Even among saints there is a hierarchy in which martyrs and
mystics seem to get the lion's share of attention. It's only
natural - we're drawn to the drama and heroism of martyrdom
and the supernatural marvels of visions and private
revelations. But John Berchmans, the son of a Flemish
shoemaker, was a saint of very modest ambitions.
From an early age John loved God, loved his neighbor and
longed to serve them as a priest. As the first step John did
what so many young boys who hope they have a religious
vocation do: He volunteered as an altar boy. From the first
time he served Mass John knew he was meant for the
priesthood. He never felt so close to God as when he was in
sanctuary of his parish church praying the responses and
bringing the priest everything that was necessary to say
Mass. He loved it so much that he volunteered to serve two or
three and some occasions as many as five Masses in one day.
For his deep devotion to the Mass, St. John Berchmans is the
patron of altar servers.
John's budding vocation was encouraged by Father Peter
Emmerich, a Norbertine monk of Tongerloo Abbey. He was John's
first teacher and the most important influence on his
religious development. Father Peter taught John how to write
Latin verse, took him on pilgrimage to local shrines, and let
the boy accompany him on visits to priests and prelates in
At age 17 John joined the Jesuits and began his formal
studies for the priesthood. Even then the Jesuits were
renowned as intellectuals, teachers, preachers and
missionaries who already had given the Church a fresh crop of
martyrs (at the Jesuit novitiate in Rome, John met St. Henry
Morse who a few years later would be hanged, drawn and
quartered in England). The Jesuits appealed to John because
they emphasized an orderly, down-to-earth approach to the
spiritual life. John, whose favorite religious devotions were
praying before a crucifix, saying the rosary and of course
attending Mass, felt entirely at home among the Jesuits.
Laypeople who met him liked him and appreciated his
matter-of-fact devoutness. His fellow Jesuits regarded him as
genuinely holy, a low-key kind of saint.
In Rome John enjoyed a brilliant career as a student of
philosophy. Just before his final exams, his superiors asked
John to participate in one of the public disputations that
were a regular part of Jesuit life at the time. He performed
so well he was appointed to the team of Jesuit students
slotted to debate students from the Greek College.
The day after the disputation with the Greek College John
fell ill with dysentery. A fever followed, then inflammation
of the lungs. When it became clear that John was dying, a
steady stream of visitors came to his room to say goodbye. On
Aug. 13, 1621, John Berchmans died; he was 22 years old.
If sanctity is ever ordinary, then John was an ordinary
saint. His cult began in his home, what is now Belgium, where
people felt a strong attachment to him. Engravers produced
holy pictures of him, but could not keep up with the demand.
Within a couple months they had sold 24,000 copies of John's
portrait, just in the Low Countries.
Craughwell is the author of numerous books about the saints,
including Saints Behaving Badly (Doubleday, 2006).