Home  »  Volume X: October  »  St. John Capistran, or, of Capistran, Confessor

Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume X: October. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

October 23

St. John Capistran, or, of Capistran, Confessor

JOHN, the father of this saint, was a gentleman of Anjou, who going to serve in the army of the kingdom of Naples, settled at Aquila, and soon after at Capistran, a neighbouring town, where he took a young lady to wife. Our saint was born at Capistran, in 1385, and after learning Latin in his own country, studied the civil and canon law at Perugia, in which faculty he commenced doctor with great applause. By his fortune and abilities he soon made a figure in that city, and one of the principal men of the town gave him his daughter in marriage. In 1413, a grievous dissension fell out between the city of Perugia and Ladislas, king of Naples. John used his best endeavours to bring his fellow-citizens to a peace, and carried on a negotiation for some time with success, for which he undertook some journeys. Those who were more violent in this quarrel, taking it into their heads that he betrayed his citizens in favour of his former master, a party belonging to one of these factions, seized his person on the road, and confined him in the castle of Bruffa, five miles from Perugia. In this prison he had much to suffer, being loaded with chains, and being allowed no other subsistence than bread and water. Seeing himself here abandoned by King Ladislas himself, and from his own feeling experience meditating on the inconstancy of human things, and the treachery and falsehood of a vain and sinful world, he began seriously to enter into himself, and to become a new man. His lady dying in that interval of time, he resolved to embrace a penitential state in the holy Order of St. Francis. Impatient of delays, he begged to be immediately admitted; but the guardian refused to send him the habit whilst he continued a prisoner. He therefore cut his clothes into the shape of a religious habit, and his hair so as to form a tonsure. Obtaining his liberty shortly after, he went to Capistran, and selling his estate, with part of the price he paid his ransom, and the remaining part he distributed among the poor. Then returning to Perugia, he took the habit in the convent of the Franciscans De Monte at Perugia, in 1415, being thirty years old. The guardian, who understood how full he had been of a worldly spirit, the more effectually to try his vocation, and to extinguish in him secular pride and self-love, ordered him to ride on an ass, in a ridiculous dress, through all the streets of Perugia, with a paper cap on his head, on which many grievous sins were written in capital letters. This must appear a severe trial to a man of birth and reputation; but such was the fervour of the saint in his penitential course, that it seemed to cost him nothing. He was moreover twice expelled the convent without any reason, and admitted again on very hard conditions.  1
  The perfect spirit with which he underwent all humiliations and austerities that were imposed upon him, gave him in a short time so complete a victory over himself, that he never afterwards found any difficulty in the severest trials. Such was his ardour in the practice of penance, that to those enjoined by his rule or by obedience he added the most austere voluntary mortifications. To prepare himself for the first communion, which he made after his general confession upon taking the habit, he spent three days in prayer and tears, without taking any nourishment. From the time that he made his religious profession he ate only once a day, except in long fatiguing journeys, when he took an exceedingly small collation at night. For thirty-six years he never tasted flesh, except a very little out of obedience, when he was sick. Pope Eugenius IV. having commanded him in his old age to eat a little flesh meat, he obeyed, but took so very small a quantity that his holiness left him at liberty to use his own discretion. He slept on the boards, and took only three or sometimes four hours a night for his rest, employing the remaining part in prayer and contemplation; which exercises he for many years seemed never to interrupt but by preaching to the people, or short necessary repose. It would be too long to relate the admirable instances which are recorded of his perfect mortification, obedience, and humility, and the most profound sentiment of contempt of himself, which made him delight in the meanest employments. His spirit of compunction and gift of tears astonished and strongly affected those that conversed with him. He said mass every day with the most edifying devotion. By his zeal and ardent desire of the glory of God and the salvation of souls he seemed, in his actions and preaching, another St. Paul. Wherever he came, by his powerful words, or rather by that wonderful spirit of zeal and devotion with which he spoke, he beat down the pride and obstinacy of hardened sinners, filled their souls with holy fear, and softened their hearts into compunction. At the end of a sermon which he made at Aquila against the vanity, dangers, and frequent sins of the world with regard to dress, and amusements, the ladies brought together a great quantity of fine handkerchiefs, aprons, artificial heads of hair, 1 perfumes, cards, dice, and other such things, and made of them a great bonfire. The same was done at Nuremberg, Leipsic, Frankfort, Magdeburg, and several other places. He had a singular talent at reconciling the most inveterate enemies, and inducing them from their hearts to forgive one another. He made peace between Alphonsus of Arragon and the city of Aquila; also between the families of Oronesi and Lanzieni, and between many cities which were at variance, and he appeased the most violent seditions.  2
