Born in Almoóvar del Campo (Ciudad Real, Spain) on January 8, 1499, John studied in Alcalá de Henares (Madrid) between 1520 and 1526, where he distinguished himself in the study of Sacred Scripture and the Fathers of the Church. After his ordination in 1526, he sold all his possessions, and distributing the proceeds to the poor, he devoted himself solely to evangelization, particularly in southern Spain, where he came to be called the Apostle of Andalucia.
A prolific writer, John’s most outstanding work is Listen, Daughter. He corresponded with St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Borgia, St. Peter of Alcantara, San Juan de Ribera, Fray Luis de Granada and many others. John created a true priestly school focused on the mystery of Christ and devotion to the Eucharist, the Virgin, the Holy Spirit and the Church.
First and foremost, John of Avila was a preacher of Christ crucified. Preaching in churches as well as the streets, he drew many to conversation by his expostion of the Word of God. He established a number of seminaries and colleges, including the University of Baeza (Jaen). Nonetheless, he was persecuted and imprisoned by the Inquisition.
In spite of illness, John continued working until 1569. He died on May 10, 1569, in Montilla (Córdoba), where he is buried. Leo XIII beatified John on April 4, 1894. On July 2, 1946, Pius XII declared him patron of the Spanish diocesan clergy. Paul VI canonized John in 1970. Undoubtedly, St. John of Avila was an extraordinary evangelizer. Several centuries later, his life and writings profoundly influenced St. Anthony Mary Claret, who delighted in reading John’s works and often cited them. Claret was drawn by John’s dedication to the catechesis and education of children, his zeal as a missionary, the content and style of his preaching, its popular appeal and its proven effectiveness. Claret not only read and admired John, he imitated him.
John was born in Almodóvar del Campo (Ciudad Real). His parents, Alfonso Avila (of Jewish descent) and Catalina Gijón, owned silver mines in Sierra Morena. John began the study of law at Salamanca around 1513, but returned to his hometown to embrace a life of penance. From 1520 to 1526, John studied arts and theology at Alcalá de Henares (Madrid), where he was exposed to various philosophical and theological schools, while distinguishing himself in the study of Sacred Scripture and the Fathers of the Church. John was a student of Domingo de Soto and a friend of Pedro Guerrero, the future Archbishop of Granada. Ordained a priest in 1526, John celebrated his first Mass in Almodóvar del Campo, then sold all his belongings, distributed the proceedings to the poor, and devoted himself exclusively to evangelization. In 1527, John volunteered to accompany Fray Julian Garces, the new Bishop of Tlaxcala (Mexico), as a missionary. However, on his arrival in Seville, Archbishop Alonso Manrique convinced John to devote himself to evangelizing Andalusia. John came to be called the Apostle of Andalucia.
A large number of John’s writings were directed to priests. His commentary on Psalm XLIV, Listen, Daughter, was written for Sandra Carillo, the daughter of the Lords of Guadalcázar, whom John converted Ecija (Sevilla). Published secretly in Alcala de Henares in 1556 and in an expanded version in Madrid in 1557, it is a respected compendium of ascetical theology. King Philip II so esteemed it that he asked that it never be missing from the El Escorial. Cardinal Astorga, Archbishop of Toledo, said the work had converted more souls than the number of letters within it. It is unlikely that any other ascetical treatise of the the 16th century has exercised more influence than John’s Listen, Daughter. John wrote a life of St. Teresa and communicated often with Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Borja, Peter of Alcantara, John Ribera, Louis of Granada and many others.
John’s zeal and prestige as a preacher caused such jealousy among some clerics that, in 1531, he was denounced before the Inquisition in Seville. Over the next two years, he was investigated on allegations, which in those times were considered very serious: referring to those burned as heretics as martyrs; denying heaven to the rich; explaining incorrectly the mystery of the Eucharist.; attributing venial sin to the Virgin Mary: misinterpreting the Scriptures; urging the giving of alms before contributing to founding chaplaincies; promoting mental prayer as superior to vocal prayer. All of these skirted the real allegation: John rattled the consciences of the clergy. He was imprisoned for an entire year.
At his trial, John was warned that his fate lay in the hands of God, to which he replied: “I could not be in better hands.” With the utmost sincerity, clarity and love for the Church, he responded one by one to every charge. Fifty-five witnesses testified in his favor. John did not reprove his five accusers.
As in the case of John of the Cross, John of Avila’s time in prison was a time of significant interior growth. He wrote Audi, Filia (Listen, Daughter), yet he tells us that his imprisonment drew him more deeply into the mystery of Christ than his study of theology ever had. John’s acquittal proved more humiliating than being accused in the first place. The sentence of absolution read: “Having set forth in both his sermons and in other situations unsettling opinions,” he remains under excommunication as declared in those places, where he previously he set forth these opinions.
