On October 23, the Church remembers Saint John of Capestrano [John Capistran] (1386-1456), a Franciscan friar who had a prominent and multifaceted ministry as a preacher and reformer in 15th-century Europe.
Several years ago, Fr. Steve Grunow accurately described him: “John was a Franciscan friar and priest, but not of the good-natured variety of Franciscans that holds the popular imagination. To describe John as zealous would be an understatement. He walked the fine line between zeal and fanaticism, allowing God to write straight with the crooked lines he drew throughout his life."
Born in 1386 in Capestrano in the Abruzzo region of Italy, John lived a young life scarred by violence. His father, a knight, and all his brothers were killed in one of the bloody civil conflicts so common in Italy at the time. He later spoke of the thirst for revenge that consumed him as a young man.
He studied law at the University of Perugia and soon entered politics and became a legal counselor at the court of King Ladislaus of Naples. In 1413 he returned to Perugia and was named a judge in that city, gaining a reputation as a tough but honest and impartial magistrate. The next year, still not 30, he was named governor of the city and in 1415 was married to a wealthy young woman from Capestrano.
John’s life, however, took a dramatic turn later that year. While outside Perugia, he was captured by rebel forces and imprisoned. He was treated horribly but eventually managed to buy his ransom. This prison stay caused him to reevaluate his life; he dramatically renounced his political career and his marriage (which had never been consummated) to join the new Observant Reform of the Friars Minor on October 4, 1415.
John’s legal background and activist temperament continued to mark his life and ministry as a Franciscan. Like his close friend, Bernardine of Siena, he became a celebrated popular preacher, but John’s legal background meant that he quickly became prominent on a practical level, promoting the cause of the Observant reform, drawing up reform statutes under Pope Martin V.
He also was deeply involved in efforts to reform contemporary Franciscan women's communities, writing an influential commentary on the Rule of St. Clare and defending the rights of emerging Third Order Regular Franciscan communities.
John was also engaged by the Papacy as an inquisitor, preaching against heretical movements in Italy and Central Europe. In these tasks, as Fr. Grunow says, “He brokered no compromise and had no patience for opposition.”
John was what we would call today a “workaholic.” He needed only 3 to 4 hours of sleep a night and managed, in the midst of all his other activities, to be a prodigious author in all branches of theology, leaving behind a considerable body of written works. He served too as a mediator in a number of conflicts.
When John was old and frail, the Pope commissioned him to preach a Crusade against the Ottoman Turks who had been emboldened by the capture of Constantinople in 1453 and began threatening Hungary and the Balkans. John joined up with the Hungarian general, John Hunyadi, and personally led forces to relieve the siege of Belgrade in 1456. Shortly afterward, John fell victim to the plague and died in Ilok, Croatia. He was canonized in 1690; in 1984 Pope John Paul II named him the patron of military chaplains.
Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor.