St. John Berchmans
Biography of St. John Berchmans
In the quiet Belgian town of Diest, near the frontiers of Holland, there lived at the close of the sixteenth century an honest, hardworking shoemaker, by name, John Charles Berchmans. He dwelt with his wife and family in an ordinary two-story building, of the plainest kind, which is still standing. Were you to visit this quaint town, still guarded by its double earthen ramparts with grassy mounds, you would not be alone as you passed through the trench-like gates that lead to the city; for daily many visitors go to Diest, to see the old house, which has become the chief attraction of the place. But why do memories cluster round this old house? Because here a son was born to John Charles Berchmans and his wife Elizabeth, and that son is a saint. The saint was born here on March 13, 1599. At Baptism he was named John in honor of St. John the Baptist. The child had a quick temper, but, under the careful religious training of his mother, grew up as gentle as a lamb. At a great sacrifice, his father placed him, when still very young, under the direction of Father Peter Emmerich, a monk of the Premonstratensian Order, who was in charge of the Church of Our Lady of Diest, and who had in his house a kind of seminary for the training of boys who wished to become priests. During the three years Berchmans spent in this school he won the admiration of all by his mature judgment, good conduct and love of prayer. In fact, his whole time was taken up with study and prayers, which he knew well how to combine. He did not take part in the games in which boys of his age usually engaged, but it must not be imagined that he was therefore sad or disagreeable in disposition; on the contrary, he was always cheerful. He sacrificed the sports in order to have more time to study and to pray. We are told by his teacher, Canon Emmerich, that he went to Communion twice a month which is now one of the recommendations in the St. John Berchmans Sanctuary Society as also on the feasts of our Lord and of the Blessed Virgin. He always prepared himself for this holy duty by many and fervent prayers. In his great love for the God of the Eucharist he resembled strikingly the an gelic youth St. Aloysius. When in the act of receiving Holy Communion there was something heavenly in his countenance. His deep recollection, the modesty of his downcast eyes and his sweet devotion were subjects of admiration for all who chanced to see him. His love for our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament was remarkable even from his earliest years. When only seven years of age, he worked hard to master the rudiments of learning. He was sometimes known to leave his bed before daybreak, and when his grandmother asked him why he did so, the little fellow answered with great simplicity: “I want to have the blessing of God on my lessons and so I serve two or three Masses before I go to school.” His greatest pleasure was to serve Mass. In priests, he saw the representatives of Jesus Christ and always conducted himself towards them with religious veneration. Even in the coldest winter weather he could hardly be induced to wear his hat in their presence. Financial difficulties pressed upon John’s father, who felt that he could no longer afford to send the boy to school. The expense was considerable; besides, he needed John’s assistance. The family was growing and the mother was an invalid. This was a great trial to John, who begged to be per mitted to pursue his studies that he might accomplish his desire of becoming a priest. Just at this juncture news came from Melchin that one of the officials of the Cathedral wanted a servant boy to wait upon him and the boarders he had in his house; the boy was to have the privilege of attending school. At the age of fifteen John went to Mechlin to fill the position, and Canon Froymont soon discovered that he possessed a treasure in John. In 1615, when the Fathers of the Society of Jesus opened a college in Mechlin, John was sent with the other boys from the Cathedral to attend the classes. John was admitted at once to the highest class, and soon distinguished himself by success in his studies, and much more by his unusual piety. He was enrolled among the members of the Sodality of our Lady and became a model Sodalist. Brought into contact with the Fathers or the Society of Jesus, he became acquainted with their mode of life, and found that it corresponded with all his own aspirations. On reading the life of St. Aloysius, just published at the time, he felt a strong impulse to apply for admission into the Society. First, however, he had recourse to prayer, and asked the advice of his confessor. He had Masses said, and gave in alms, whatever little pocket-money he had, that he might receive light from Heaven to decide the important matter of his vocation. At length it was clear to him that God called him to the Society of Jesus, and he wrote a beautiful letter to his parents, in which he tells them “how for three or four months our Lord has been knocking at the door of my heart. At first I would not open to Him. But seeing that, at my studies and on my walks, no matter what I might be doing, I always have felt myself impelled to settle my future state of life, after many Communions and many good works, I have come to the conclusion yes, I am resolved to serve our dear Lord, with His grace, in the religious life. “It is not easy, I admit, for parents and friends to give up their children. But what would they do if our dear Lord long may He spare them were to call them to Himself ? Sometimes, too, I keep thinking in my heart, if I saw before me, on the one hand, father, mother, sister, etc., and, on the other, God our Lord, with His and as I trust, my own Blessed Mother, and the former were saying to me: Dear child, stay with us, we beg of you, by