In Jesuit circles talk about patron Saints of youth evokes three
familiar names: Stanislaus Kostka, Aloysius Gonzaga and John Berchmans.
While Stanislaus and Aloysius are better known names in the liturgical calendar,
John Berchmans is found only in the Jesuit supplement to that calendar.
Who was John?
Born of a poor Belgian family that could not afford paying for his education,
John engaged in what today we would call a work-study program to cover board
and pre-seminary tuition. His decision to join the almost brand new Society
of Jesus was a deep disappointment to his father, who had counted on his
joining the diocesan clergy and providing some financial support for the
family. But he did not oppose John’s plan. Three months after John entered
the novitiate in 1616, his mother died. After that his father closed his
shoemaker shop and entered the diocesan seminary to be ordained in April
1618, just six months before his unexpected death.
This briefly sketched background renders the choice of gospel reading
for today [Lk. 9:57-62] most appropriate to commemorate John Berchmans.
Once he recognized where God was calling him, he did not ask the Lord to
let him “first go and bury his father.” At the same time he did not just
“up and leave.” The letter he wrote to his parents explaining his decision
is both firm and full of understanding and loving respect for them. As mentioned
earlier, his mother died shortly after his joining the Jesuits and his father
a couple of years later. But John never “looked back after putting his hand
on the plow.”
John died very young at age 22, just as he had concluded brilliantly his
philosophy studies. That was August 13, 1621. But this is November 26, 2003
and the USA is not Belgium. Clearly our lives’ setting is very different
from his. Can we learn anything from his life so briefly sketched here?
Perhaps the most important lesson could be one of wholeheartedness, because
that is conditioned from within, not by external life settings. The call
to love God “with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength”
[Dt. 6:4-5] is addressed to all of us in every location and time period.
The difference in concrete individual vocations comes from the side of the
caller (God), not from the side of the responder (us). As my life unfolds
in a given setting with given gifts and with the desire to respond wholeheartedly
to Gods’ calling, I am led in faith to recognize where concretely God may
be leading me in that given setting. Belgium and 1616 resulted in St. John
Berchmans. The USA and 2003 will result in you and me in our specific vocations.
But the response is always expected to be whole-hearted, regardless of setting.
God never calls to a half-hearted response.