Saint of the Day – 10 May – St John of Avila (1499-1569) – Priest, Doctor of the Church, known as the Apostle of Andalusia, Mystic, Author, Preacher, Scholastic teacher, Founder of Schools and Universities – Patron of Andalusia, Spain, Spain, Spanish secular clergy, World Youth Day 2011. His Relics are interred in the Jesuit church at Montilla, Spain.
St John was born in Almodóvar del Campo, in the Province of Ciudad Real, to Alfonso de Ávila, of Jewish converso descent and Catalina Xixón (or Gijón), a wealthy and pious couple. At the age of fourteen, in 1513, he was sent to the University of Salamanca to study law; he withdrew in 1517, however, without receiving a degree.
Returning home, Ávila spent the next three years in the practice of austere piety. His sanctity impressed a Franciscan friar journeying through Almodóvar, on whose advice he resumed his studies. Thereafter, he undertook the study of philosophy and theology, in which he was fortunate to have as his teacher the noted Dominican friar Domingo de Soto. It appears that Ávila earned his bachelor’s degree during his years at Alcalá and then left without completing requirements for the licentiate degree.
Both his parents died while Ávila was still a student, and after his ordination in spring 1526, he celebrated his first Mass in the church where they were buried. He then sold the family property and gave the proceeds to the poor. He saw in the severing of natural ties a vocation to foreign missionary work and prepared to go to Mexico. He, therefore, traveled to Seville to await departure for the Indies in January 1527 with the Dominican friar, Julián Garcés, appointed the first Bishop of Tlaxcala. While waiting in Seville, his unusually great devotion in celebrating Mass and his skills in catechesis and preaching, attracted the attention of Hernando de Contreras, a local priest, who mentioned him to the Archbishop of Seville and Inquisitor General, Alonso Manrique de Lara. The archbishop saw in the young cleric a powerful instrument to stir up the faith in Andalusia, and after considerable persuasion Juan was induced to abandon his journey to America.
John seems to have lived in the initial years after 1526 in a small house in Seville with another priest, probably Contreras and disciples gathered around him, in a loosely structured fraternal life. It was at the request of the younger sister of one of these disciples, Sancha Carrillo, that he began in 1527 to write the Audi, filia (Listen, Daughter), a work he continued expanding and editing until his death.
Apostle of Andalusia
John’s first sermon was preached on 22 July 1529 and immediately established his reputation. During his nine years of missionary work in Andalusia, crowds packed the churches at all his sermons. However, his strong pleas for reform and his denunciation of the behaviour of the aristocracy meant that he was denounced to the office of the Inquisition in Seville in 1531 and put in prison in the summer of 1532. He was charged with exaggerating the dangers of wealth and with closing the gates of heaven to the rich. The charges were refuted and he was declared innocent and released in July 1533.
Around the end of 1534 or the beginning of 1535, John of Ávila was incardinated into the Diocese of Córdoba, from which he received a small benefice. This city became his base for directing his disciples and moving around Andalusia, preaching and establishing schools and colleges in various neighbouring cities such as Granada, Baeza, Montilla and Zafra. It is thought that during this time Ávila received the title of Master of Sacred Theology, probably in Granada around 1538.
Of special importance was the University of Baeza, established in 1538 by a papal bull of Pope Paul III. Ávila served as its first rector and it became a model for seminaries and for the schools of the Jesuits.
Ávila stayed in Granada from 1538-9, where it appears some kind of community was taking shape. Likewise, during the years 1546 to 1555, John lived with about 20 disciples in Córdoba, making it seem that he intended to begin some kind of formal foundation of apostolic priests. However, the foundation and fast expansion of the Jesuits meant that these ideas never came to fruition; from early 1551, when Ávila began to experience poor health, he began actively encouraging his disciples who so desired to join the Jesuits (around 30 in total seem to have joined).
From early 1551 Ávila was in constant ill-health. He spent the last years of his life in semi-retirement in the town of Montilla, in the Province of Córdoba. He died there on 10 May 1569 and in accordance with his wishes was buried in that city, in the Jesuit Church of the Incarnation, which now serves as the sanctuary to his memory.
St John of Ávila was declared Venerable by Pope Clement XIII on 8 February 1759 and beatified by Pope Leo XIII on 15 November 1893. On 31 May 1970 he was canonized by Pope Paul VI.
Pope Benedict XVI named him a Doctor of the Church on 7 October 2012, the Feast of the Holy Rosary. The proclamation of the two new Doctors of the Church was made by Pope Benedict before tens of thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square. During his homily, Pope Benedict said that John of Ávila was a “profound expert on the sacred Scriptures, he was gifted with an ardent missionary spirit. He knew how to penetrate in a uniquely profound way the mysteries of the redemption worked by Christ for humanity. A man of God, he united constant prayer to apostolic action. He dedicated himself to preaching and to the more frequent practice of the sacraments, concentrating his commitment on improving the formation of candidates for the priesthood, of religious and of lay people, with a view to a fruitful reform of the Church”.