When he was only eight years old, John heard a someone talking about all the adventures there were out in the world, and so young John took it into his head to run away to seek his fortune. He never saw his parents again, but instead spent time on the road, begging his way from village to town, until he became very sick. A kind man and his family nursed him back to health, and John stayed with them, working as a shepherd until he was 27 years old. Feeling the urge to travel again, John joined the Spanish army, which was at that time in a war against France. As a soldier, he was hardly a model of holiness, taking part in the gambling, drinking, and the wild life along with his comrades. One day, he was thrown from a stolen horse near French lines. Frightened that he would be captured or killed, he reviewed his life and vowed impulsively to make a change.
He took on all sorts of physically hard work – unloading ship cargoes, building fortifications, anything he could find to earn a living. He would work hard all day, but then in the evening he would visit churches, and spend time reading spiritual books. Reading gave him so much pleasure that he decided that he should share this joy with others. He quit his job and became a book peddler, traveling from town to town selling religious books and holy cards. Finally, when he was 41 years old, he came to Granada where he sold books from a little shop.
After hearing a sermon on repentance, he was so overcome by the thought of his sins that the whole town thought he had gone crazy. After hearing the sermon John rushed back to his shop, tore up any secular books he had, gave away all his religious books and all his money. With his clothes torn and constantly crying, he was the target of insults, jokes, and even stones and mud from the townspeople and their children.
Some friends took him to a hospital for the insane. Eventually, the priest who had preached the sermon that had affected John so much, came to see him, and told him that he had gone on like this enough, so John was moved to a better part of the hospital, and where he was free to move about. Although still a patient, he began to help the other sick people around him. In fact, this experience made him decide to start his own hospital for the poor and those who had no one to care for them. He had no money for a building, so he went to the poor and homeless wherever they were – in abandoned buildings or under bridges – and he called those places his hospital. He continued to beg for money, and eventually found a very poor house which gave him a location where he could bring the sick and nurse them.
One day he heard that the hospital where he had been a patient was on fire. He immediately ran there and found that no one was doing anything. He entered the building and carried out the patients one by one, and then went back in to get as much of the contents as he could. As the fired burned more fiercely, he fell through the weakened timbers, and everyone thought he was dead – but almost miraculously, he walked out of the flames, unhurt.
John was ill himself when he heard that a flood was bringing precious driftwood near the town. He jumped out of bed to gather the wood from the raging river. Then when one of his companions fell into the river, John without thought for his illness or safety jumped in after him. He failed to save the boy and caught pneumonia. He died on March 8, his fifty-fifth birthday, of the same impulsive love that had guided his whole life.
John of God is patron saint of booksellers, printers, heart patients, hospitals, nurses, the sick, and firefighters and is considered the founder of the Brothers Hospitallers.
O God, by whose grace thy servant St. John of God, enkindled with the fire of thy love, became a burning and a shining light in thy Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and may ever walk before thee as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever. Amen.