  St. Bernardin of Sienna established a reformation of the Franciscan Order, and was appointed by the general, William of Cassal, in 1437, and confirmed by Pope Eugenius IV., in 1438, the first vicar-general of the Observantin or Reformed Franciscans in Italy, in which office he continued six years from his nomination by his general in 1437, and five from his confirmation by the pope. St. John was twice chosen to the same office, each time for the space of three years, and exceedingly promoted this reformation. By one sermon which he preached on death and the last judgment in Bohemia, one hundred and twenty young men were so moved, as with great fervour to devote themselves to God in different religious Orders, of which sixty embraced his penitential institute. He inherited St. Bernardin’s singular devotion to the holy name of Jesus, and to the glorious Mother of God. The marquisate of Ancona, Apulia, Calabria, and Naples, were the first theatres of his zeal; he afterwards preached frequently in Lombardy and the Venetian territories; then in Bavaria, Austria, Carinthia, Moravia, Bohemia, Poland, and Hungary.  3
  St. John was often employed in important commissions by the Popes Martin V., Eugenius IV., Nicholas V., and Calixtus III. The council of Basil, which had been called by Martin V., assembled in July, 1431, under Eugenius IV., and was in the first sessions approved by him, till this pope, alleging that the place was at too great a distance to suit the convenience of the Greek emperor and the oriental prelates, removed it to Ferrara, in 1437. 2 Those prelates who obstinately opposed this removal proceeded at length to an open schism. The pope employed St. John in several important commissions to stem this evil, and many great personages, particularly Philip, duke of Burgundy, to whom his holiness sent the saint for that purpose, were withdrawn by his exhortations from the schism. The saint was sent nuncio by the same pope to the Duke of Milan, to Charles VII., king of France, and into Sicily, and his endeavours met everywhere with the desired success. He was one of the theologians employed by his holiness at the council of Florence in promoting the union of the Greeks. Certain vagabond friars called Frerots and Beroches, the remains of the Fratricelli, whose heresy was condemned by Boniface VIII. and John XXII. in the beginning of the fourteenth century, filled the marquisate of Ancona with disturbances, till St. John, having received a commission from Eugenius to preach against them, entirely cleared Italy of that pestilential seditious sect. Many parts of Germany being at that time full of disorders and confusion, the Emperor Frederick III., Æneas Sylvius, legate and bishop of Sienna, (afterwards Pope Pius II.,) and Albert, duke of Austria, the emperor’s brother, solicited Pope Nicholas that St. John might be sent into those countries, that the force of his example, zeal, and eloquence might give a check to the overflowings of vice and heresy. St. John, therefore, was invested with the authority of apostolic legate, and, attended with one colleague, travelled by Venice and Friuli into Carinthia, Carniola, Tirol, Bavaria, and Austria, preaching everywhere with incredible fruit. His sermons he delivered in Latin, and they were afterwards explained by an interpreter to those who did not understand that language. The like blessings attended his labours in Moravia, Bohemia, Poland, and Hungary. 3 He converted in Moravia four thousand Hussites. Rockysana, the head of that party in Bohemia, invited him to a conference; but King Pogebrac, fearing the consequences of such a disputation, would not allow him the liberty. St. John was mortified at this disappointment, and wrote a book against Rockysana. 4 It would be too long to follow the saint in his progresses through the provinces above-mentioned; also, through Brandenburg, Poland, and Hungary, or to mention the honours with which he was received by the electors and other princes, especially the Dukes of Bavaria and Saxony, the Marquess of Brandenburg, and the emperor himself, who often assisted at his sermons.  4
