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Saint John Berchmans - Jesuit Saint

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

John Berchmans, I thought I would cover all the young Jesuit saints to make sure that I didn't slight any of them. St. John Berchmans was born in 1599 in Berbont, Belgium and died in Rome in 1621 at the ripe age of twenty-two. Unlike Saints Stanislaus and Aloysius who were members of the nobility, aristocratic, wealthy – John was from a very ordinary family. His father was a shoemaker, which I think is quite ordinary. His mother was never well, which mainly explains why he was brought up by a Premonstratensian priest by the name of Father Peter Emerick who taught him his religion, other subjects, and was in the habit of visiting shrines of which there are quite a few in northern Europe. At thirteen, as the younger children were coming along, the father told John to leave school, stop his education, and work in the shoemaking shop. John protested that he wanted to become a priest and shoemaking is not the usual apprenticeship to the priesthood. In any case the father compromised by getting John a job working in a rectory, cleaning, waiting on table, washing dishes and being paid for his education at a local seminary. The priest in charge of the rectory was quite different from Father Emerick. This one didn't take him to shrine; he took him out hunting. In any case, John, in 1615 – that would be the age of sixteen – entered the Jesuit college at Maleen in Belgium. In reading, however, the seminary where he was, there was a risk between the officials of the seminary and the Jesuits for having taken this bright, young, promising seminarian from their hands. A year later he applied for the Jesuits – his father objected, but, let him go. By now you are used to Jesuit's writing. John Berchmans wrote many letters. We have a copy of the letter he wrote to his mother and father asking them to visit him which was quite a distance, even though Belgium is a small country by modern standards. "I humbly ask you" he says "dear father and mother to be so good as to come here on Wednesday evening" – he told them when to come, even suggested how to travel, certain coach or a certain wagon – "so that I may say welcome and goodbye to you and you to me, so you can give your son back to the good Lord, who gave me to you." This reminds me that when I entered the Jesuits after finishing my university education, with a widowed mother, I thought to myself – this would be cruel, leaving her all alone. When I told her, she gave me a piece of her mind, 'you go.' "Okay, mother, I'll go, I just figured maybe you wanted me to be around." I came back to visit her in our home in Cleveland seven years later. John Berchmans never saw his parents again. His model from the novitiate days on, really became the standard of his life and in one short sentence summarizes his whole outlook on Christianity, 'set great store on little things', 'set great store on little things.' He was in the habit from his novitiate days having been encouraged to do so, to write. He wrote, for example, a long analysis (I think I saw a copy of Alphonosus Rodriquez’ “Principles of Christian Perfection.” I think they're on your shelf there – there are three big volumes.) Anyhow, among other things John Berchmans wrote a nice synthesis analysis of those three volumes for his future reference. His mother died shortly after he entered the novitiate. His father then went on to study for the priesthood and was ordained and proceeded to die shortly after his ordination. By this time he had taken his first vows which is – you know in the Society of Jesus we never speak of temporary vows because we don't take them; our first vows after two years in the novitiate are perpetual. We are the only order in the Catholic Church that have been given the rare privilege of never taking temporary vows. I have the draft of the proposed forthcoming Code of Canon Law to be published, most likely, so the latest word is, first Sunday of Advent. In any case, John Berchmans took his first vows which were perpetual and because he was to start his philosophy studies after taking his first vows and the studies were to be made in Rome – how do you get to Rome from Antwerp in Belgium. He was told, 'you walk.' It took him ten weeks. He made it which partially explains his short life. He did his studies under a famous Father Chipovy in Rome, his first letter, John Berchmans first biographer.

The report on his talent or ability shortly after his death by those who were his teachers was that he had extraordinary ability, intellectual ability, capable of taking and mastering several subjects at once that his enthusiasm for studies was unequaled. Now, my friends, having spent so many years in studies, having taught so many Jesuits for so many years, anyone who has enthusiasm about his studies deserves to be canonized.

Another of his fellow Jesuits who knew him observed that 'after Saint Aloysius, I never knew a young man of more exemplary life, purer conscience or greater perfection than John Berchmans. In other words, he had a reputation for being a very holy person already at a young age. Number twenty in my notes, it just keeps me from mixing things up. Here's a quotation from St. John Berchmans that every Jesuit has memorized. Let me give you the Latin first. It sounds so nice—“meus maxime mortificatsio est vita communis.” --my greatest mortification is community life. I repeat there is no statement of any saints that a Jesuit will not agree with more heartily than that one, that his heaviest mortification, his worst penance, is community life. That doesn't mean you don't like your brethren, but, being human, being oneself and living with other human beings, community life is indeed a great mortification.