the weariness and fatigues we have borne for you, etc., and Jesus Christ, on His side, were to say to me: I have been born and scourged, and crowned with thorns; and, last of all, have died on a cross for you. See here My five holy wounds ! Have I not endured all this for you? Do you not know that I have fed your soul with My Sacred Body, and slaked its thirst with My Precious Blood? And now will you prove so un grateful to Me? When I think of this, my dear parents, my heart is set on fire, and were it possible, I would this very moment fly to religion. My heart and my soul will never be at rest till they have found their beloved Master. “But you will say: It is too soon. Wait till you have taken your degrees. I ask you, if a poor man were to come begging at your door, and you were quite willing to give him something, and he were to say, I will come for it in a year or two; he would not be sure you would give it to him then would you not think him a fool and a madman ? Are we not all beggars in God’s sight? He is pleased now, after much prayer, out of His goodness, to give me the best of alms, a vocation to religion and to the Society of Jesus, the hammer of all heresies, the vessel of virtue and perfection; and shall I tread under foot this grace of my dear Lord and condemn it? It is doubtful whether our Lord would allow it to last for two years more. And perhaps I should hear from Him: I know you not. “So now, with my whole heart, I offer myself to Jesus Christ to fight under His colors. I hope you will not be so unreasonable as to oppose Him; I have read in history that the Egyptians offered their children to the crocodile, which they looked on as a god, and that while it was eating them, the parents made high festival, in the same way, I hope, you will rejoice, and praise God, and thank Him that your son should be found worthy, not to be given to God, for he does not belong to you, but to be restored to Him. I commend myself to your good prayers, that our dear Lord may grant to me perseverance to the end of my life, and to you with me, hereafter, eternal life.” John’s father went at once to Mechlin to dissuade him from entering religion. When the father failed to move John, he roundly rated John’s confessor for having put the idea into the boy’s head. The good priest answered the father so well that the latter seemed satisfied. The storm, however, was not yet over. John was sent to the Franciscan convent in Mechlin, where a Franciscan friar, a relative of John’s, was to do all he could to make the boy change his mind. To all the objections against his vocation, John gave clear replies, and when his relative still persisted in repeated attacks, John finally one day took the friar by the arm and showed him politely to the door. His parents made a fresh appeal for delay, but John wrote his determination to go to the novitiate in two weeks time. As a last resort his father told him that he would not give him a penny to enable him to carry out his purpose. “See, father,” was John’s answer, “if the very clothes I have on kept me back, I would strip them off, and follow Christ like the young man who cast away his linen cloth.” On the feast of Our Lady of Mercy, September 24, 1616, a good lay brother, who was busy working in the garden around the old palace of Charles V, which was now the noviceship for the Society of Jesus at Mechlin, was surprised to receive two youthful and voluntary assistants. They were Berchmans and his companion on their way to the novitiate. On seeing the good brother at work, John suggested that they could not better begin than by the practice of charity and humility, and so set to work with the brother until the Father Rector came out to welcome them. In the novitiate Berchmans was a model for all; his progress, no doubt, being due to the principle which ruled his life and which he thus expressed: “Not so much the doing of great things, as doing well what one is told to do.” On September 25, 1618, he took the first vows of the Society of Jesus. During his novitiate his mother died and his father became a secular priest. It was now determined to send John to the Roman College to make his studies. Anxious to bid his father good-bye, he wrote, asking him to call and see him. The answer he received was, that his father had died one week before. This was a severe trial, which he bore well. To reach Rome he set out in October and had to travel on foot a long journey through France and Italy. One incident in this journey was remembered with deep devotion by our Saint. On Christmas eve the pilgrim caught the first view of the dome and towers of Loretto, and it was his privilege to assist at the midnight Mass, beneath the same roof that sheltered Mary and the child Jesus. The recollection of the young religious, who knelt through the long service, deeply impressed the pilgrims, who were attracted by his devotion. On the last night of the year the pilgrims were welcomed at Rome by the Father General of the Society, and they were just in time to join in the Te Deum, which is sung at the close of each year in the Church of the Gesu’ in Rome. On January 2, John took up his quarters in the Roman College, in a room once occupied by St. Aloysius, about twenty-five years before, and such was the life he led that many remarked that Aloysius had come again to live amongst them. In the college, as in the novitiate, he had the charge of preparing the lamps. He loved this occupation because the same task had been performed by St. Aloysius. He had a special devotion to the Mother of God, and vowed to defend her Immaculate Conception. This vow he signed with his blood. To him we owe the little Rosary of the Immaculate Conception, now approved and indulgenced by the Church. Here, as elsewhere, he showed his great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and his love of serving