  Mahomet II. having taken Constantinople by assault on the 26th of May, 1453, Pope Nicholas V. sent a commission to St. John to exhort the Christian princes to take up arms to check the progress of the common enemy; which the saint executed with great success in several assemblies of princes of the empire. Nicholas V. dying in 1455, and Calixtus III. succeeding in the pontificate, St. John returned to Rome to receive the orders of the new pope. His holiness appeared more earnest than his predecessor had been to engage the Christians to undertake a general expedition against the infidels, who were carrying their victorious arms into the heart of Europe, 5 and he sent preachers to different parts to excite the princes to this war. St. John returned with ample powers to preach up the crusade in Germany and Hungary. Mahomet, after the taking of Constantinople, counted the western empire as already his own, and looked upon himself as master of all Christendom. Not doubting but he should soon plant the Ottoman crescent in the cities of Vienna and Rome, he marched his numerous victorious army into Hungary, and sat down before Belgrade on the 3d of June, in 1456. King Ladislas V. fled to Vienna; but John Corvin, commonly called Hunniades, 6 the brave Vayvode of Transylvania, and governor of Hungary, who had so often beat the Turks under Amurath, in Hungary, Transylvania, and Thrace, assembled his forces with all possible expedition, and sent to entreat St. John Capistran to hasten the march of forty thousand crusards, whom he had raised, to his assistance. The Turks covered the Danube with a fleet of two hundred ships of a particular construction for the navigation of that river, and had embarked on them an army of resolute veteran troops. Hunniades, with a fleet of a hundred and sixty saics, or small vessels, which were much lighter and much better commanded than those of the infidels, entirely discomfited them after a most obstinate and bloody engagement, and entered the town, which stands upon the confluence of the Danube and the Save. St. John Capistran attended him, animating the soldiers in the midst of all dangers, holding in his hands the cross that he had received from the pope. The Turks made several furious assaults upon the town, notwithstanding the slaughter of their bravest men was so great that they marched upon heaps of their own dead to the very walls. Thus at length they got into the town, and the Christians gave way before them. All things were despaired of, when St. John, appearing in the foremost rank, with his cross in his hand, encouraged the soldiers to conquer or die martyrs, often crying, with a loud voice, “Victory, Jesus, victory.” The Christians, thus animated, cut the infidels in pieces, threw them down from the ramparts, and drove them out of the town. In the sallies which the Christians made, they slew the Turks like sheep, and on every side repulsed their most determined and experienced troops. Mahomet, flushed with conquests and confidence of victory, became furious, and omitted nothing after every check to reanimate his troops, till at length, having lost his best officers and soldiers, and his own dearest friends, with sixty thousand soldiers, being himself wounded slightly in the thigh, and seeing the shattered remains of his great and haughty army, which he thought invincible, so dispirited, that he was no longer able, either by promises or severity, to make them face the Christians, shamefully raised the siege on the 6th of August; and, leaving behind him all his heavy artillery and baggage, and the greater part of his booty, retreated with precipitation. The next year he turned his arms, first against Trebizonde, and afterwards against the Persians; though, some time after, he again fell upon the West, when the brave Hunniades was no more. The glory of this victory is ascribed by historians not less to the zeal, courage, and activity of St. John Capistran than to the conduct of Hunniades. This great prince, who possessed the virtues of a Christian and all the qualifications of an accomplished general, was admirable for his foresight and precautions against all events, for his consummate knowledge of all the branches of the complicated art of war, for his undaunted courage in dangers, his alacrity, ardour, and cool presence of mind in action, and his skill in seizing the happy moments in battle upon which the greatest victories depend; which skill is so much the result of genius, improved by experience and deep reflection, that it may be called a kind of instinct, no less than the skill of able practitioners in physic in discerning the fatal, critical moments for applying powerful remedies in dangerous diseases, for strengthening nature in her efforts, or in checking, dissolving, correcting, or expelling morbid humours, &c.  5
  It is not, however, detracting in the least from the glory of this Christian hero, to give equal praise to the zeal, activity, address, and courage of a religious man, in whose authority, prudence, and sanctity the soldiers placed an entire confidence. After all, it was the finger of the Almighty which overthrew phalanxes that seemed invincible. God employs second causes, but in them his mercy and power are not less to be adored. The divine assistance in this happy deliverance was, doubtless, obtained by the prayers of the servants of God, especially of St. John Capistran, whose name was then famous for many miracles which had been wrought by him. The brave Hunniades was taken ill of a fever, which he contracted by the fatigues of this campaign, and died at Zemplin on the 10th of September the same year. When he lay dying, he would absolutely rise, and go to church to receive the viaticum, saying, he could not bear the thoughts that the King of kings should come to him. St. John Capistran never quitted him during his last sickness, and pronounced his funeral sermon. At the news of his death Pope Calixtus III. wept bitterly, and all Christendom was in tears: Mahomet himself