Again, John Berchmans wanted to make sure that he never exercised his own will contrary to the directives of superiors. So I memorized and jotted down this little vignette: I wish to let myself be ruled like a baby, one day old. I'm not sure what difference it makes, whether a baby is one day or one year old, in any case, John Berchmans figures, let's make the child one day old. In other words, complete childlike submission to those who are in charge of him. John Berchmans was a very zealous student. What he came from, what we would call the low countries, which for our purpose would be Belgium – the climate in Belgium is somewhat like the more temperate climate in say, northern United States, Maine, Vermont, northern Michigan, Minnesota. In any case, Berchmans was not used to the stifling summer weather in Rome. Yet he took his final examinations in May, 1621 and the heat that summer, and the Roman summer starts early, the heat was intense. He prolonged his studies for his exams, did brilliantly, but took sick. He had just worked too hard. So he was laid up in bed, became deathly sick. As he was dying his confessor asked him, “do you have anything on your conscience that you think deserves to be confessed before you die.” He spoke in Latin, as young Jesuits are to always talk in Latin except in recreation. He said, "Mehil omeno" – absolutely nothing on my conscience, a moment before he died. He died on August the 13th of that year 1621. After his death and even before his burial, miracles were reported throughout Rome. Print of course was already discovered and engravings were made of John Berchmans shortly after his death and copies were printed. In a few days, twenty- four thousand of these engravings were sold in his native country in Belgium.

When he was canonized, the Holy Father who canonized him declared regarding the Jesuit rules, 'if you can prove to me that someone had faithfully lived up to this rule, I'll canonize him.' Berchmans was canonized for being an obedient religious. He was buried with his rosary and rule book in his hands.

Now something about his spirit. I would say the first prominent feature of his spirituality was his simplicity of life. There are no reports of ecstasies or raptures. There was not even a report of anything extraordinary that he ever did. You might say he was a 'little flower' before his time; she a Carmelite, he a Jesuit. The implication for us, if we think about them, are breath taking. The secret is to see God's will in everything. Now that everything in Berchmans vocabulary meant not just, well, the things that occur in a given day, I somehow say 'yes, of course, God must be behind it' but, watch this, and he wrote enough and over the years I've read enough of Berchmans to be able to talk for a couple of hours about his spirituality. For him, seeing God's will in the circumstances in everyday life went down to the smallest, even trifling details. We at table don't have set persons across from whom or with whom we sit, say at table, so the fact that it should be so and so and not such and such. It is God's will known and planned from all eternity. For example, what I am saying, that of all places I should be – what is today, August the 24th – a thousand miles from New York in a place called, is it Lake Villa? and that you should be here – thanks for being in Chapel, too – and that of all the yokels that should be saying whatever I might be saying, it would be me, at least to try your patience, in His name, everything. I stubbed my toe, that's God's providence. I lose something, that's God's providence. While I was putting the finishing touches on my notes, when I got a phone call that was an important call, so I was late, four minutes. That is God's will. That you should have had some charitable thought on why I was late or good for my humility in not being exactly on time; that everything is down to the time of the day, the temperature outside, how 'my body feels, what's crossing my mind. Berchmans saw God in everything. In other words, simplicity which must have twenty meanings for him meant; 'I have only one role in life – God's will.' And where is God's will; how do I know God's will; what books do I read; what speeches do I listen to; what novenas do I have to make. You can spare yourself. What is God saying to you, here and now at this moment? How does He want you to act and react, to His will?

Second feature of Berchmans' spirituality. The rule of St. Ignatius, we don't usually call it a rule because of our constitution, but that rule what's composed over a period of years, much prayer, frequent revelations, especially from Our Lady, much study, analyzing different rules of life written before Ignatius' time. It is a very precise and detailed rule. We have, for example, the rules of modesty; we're told, exactly told, how to use our eyes. Ignatius prescribed how we are to use our hands. I'm sure it's one of the least known rules of St. Ignatius. We are forbidden by rule to touch another person's body unless, either necessity or charity required it. This rule, Berchmans kept. We don't want to say to the letter, because that would cheapen it, but he kept it with perfection, so much so that the Vicar of Christ on his own testimony canonized him because of his fidelity to that minute rule of life and mind you, this is a rule for men, do you know what I'm saying, well, the last thing that man, masculine gender, paid that much attention to his detail, the self discipline and the sacrifice that it takes from a man to be faithful to Ignatius rule only one who tries to live that rule can appreciate. Ignatius was a soldier and he knew battles of won or lost by attention to detail.

