Saints for our Times: John of Avila’s sermons drew large crowds
By Mary Lou Gibson
Christopher Columbus’ discovery of new lands in 1492 created a wave of excitement and passion for exploration and discovery in 16th century Spain. John of Avila was a newly ordained priest in 1525. Like so many of his countrymen, John was intrigued and excited by discoveries of the New World and for the opportunity to preach the Gospel to people in distant lands. He planned to leave Spain and become a missionary to Mexico. Sadly for John, he never got the chance.
Instead, the Archbishop of Seville persuaded him to preach in Andalusia in southern Spain. Paul Burns writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that the conversion of Muslims and Jews was still in progress there following the conquest of the last Moorish kingdom of Granada.
John preached his first sermon in Andalusia on July 22, 1529, which immediately established his reputation. For the next nine years, crowds packed churches for his sermons. He became known as the “Apostle of Andalusia.” He was known for denouncing the behavior of the aristocracy and often preached that the rich would have difficulty in entering heaven. This brought him to the attention of the Spanish Inquisition.
He was charged with exaggerating the dangers of wealth and with closing the gates of heaven to the rich. He spent about a year in prison when the charges were refuted. After his release, he received strong popular support.
John’s own parents were wealthy and converts from Judaism. They sent him to study law at Salamanca University, but Burns writes that he did not want to practice law as a career. He spent three years at home in Almodóvar del Campo (New Castile) doing penance and praying. His life took another turn after he met a Franciscan who led him to the great university, Alcalá de Henares, where he studied philosophy and theology.
His parents died while he was at the university and he gave most of the family inheritance to the poor. After his encounter with the Inquisition, he continued to preach and to write spiritual treatises. The most famous of his treatises, “Audi, filia” (“Hear, O daughter”) emphasized humility and suffering and avoiding worldly pomp and wealth. David Farmer writes in the “Oxford Dictionary of Saints” that John wrote this in 1530 for Donna Sancha Carillo who renounced her wealth and status to lead a life of prayer.
John spent the rest of his life preaching in Seville, Córdoba and Granada. According to Burns, he was one of the few saints of his time in Spain who did not belong to a religious order. He wanted to join the Society of Jesus, but the Jesuit provincial of Andalusia dissuaded him. Córdoba became his base and he received the title of Master of Sacred Theology probably in Granada in 1538.
Throughout his life, John used his efforts to reach out to other clergy. Burns wrote that he was a friend of St. Ignatius of Loyola and an adviser to St. Teresa of Avila. He was responsible for the conversion of St. John of God and St. Francis Borgia. Biographers credit him with inspiring many later reformers. The Jesuits attribute their development in Spain to his friendship and support of the Society of Jesus.
In addition to his preaching and writing, John proposed the establishment of an international court of arbitration to avoid wars. He always reached out to the laity and was especially concerned for the education and instruction of boys and young men. To this end he founded several minor and major colleges and later, the University of Baeza, which trained clerics and the laity for centuries. In many of his writings, he insisted that all progress in spiritual life is a gift from God and cannot be attributed to our own efforts. John’s writings, especially his letters, are Spanish classics.
His health began to deteriorate in 1551, and he spent the last 15 years of his life in almost constant pain. He withdrew to a house in Montilla (Cordoba) where he continued to write and carry on an abundant correspondence. He died May 10, 1559, and was buried in the Jesuit Church of the Incarnation in Montilla.
He was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1893 and canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970. He is the patron of Spain and of diocesan clergy. His May 10 feast is not on the General Roman Calendar.
In October 2012, Pope Benedict XVI named John of Avila a doctor of the church calling him a “profound expert on the sacred Scriptures.”