grieved, saying, in his boast, there was no longer any prince left in the world whom it would be either an honour or a pleasure to vanquish. St. John did not long survive him, being seized with a fever, incurable dysentery, and bloody flux, with the gravel. Whilst he lay sick in his convent at Willech or Vilak, near Sirmich, in the diocess of Five Churches, he was honoured with the visits of King Ladislas, the queen, and many princes and noblemen. Under his pains he never ceased praising and glorifying God; frequently confessed his sins, and received the viaticum and extreme unction with many tears. He often repeated that God treated him with too great lenity, and would never be laid on a bed, but on the hard floor. In this posture he calmly expired on the 23d of October, in 1456, being seventy-one years old. When Willech fell into the hands of the Turks, his body was removed by the friars to another town where the Lutherans afterwards (having plundered the shrine) threw it into the Danube. The relics were taken out of the river at Illoc, and are preserved there to this day. Pope Leo X. granted an office in his honour, to be celebrated at Capistran, and in the diocess of Sulmona. The saint was canonized by Alexander VIII. in 1690, and Benedict XIII. published the bull of his canonization in 1724. See his life compiled at length by F. Christopher of Variso, a Milanese, a disciple and companion; and again by F. Gabriel of Verona, another disciple. See also the letter of his religious companions, containing a relation of his death, to Card. Æneas Sylvius; Bonfinius, Dec. 3, l. 7; Æneas Sylvius, Hist. Boem. c. 65, and in Descr. Europæ, c. 8; Gonzaga in Austriacâ et Argentinâ Provincia, p. 451. F. Henry Sedulius, in Historia Seraphica, seu S. Francisci et aliorum hujus ordinis qui relati sunt inter sanctos, fol. Antv. 1611; and F. Wadding’s Annals, in eight vols. Fresnoy mistakes when he says, Wadding’s catalogue of writers makes his eighth volume: for there is an eighth volume of his annals printed at Rome, in 1654, after the others, very scarce before the new Roman edition.  6
Note 1. Artificial heads of hair were used by some before bonnets became the fashion. [back]
Note 2. The council of Basil was continued eighteen years, first at Basil, afterwards at Lausanne. Its proceedings in 1433 concerning the Hussites, and some points of ecclesiastical discipline, were approved and confirmed by Pope Eugenius IV. and this council is allowed to have been legal and general in the beginning, says Bellarmin; most theologians and canonists say, to the tenth session, held in 1433. During this session the pope, by a message, ordered it to be removed; and from this time the synod refused to admit his legates. By a few French theologians (whose number is very inconsiderable among those of that nation) it has been esteemed legal beyond this term to the twenty-sixth session, in 1437, when it was solemnly and finally dissolved by a bull of Eugenius, and the general council at the same time opened at Ferrara, to which Turrecramata, and a considerable part of those prelates that were assembled at Basil, then removed. Some, however, staid behind, and continued their sessions, but from this time schismatically, during the forty-five last sessions. In the thirty-sixth (schismatical) session, anno 1439, it was decreed, that the opinion which affirms the Blessed Virgin to have been conceived without original sin, is conformable to the Catholic faith, and to be held by all Catholics. The French Pragmatic sanction of Charles VII. relating chiefly to the collation of benefices, in 1438, was approved by this council. In the thirty-ninth session, in 1439, Amedius VII. formerly duke of Savoy, was chosen antipope, under the name of Felix V. This prince had governed his state with great prudence and virtue, and, in 1416, first erected the county of Savoy into a duchy. In 1434 he resigned his dominions to his two sons, and, turning hermit, retired to Ripailles, a most pleasant priory and solitude near the lake of Geneva; whence the proverb Faire Ripaille, for taking a pleasant country vacation. In 1439 he was prevailed upon by the schismatical prelates at Basil to receive from them a pretended pontificate; which he afterwards voluntarily resigned, in 1449, and, being created cardinal by Nicholas V., died piously at Geneva. The presence of the chief patriarchs, as principal prelates, (at least by their deputies,) and of bishops from the different kingdoms of the Catholic Church, who represent the body of the first pastors of the whole church, are conditions necessary to constitute a general council; which were wanting at Basil after the tenth session; these were even then holding a general council at Florence. The confirmation of the pope is also required by most canonists and theologians to a general council. If doubts arise whether a council be general, we are to consider whether it be looked upon by the church as such, and as the representative of the whole; or whether the whole church receives ex post facto, as they say, and acquiesces in its decisions. Thus the frivolous objection that the conditions of certain councils are ambiguous, falls to the ground, and we cannot in practice be at a loss where to fix this authority, though this may sometimes be obscure till circumstances are cleared up.