John Berchmans' spirituality reflects something that I think we very seldom advert to each other … sort of take it for granted. We say correctly that God's grace builds on human nature. Not that God's grace is different in the sense that it's a different grace – no, for different people, but, God is justice, Himself, as far as we can use the verb, adjust for God. For example, the graces that He gives to women I know are different that he gives to men, I know. God just talks a different language. And so with different people of different temperaments. The robust man of steel, the Andrew Bobola, remember? they just couldn't put him to death. God's grace to sanctify him was of one kind, the gentle but firm and faithful Berchmans, another kind of a grace. This is very important in properly appraising God's will in our lives or how we deal so differently with different people. With some, God seems, to coin an expression, to love and to get away with – pardon the expression – you finish the sentence, you know what. Lord! well, God knows what He's dealing with – with others He is severe.

Berchmans came from northern Europe; Berchmans was not from Italy or Spain. I tried to carry on a conversation with four Spaniards this noon in Kenosha, Wisconsin; a priest, a brother, (oh, three people) a priest, a brother and a sister. Well, some English they knew, not much, some Italian that I know, not much, a bit of Latin and Spanish and we managed. I was inquiring about their rule of life. They are called the Lumen Dei, isn't that beautiful? the light of God, a new community just coming into existence, two hundred members – God's grace adjusting itself to the Spanish mentality – different. There is something about the teutonic, because we are talking about the teutonic temperament here, that it's precise, proper, just so. All right, God's grace will be just so. Am I making sense? And that we don't either expect God – what a mistake – to deal with even two of us in the same way. Never compare yourself – or better, never compare the way God deals with others with the way he seems to be dealing with you. Berchmans knew, he was here. There is an individuality about each saint which is completely different from everyone else.

Then, community life. I quote of a famous passage, we learned this in the novitiate and we quote it to our dying day, because it is so, so painfully true: my greatest mortification is community life. That doesn't mean, of course, not that we make other members of the community conscious of the fact that they are a source of penance to make – no. Nor does it mean, it cannot mean, that we somehow regret or wish it were different. Community life is meant, for most people, to be a great source of sanctification. I know what I'm talking about because being the only child of a widowed mother – my father died when I was a year old, he was 26. I never had any brothers or sisters and of the things I knew that drew me to the Society of Jesus before I heard John Berchmans phrase, I thought to myself, "what a break, what a gift, I will inherit a hall full of brothers, people that I can live with and, well, they'll be brothers to me and I hope I'll be a brother to them." I may somewhere along the line, I may have told you, after my first week in the novitiate I went to complain to the novice master – I'd heard about people snoring, but I'd never heard anybody snoring – Mother had her bedroom, I had mine. Though we were living in a dormitory and the noise was deafening, I couldn't sleep. So I told the novice master, "father, could I have a different room?" He said, 'sit down, what's wrong?' I told him. All I remember is two words, "get out." And because I was so dead tired, I finally fell asleep, snoring or no snoring.

God made us different from the moment of conception. Each one of us, the moment we are conceived in our mother's womb, God has to create a soul – our parents don't give us our souls – they must be individually created by God and God creates each soul different. We are different nine months before we're born, put together. One reason, no doubt, is to give us some idea of His own infinite, you might say, bewildering variety of attributes. It gives us, and this is what Berchmans meant: it gives us the glorious opportunity for the practice of charity. I'm not speaking of people being offensive or hurting our feelings or being difficult to live with. I don't mean anything that is morally wrong, just because he is he or she is she and I am me, living with other people places demands on our mutual love which God in His infinite wisdom planned, that's why He made us so different. The word that Berchmans used was mortification, meaning that it's a precious way of not only practicing charity, but of expiating our sins, of making reparation for the sins of others, especially in doing penance for the crimes against love often committed in the name of love in our modern mad world. The 1981 figures of the United Nations for the world were fifty million abortions. Someone, someone, must propitiate a just God for these crimes of hatred, masking – what a mockery – under the name of love. Well, we don't have to go far to search out opportunities for the expiatory love, being gentle, understanding, thoughtful. Being as ready to excuse the actions of others as we are so prone to excuse our own. All of this is locked up in what we so casually call, community life.

Let us ask St. John Berchmans to give us some of his great attention to the little things in life being so important in the eyes of God. St. John Berchmans, pray for us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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