Saint of the Day – 23 October – St John Capistrano OFM (1386-1456) Franciscan Friar and Priest, Confessor and Preacher. Famous as a preacher, theologian and inquisitor, trained lawyer, he earned himself the nickname ‘the Soldier Saint’ when in 1456 at age 70 he led a crusade against the invading Ottoman Empire at the siege of Belgrade with the Hungarian military commander John Hunyadi, called the Athleta Christi (“Christ’s Champion”) by Pope Pius II. Born in 1386 at Capistrano, Italy – 23 October 1456 at Villach, Hungary of natural causes. He was Beatified on 19 December 1650 by Pope Innocent X and Canonised on 16 October 1690 by Pope Alexander VIII. Patronages – • judges, jurists
• lawyers • military chaplains • military ordinariate of the Philippines • Hungary and Belgrade, Serbia. Attributes – • man with a crucifix and lance, treading a turban underfoot • Franciscan with cross on his breast and carrying banner of the cross
• Franciscan preaching, angels with rosaries and IHS above him • Franciscan pointing to a crucifix he is holding. He was buried in Ilok, Croatia.
As was the custom of this time, John is denoted by the village of Capestrano, in the Diocese of Sulmona, in the Abruzzi region, Kingdom of Naples. He studied law at the University of Perugia. In 1412, King Ladislaus of Naples appointed him Governor of Perugia. When war broke out between Perugia and the Malatestas in 1416, John was sent as ambassador to broker a peace but Malatesta threw him in prison. It was during this imprisonment that he began to think more seriously about his soul. He decided eventually to give up the world and become a Franciscan Friar, owing to a dream he had in which he saw St Francis and was warned by the saint to enter the Franciscan Order. Having never consummated the marriage, he asked and received permission from his wife to annul the marriage and started studying theology with St Bernardine of Siena.
Together with St James of the Marches, John entered the Order of Friars Minor at Perugia on 4 October 1416. At once he gave himself up to the most rigorous asceticism, violently defending the ideal of strict observance and orthodoxy, following the example set by Bernardine. From 1420 onwards, he preached with great effect in numerous cities and eventually became well known.
Unlike most Italian preachers of repentance in the 15th century, John was effective in northern and central Europe – in German states of Holy Roman Empire, Bohemia, Moravia, Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Kingdom of Poland. The largest churches could not hold the crowds, so he preached in the public squares—at Brescia in Italy, he preached to a crowd of 126,000.
When he was not preaching, John was writing tracts against heresy of every kind. This facet of his life is covered in great detail by his early biographers, Nicholas of Fara, Christopher of Varese and Girlamo of Udine. While he was thus evangelising, he was actively engaged in assisting Bernardine of Siena in the reform of the Franciscan Order, largely in the interests of a more rigorous discipline in the Franciscan communities. Like Bernardine, he strongly emphasised devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus and, together with that saint, was accused of heresy on this account. In 1429, these Observant friars were called to Rome to answer charges of heresy and John was chosen by his companions to speak for them. They were both acquitted by the Commission of Cardinals appointed to judge the accusations.
John, in spite of this restless life, found time to work—both during the lifetime of his mentor, Bernardine and afterwards—on the reform of the Order of Friars Minor. He also upheld, in his writings, speeches and sermons, theories of papal supremacy rather than the theological wranglings of councils (see Conciliar Movement). John, together with his teacher, Bernardine, his colleague, James of the Marche, and Blessed Albert Berdini of Sarteano, are considered the four great pillars of the Observant reform among the Friars Minor.
After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire, under Sultan Mehmed II, threatened Christian Europe. That following year Pope Callixtus III sent John, who was already aged seventy, to preach a Crusade against the invading Turks at the Imperial Diet of Frankfurt. Gaining little response in Bavaria and Austria, he decided to concentrate his efforts in Hungary. John succeeded in gathering together enough troops to march onto Belgrade, which at that time was under siege by Turkish forces. In the summer of 1456, these troops, together with John Hunyadi, managed to raise the siege of Belgrade; the old and frail friar actually led his own contingent into battle. This feat earned him the moniker of ‘the Soldier Priest’.
Although he survived the battle, John fell victim to the bubonic plague, which flourished in the unsanitary conditions prevailing among armies of the day. He died on 23 October 1456 at the nearby town of Ilok, Kingdom of Croatia in personal union with Hungary (now a Croatian border town on the Danube).