Invited by Bishop Álvarez de Toledo, in 1535 John went to Cordoba, where he made the acquaintance of Fray Luís of Granada. He preached in the villages of Andalusia, particularly Sierra de Cordoba, and was instrumental in the conversion of a number of people of rank. He became friends with the Cristóbal de Rojas, the new Bishop of Cordoba, with whom he corroborarated in editing the documents of the Council of Toledo. John played a part in the conversion of the Duke of Gandia, St. Francis Borgia, and a soldier and later a traveling bookseller, Juan Ciudad, St. John of God.
First and foremoest, John of Avila was a preacher. Indeed, the epitaph on John’s tombstone reads: eram mesor (I was a preacher). Always preceded by intense prayer, his preaching was rooted in the Scriptures, the heart of his message Christ crucified. Preaching in churches as well as on the streets, John spurred people to conversion and purity of heart. When asked what is needed in order to be an effective preacher, he responded: “Love God very much.” John’s model was St. Paul, whom he sought to imitate particularly in the knowledge of the mystery of Christ. Licenciado Muñoz, John’s biographer, says “there was never one of John’s sermons not preceded by many hours of prayer.” John’s essential library was the Crucified and the Most Blessed Sacrament.
John travelled widely: to Córdoba, Sierra de Córdoba, Montilla, Castilla La Mancha, and throughout Andalusía and parts of Extremadura. He engaged in any number of ministries, founding seminaries, catechizing, preaching missions, and establishing educational centers. He also evangelized the region of Granada, where he met St. John of God and St. Francis Borgia. In addition to the other educational entities he established, John founded the University of Baeza (Jaen).
From 1554 until his death fifteen years later, John remain active in his ministries. He died on May 10, 1569 in Montilla (Córdoba), where he is buried. He endured his last illness on behalf of the Church, which he had always put before his own needs. As the pain worsened, John prayed, “Lord, like a blacksmith form me: hold me with one hand, while shaping me with the hammer.” He was heard to say: “My Lord, the pain grows and my love grows, allowing me to delight in suffering for you.” Saint Teresa, upon learning of John’s, wept and, when asked why she wept, she replied: “I cry because the Church of God has lost a mighty column.”
In 1588, Fray Luis de Granada gathered some letters of John’s followers, as well as his own recollections, and wrote the first biography of St. John of Avila. In 1623, the Congregation of St. Peter the Apostle, an association of diocesan priests of Madrid, initiated the cause of beatification. John was beatified by Leo XIII on April 4, 1894, declared the patron of Spanish diocesan clergy by Pius XII on July 2, 1946, and canonized by Paul VI in 1970.
Without a doubt, St. John of Avila was an extraordinarily effective preacher and minister. Centuries later, his life and writings continues to exercise impressive influence. Claret delighted in John’s works and cited them often. An Apostolic Missionary himself, Claret was “…always moved by [John’s] zeal, his austere poverty, and his gift for moving so many to conversion (Aut 228, 229, 230).
In his Autobiography, Claret cites an episode, which took place in the holy city of Alhambra. “In the days when the Venerable Avila was preaching in Granada, another preacher, the most famous of his time, was also preaching there. People would walk away from the latter’s sermons, crossing themselves in wonder at the many things so finely said. But when they had finished listening to the Venerable Avila, they all left with heads downcast, silent, without speaking to their neighbor, humbled and heartbroken by the sheer power of the truth and by the virtue and excellence of the preacher”(Aut 302).
Claret was astonished by the number of conversions, occasioned by the preaching of John of Avila. He attributed an apocalyptic character to John’s preaching, citing the testimony of Fray Luís de Granada, who witnessed this event: “One day, when listening to a sermon, I smelled the wickedness of those for the love of beastly pleasure do not hesitate to offend the Lord our God. The preacher cited Jeremiah: Obstupescite coeli Super hoc, in all truth, he spoke with such great dread and spirit that I thought he made the very walls of the church tremble”(Aut 301).
Claret believed he and Avila shared a kindred spirit, delighting in hard work and devoted to catechesis and education, mindful of the fact that “a good education, he would say, and the teaching of Christian doctrine is the font and source of the well-being of society, while failing to educate our youth is akin to poisoning the common water supply” (Aut 280). For both holy missionaries preaching was always preceded by long hours in the confessional, extensive catechesis of children.
From his earliest years as an apostolic missionary, Claret strove to imitate John of Avila “because his style is the one that I have adopted and practiced the most, with the most gratifying results. May the Lord our God be glorified for letting me come to know the writings of this great master of preachers and father of good and most zealous priests”(Aut 303).
- ANDRES MARTIN, M., St John of Avila. Master of Spirituality, Madrid 1997.
- BERMEJO, J., St John of Avila and St Anthony Mary Claret, in Maestro Avila, Proceedings of the International Congress, (Madrid 27-30 November 2000), pp. 861-888, Madrid 2002.
- BRUNSO, M., Pius XII and Blessed John of Avila, Madrid 1952.
- DEL RIO MARTIN, J., Priestly Spirituality in the writings of Saint John of Avila. Spirituality of the diocesan presbyterate secular, Madrid 1987.
- AA.VV., St John of Avila, Master of priests. Encuentro-Homenaje of Spanish priests to St John of Avila, Madrid 2000.