On this day: St. John of Avila

by Gerelyn Hollingsworth

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On this day we celebrate the feast of St. John of Avila.

He was born in 1499 to Alfonso of Avila and Catherine Xixon. "His father was of Jewish ancestry, and his mother may also have been Jewish. Consequently, John of Avila 'had race' (ten'a raza), to use the expression current at the time to distinguish 'new Christians' or converts from 'old Christians'."

-- Audi, Filia -- Listen, O Daughter, by St. John of Avila, translated and introduced by Joan Frances Gormley, D.C., Paulist Press, 2006.

To understand what this meant in 16th-century Spain, see "Avila's Family and Jewish Background", page 4.

John studied liberal arts and law at the University of Salamanca, which ranked at that time with Paris, Bologna, and Oxford. After four years, he "withdrew without receiving a degree".

After three years at home, during which he may have tried his vocation to religious life, John resumed his studies, this time at the University of Alcalá. Like many others in Spain, including many other conversos, he was deeply influenced by Erasmus, the Dutch humanist. During John's six years of studying philosophy and theology in preparation for the priesthood, his parents died. He sold the property he inherited and gave the money to the poor.

John of Avila was ordained in 1526. He said his first Mass in the church where his parents were buried. He planned to travel to the Indies, but while waiting to sail, he "engaged in catechesis and preaching. He so impressed Father Fernando Contreras, a diocesan priest in Seville, that the latter urged the Archbishop of Seville to keep Avila in Spain, where an enormous mission field needed to be worked in the aftermath of the conquest of the Muslims. The archbishop agreed, and John Avila began the missionary work in southern Spain that would earn him the title Apostle of Andalusia". Page 10.

John of Avila became a renowned preacher, spiritual guide, and confessor. Among those moved by his sermons were St. Francis Borgia, St. Peter of Alcantara, and St. John of God. He attracted the attention of the Inquisition, of course, and was imprisoned for a year before being cleared.

Among the Letters of Blessed John of Avila, selected and translated by the Benedictines of Stanbrook Abbey, Burns & Oates, 1904, are one to St. Teresa of Avila, one to two of John's disciples who were entering the Society of Jesus, one to "a priest, on due preparation for saying Mass", and one to Doña Sancha Carillo, for whom he also wrote Audi, Filia.

After twenty years of suffering from the various illnesses brought on by his strenuous labor, John of Avila died on May 10, 1569. He was beatified in 1893 by Pope Leo XIII and canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI.

The Vatican may be about to name St. John of Avila a Doctor of the Church, possibly at World Youth Day in Madrid in August.

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