  The true general council of Florence met first at Ferrara in 1437; and thither John Palæologus, the Greek emperor, with his prelates, repaired. After sixteen sessions, a contagious distemper breaking out at Ferrara, the council was removed by Eugenius IV. to Florence, in 1439, and the same year, in the twenty-fifth session, (which was the tenth that was held at Florence,) on the 6th of July, the Greeks having renounced their schism and errors, (except Mark of Ephesus,) the decree of union was signed. After the departure of the Greeks the Armenians abjured their heresy, and subscribed a decree of union proposed by Eugenius IV. This council lasted three years after this, and was at length concluded at Rome, in the Lateran palace, in 1442. See Nat. Alex. Hist. Sæc. 15, Diss. 8, 9; Macquer; Le Fevre in Cont. Fleury, t. 22, l. 3, Graveson; Leo Allatius, de Consensu Eccl. Occid. et Orient; Berthier, Hist. l’Egl. Gallic t. 16, &c. [back]
Note 3. Bohemia was at that time overrun with Hussites, and from the year 1415 had been a scene of blood and tumults. To revenge the death of John Huss, Zisca, (whose true name was John of Trocznou,) a veteran general, assembled an army of his followers, and plundered the whole country with unheard-of barbarity. After the death of King Wenceslas, in 1417, he opposed the election of Sigismund, who was Emperor of Germany, defeated his armies eight times, built the strong fortress which he called Thabor, amidst waters and mountains, and died in 1424. Sigismund had made peace with him before his death, and at the council of Basil promised the archbishopric of Prague to John Rockysana, a clergyman, who had been deputed by the Hussites to the council of Basil, but who abjured that heresy, upon condition that the laity in Bohemia might be allowed to communicate in both kinds. The deputies of the council of Basil, and the Catholic assembly at Iglaw, in the diocess of Olmutz, in 1436, acquiesced; but required this condition, that, in case of such a concession, the priest should declare before giving the communion in both kinds, that it is an error to believe that Christ’s body or blood is alone under either kind. This Rockysana boggled at: nor would the pope ever grant him his bulls. His partisans, however, styled him archbishop, and he appeared at their head till his death, which happened a little before that of George Pogebrac, in 1471, who had been king of Bohemia from the year 1458: though secretly a Hussite, he demolished the fortress of Thabor, that it might not serve for a retreat to rebels. [back]
Note 4. The chief works of St. John Capistran are, A Treatise on the Authority of the Pope against the Council of Basil; The Mirror of Priests; A Penitential; On the Last Judgment; On Antichrist and the Spiritual Warfare; with some tracts on points of the civil and canon law. His books on the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on Christ’s passion, (on which see Benedict XIV. de Canoniz. Sanct.) several against Rockysana, and the Hussites, &c., have never been printed. [back]
Note 5. The victories of Tamerlane over Bajazet, in 1399, had not so weakened the Turks, but they raised their heads again in the reign of Mahomet I. who wrested from the Venetians several places of which they were then possessed on the coasts of Asia Minor and in Europe; for their dominions at that time extended from the Capo d’Istria to the walls of Constantinople. In 1420 this conqueror took from them Salonica, the capital of Macedon; which the Greek emperor had given them, because he was not in a condition himself to defend it. Mahomet’s two immediate successors, Amurath II. and Mahomet II. were the greatest conquerors that nation ever produced. The former, nevertheless, met with great checks from Hunniades and Scanderbeg. Hunniades defeated two armies, which he sent to invade Hungary, in 1442, and obtained for King Ladislas IV. a good peace. But that prince, thinking the opportunity of the crusade favourable, broke his treaty, by the advice of the legate, Cardinal Julian, on this false pretence, that the infidels never observed treaties with Christians, when it seemed their interest to break them; as if the injustice of others could excuse in them the same crimes. In punishment, whilst Hunniades routed the left wing of the Turks, the king, by his own rashness, lost the victory with his life, in the plains of Varne, in Bulgary, in 1444. Ladislas V. the son of Albert of Austria, a child only five years old, being chosen king, Hunniades was appointed governor of the kingdom, which he protected by his valour. At the same time reigned in Epirus the famous George Castriot, called by the Turks Scanderbeg, that is, Lord Alexander, who passed his youth among them, an hostage from his father in the court of Amurath II. His wonderful exploits and his victories over the numerous armies of Amurath and Mahomet II. are as well known as the name of King Arthur. (See his life written by Marinus Barlet, a contemporary priest of Epirus; and that compiled in French by F. Poncet, Jesuit, in 1709.) Scanderbeg, on his death-bed, in the sixty-third year of his age, with his children, recommended his dominions to the care and protection of the Venetians; but they soon after fell into the hands of the Turks. Matthias Corvinus, a son of the brave Hunniades, was chosen king of Hungary in 1458, and, so long as he lived, defended that kingdom from the insults of the infidels. [back]
Note 6. Or Hugniades, pronounced Hunniades. [back]