Mass. It was then the custom in the Roman College for the students of philosophy to serve a Mass every morning. The one which fell to Berchmans was unusually long, and occupied a great deal of the time which was valuable to him for study. Yet he never thought of asking to have it changed; and when, after some time, a change was made, it was only to have him serve the Mass of a Father whose infirmities made him un able to fix any special hour for the purpose; so that our Saint was liable to be called at any hour of the morning, a thing which seriously interfered with his time of study. The sacristan expressed his sorrow at the great inconvenience, but Berchmans only replied with his usual composure: “Obedience can never be troublesome, dear brother; especially when it gives one the privilege of serving at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.” Early in August, 1621, he was attacked by the insidious Roman fever and was obliged to go to the infirmary. On the feast of St. Lawrence, inflammation of the lungs set in and his strength rapidly gave way. He prepared most carefully for the reception of the last Sacraments. When the Rector came to give him Holy Communion he rose from his couch, dressed in his habit, and threw himself on his knees. Two lay brothers supported him, and as he knelt he made the following act of faith: “I declare that there is here really present the Son of God, the Father Almighty, and of the most Blessed Mary, ever Virgin; I pro test that I wish to live and die a true son of our Holy Mother, the Catholic Apostolic, Roman Church, a true son of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a son of the Society.” He then received Viaticum and Extreme Unction. At eight o clock on Friday morning, August 13, 1621, with his eyes on his crucifix and with the holy names of Jesus and Mary on his lips, he went to his reward. His death was followed by an outburst of devotion in Rome, and an immense throng crowded around his remains and sought to secure some relic of the Saint. Many miracles were wrought in Belgium and in Rome and crowned heads petitioned for his beatification. Pius IX published the decree on May 3, 1865. On the eleventh his relics were solemnly translated to their present resting place beneath the altar of our Lady in the Church of the Roman College, opposite the splendid shrine of St. Aloysius. On January 15, 1888, Leo XIII, amid the festivities of his Sacerdotal Jubilee, solemnly canonized the Belgian student. One of the miracles used in the canonization of St. John Berchmans was wrought in the United States. On September 20, 1866, Miss Mary Wilson arrived at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Grand Coteau, La. Driven from her home in London, Canada, by her Protestant parents, who were displeased on account of her conversion, she sought refuge as a postulant in the convent at Grand Coteau. After a month of preparation, and on the eve of her reception among the novices, she was suddenly seized with a violent sickness. At last it became evident that there was no hope of recovery by natural means. A novena was at once begun in honor of Bl. John Berchmans. On December 14, the last day of the novena, the condition of the patient was most pitiable. For forty days she had not taken an ounce of food; she took only a little tea or coffee, and the last eight days she had not been able to take even this. She was expected to die at any moment. Her limbs were cold and contracted, her mouth and tongue were raw and covered with clots of black blood; with the greatest difficulty the Holy Viaticum was administered by giving her a small piece of the host. All the Sisters then retired to hear Mass except the infirmarian, who, seeing the patient calm, left her for a moment to attend the sick in the adjoining room. In less than one hour after the reception of the Viaticum, the patient was entirely cured, restored to health, as she said, by St. John Berchmans, who appeared to her. Every symptom of the disease had passed away, and the next day she was going through the ordinary duty of Community – life; she would have done so on the day of her cure, but the Mother Superior thought it more prudent for her to remain in bed. The two doctors who attended her attributed her cure to supernatural agency, for, they said, she was beyond the reach of natural remedies. The entire Community and many visitors who had seen and known the patient attested the truth of the cure, so that its authenticity is beyond the shadow of a doubt. At the time of the Saint’s death at Rome in 1621, his heart was returned to his beloved province in Belgium, and it is kept in the church at Louvain. It is at a side altar, in a silver reliquary, and on his feast day, and at other times, is presented to the faithful for veneration. The case which contains it is heart-shaped, arranged so that all that remains of- the heart is visible. The stairs leading to the room which the Saint occupied at Diest are encased in a cover of wood. In the centre of each step is a diamond-shaped piece of glass, through which the wood of the original staircase is visible. In memory of the Saint who had so often mounted these stairs, pilgrims are wont to ascend these steps on their knees. The room in which the Saint lived is almost bare. There is in it an altar where Mass is said, and the little four-paned window has been enriched with stained glass. St. John is called the “Saint of the Common Life,” but Pius IX gave him the title of “Patron of Altar-Boys.” He is the model the Church holds up to altar-boys. By following St. John Berchmans in his devotion to the altar and in the simple and faithful discharge of their ordinary duties at home, in school and in the church, they may be sure to obtain graces like to those which made him such a great Saint.
Propers & Readings Mass of St John Berchmans November 26