th since his canonization (1970).
Who was St. John of Ávila? Many of us asked ourselves that question when Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 declared him a Doctor of the Church, the first diocesan priest to hold that honor.
In his native Spain, John of Ávila is known as the Apostle of Andalusia and the patron saint of secular priests, a title given him by Pope Pius XII even before his canonization. Outside his country, though, little is known about him. Unlike his disciples and friends — St. Teresa of Ávila, St. John of God and St. Francis Borgia, each of whom had a religious community to promote their causes for canonizations — as a diocesan priest his cause lagged in the offices of many bishops and ecclesiastical figures for countless years.
John was beatified in 1894. When the Church was going through difficult times after the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI decided to declare him a saint equipollently. This was in 1970, shortly after many priests and religious had set aside their vows and promises in the aftermath of the sexual revolution and the civil unrest that characterized those turbulent years. Upon raising him to the altars, the pope explained why he decided to do so: In John of Ávila could be found “firmness in the true faith, authentic love for the Church, holiness of the clergy, fidelity to the council, and the imitation of Christ as it must be at all times.”
The council Pope Paul was referring to was the Council of Trent. The saint made an important contribution by writing lengthy documents with recommendations on what the Church needed to do to reform itself after the sad break of Martin Luther. His two “Memoriales,” as they came to be known, were read at the council by a Spanish bishop to the applause and acclaim of the council fathers. Eventually, his recommendations for the establishment of seminaries for the formation of priests and new laws for the residency of bishops in their dioceses made their way into some of the official decrees of the council.
Pearls of Wisdom
Though separated from us by almost five centuries, the fact he is a Doctor of the Church means that he has an important contribution to make, one that can continue to enlighten us even to this day. Since we are in the season of priestly ordinations during the upcoming summer months, here are some pearls of wisdom for these new brothers in Christ’s priesthood from his writings and his own example.
1. Love the Church.
John of Ávila lived at a time when the Church was in turmoil. Indulgences were being sold, there was much corruption and many priests were not being faithful to their promise of celibacy. Some reformers broke away from the Church and others were bitter in their criticism. St. John simply did what he could and left the rest to God. He prayed for the reform of the Church, wrote to bishops to make recommendations, but he continued loving the Church. Our Holy Mother Church is always in need of reform. But we must continue loving her, wrinkles and all.
2. Work for unity and reconciliation.
Jesus came to establish one Church, one flock. St. John was mindful of this, and he reminded people that divisions do not come from God. Whenever he sent his disciples on parish missions, he also recommended that, if they knew of families or people who were at odds with one another and they felt they could do something about it, they bring the parties together and advocate for reconciliation. This recommendation affirms the Church’s call to priests to be “men of communion.”
3. Remember who you are.
Priests are called to be configured to Christ, the eternal high priest. The Church speaks of the permanent character that priests acquire at ordination. Yet, it is easy to fall into activism and forget what we are called to be, who we belong to. In our contemplative prayer, we continue to draw strength for our ministry and, more importantly, preserve the unity we are called to have with the source and ultimate goal of our priesthood, our Lord Jesus Christ. The Apostle of Andalusia modeled this with the long hours he would spend before the Blessed Sacrament and the crucifix, meditating on Christ’s passion.
4. Seek the support of your brothers.
Although the concept of a presbytery was not yet present in the 16th century — a time when they were still dealing with benefices and priests attached to churches, not so much to a bishop — John of Ávila intuited that priests needed community life to support one another. He founded many “colleges” for priests where they could live together to study, pray and share in the ministry. Whenever he would send his disciples on mission, he would send them out two by two, like Jesus with his apostles. Some associations of priests in Spain and other countries follow this model and have St. John’s spirituality as the basis of their life together.
5. Simplicity of Life.
Many of the problems the Church faced in the days of our saint were due to priests and bishops focusing too much on material things. He encouraged them to live as shepherds, not as princes. He modeled this by wearing an old cassock and a torn hat. Whenever his benefactors wanted to replace these, he would say he needed to practice what he preached. In his retirement, he lived in a small house for servants rather than in the mansion of his patrons.
6. Be ready to go where you are needed.
When John of Ávila was first ordained, being the only heir of a wealthy couple, he sold everything and gave his riches to the poor. He then prepared himself to go to the New World as a missionary. As he made his way to Seville to get on a ship that would take him across the ocean, his gift for preaching and teaching was discovered and it was decided by a bishop that he would be more effective in his native Spain to protect the people from Protestant beliefs making their way through Europe. The saint was obedient to what was asked of him. The Church decided his fate and he was happy being a humble vessel of the Lord. Many of his disciples did go abroad to the New World and to Asia as missionaries. In a way, he lived his dream through them.
7. Make sure you do God’s will.
The masterpiece of St. John is his “Audi, Filia,” a book he wrote for a young lady who asked him for recommendations for her spiritual life after going to confession to him. In this lengthy work, the spiritual master writes on discernment and on the importance of listening to God’s voice in the midst of all the noise and voices we hear around us. He recommended others to have a spiritual guide, and he offered that service to many people who would seek him out for confession or spiritual direction.
8. Help others to grow in holiness.
John of Ávila was a pioneer in the universal call to holiness. His sermons and writings called for conversion and for a wholehearted commitment to following the Lord. The “constellation of saints” around him, as one of his biographers noted, speaks for itself. Holy people inspire holiness in others. Others, in turn, inspire us to give the best of ourselves.
9. Trust in God’s mercy.
Some have suggested the title of “Doctor of the Love of God” for St. John because of his “Treatise on the Love of God.” The work probably inspired St. Francis de Sales to write his since he knew the works of Master Ávila and gave his own book the same title. Though we are sinners, we should never be afraid of turning to the Lord to seek his forgiveness. In certain aspects, the writings and preaching of John of Ávila sound like those of the current vicar of Christ. No wonder St. Paul VI said of Johnthat he was a “contemporary figure.”
10. Treasure the Eucharist and the Blessed Mother.
For most saints, the Eucharist and the Blessed Mother are their main two loves. St. John was not an exception. In his final years of illnesses, it was only for major Marian feasts and Corpus Christi that he would get up to preach and celebrate Mass publicly. Somehow, he always managed to find strength for these.
Brothers, thank you for your “yes” to Christ and welcome to the adventure of the priesthood! I leave you with the following quote from St. John’s “Treatise on the Priesthood”: “The priest … is the face of the Church; and just as in the face is reflected the beauty of the entire body, likewise the clergy must be the principal beauty of the Church.”
We are not alone in our attempts to follow and make the Lord present to others. Those who intercede for us as we prostrate on the floors of our cathedrals during the rite of ordination continue to cheer us on until the day we can enjoy their friendship in heaven.
FATHER GUSTAVO CASTILLO, STD, is currently the director of spiritual formation at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California.
Pope Benedict on declaring St. John of Ávila a Doctor of the Church
In the 2012 apostolic letter “Proclaiming St. John of Ávila, diocesan priest, a Doctor of the Universal Church,” Pope Benedict XVI said:
“Thanks to his insight into the times and his excellent academic training, John of Ávila was an outstanding theologian and a true humanist. He proposed the establishment of an international court of arbitration to avoid wars and he invented and patented a number of engineering devices. Leading a life of great poverty, he devoted himself above all to encouraging the Christian life of those who readily listened to his preaching and followed him everywhere. He was especially concerned for the education and instruction of boys and young men, especially those studying for the priesthood. He founded several minor and major colleges, which after the Council of Trent would become seminaries along the lines laid down by that council. He also founded the University of Baeza, which was known for centuries for its work of training clerics and laity.
“After traveling throughout Andalusia and other regions of Central and Eastern Spain in preaching and prayer, in 1554, already ill, he finally withdrew to a simple house in Montilla (Córdoba), where he exercised his apostolate through an abundant correspondence and the preparation of several of his writings. The archbishop of Granada wanted to take John as his theological expert to the last two sessions of the Council of Trent. Prevented from traveling because of ill health, he drafted the ‘Memoriales,’ which were to have considerable influence on that great ecclesial assembly.
“John of Ávila was a contemporary, friend and counselor of great saints, and one of the most celebrated and widely esteemed spiritual masters of his time.”