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The Eminent Doctrine of St. John of Avila: A Most Dynamic Priesthood

by Brother John Paoletti, MIC

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  • Description:
    The prayer, work, and lifestyle of St. John of Avila provides an eminent doctrine for priests and seminarians: intense spiritual life, rooted in faith, coming first in the life of a priest, flowing from an interior union with Christ, consummated, and made real, on Calvary.
  • Larger Work:
    Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  • Publisher & Date:
    Ignatius Press, May 16, 2012

Pope Benedict XVI announced, to all the priests and seminarians gathered at World Youth Day in Madrid, that he will soon declare St. John of Avila a doctor of the Church. 1 We should not understand this event as an isolated occurrence. In 2008, Pope Benedict declared the Year of St. Paul, and in doing so, turned our gaze to Christ crucified. Soon thereafter, we celebrated the Year of the Priest, in which we recalled the great dignity of the sacred orders, and the example of St. John Marie Vianney. Declaring St. John of Avila a Doctor of the Church, is yet another action taken by our Holy Father in his efforts to bring revival to the many priests in the third millennium. It is, at the same time, a gift to the entire Church to have a new doctor from which to learn.

Doctors of the Church are distinguished in three ways: by eminent doctrine, by a life of significant sanctity, and by a declaration of the Church. What does John of Avila (nicknamed “The Master”) have to contribute to the doctrine of the Church, and what can we learn by looking at the life he led? These two questions of doctrine, and a living example, are not separate in his life. The prayer, work and overall lifestyle of St. John provides an eminent doctrine for priests and seminarians on how an intense spiritual life, rooted in faith, comes first in the life of a priest, with everything flowing from this interior union with Christ—a union consummated, and made real, on Calvary.

The Rock of Faith
John of Avila (Jan 6, 1500 – May 10, 1559) was raised in a wealthy and religious family in southern Spain. He began to study law but was unsatisfied dealing with the matters of the world, returning home to live the life of a hermit. After three years of seclusion, he encountered a Franciscan friar who was passing through his town. The friar told him that he had too many useful gifts to remain a hermit. So, John left his hometown to study for the diocesan priesthood, being educated by the Dominicans. After ordination, he desired to be a missionary in the Indies. He was prevented from doing so by his local bishop. He spent the rest of his life serving parishes, defending himself against the Inquisition, building seminaries and schools alongside the Jesuits, and offering exceptional spiritual direction to many people, including: St. Teresa of Avila, St. Peter of Alcantara, St. John of God, and St. Francis Borgia.

“The Master” (and later referred to by some as “The Doctor”) began his spiritual journey with an intensely eremitical lifestyle, thus forming a strong foundation that would hold up throughout his life. Prayer was the primary response to faith for John of Avila. We see this in many of his letters, which have been published together in a single volume, and have been translated from Spanish to English. Many of them begin with apologies for delays in response. These delays were not a result of busyness, or any other distractions. He would always pray about spiritual matters, not responding until Jesus told him what to say. 2 Prayer was always the beginning of his work. “Prayer is the response of faith to the free promise of salvation…” 3 John thus proved himself a man of significant faith in Christ, which served as the rock of his priestly life.

In having such frequent recourse to prayer, John practiced what he preached. Beginning a homily on Pentecost Sunday, calling the congregation to listen attentively, he said, “the things of heaven are so lofty and so profound, so far above human understanding, that to be able to speak of them, the speaker himself must have come down from heaven.” 4 He knew, firsthand, the need to be illumined by faith before taking on the work of God. A young priest asked him how to preach, to which he replied: “What can I say to you except tell you to love our Lord deeply? Love him with all your heart…”5 This truth is only made real through prayer. In his letter to a priest on how to prepare for Mass, he said to place himself with the seraphim burning before the throne of God, and to handle Our Lord with the care of his Blessed Mother. This fire must make its way to the heart of the priest, fueling his zeal for souls, and desire for God’s glory.

Prayer in Practice
Despite his many dealings with Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites and Jesuits, St. John was himself a diocesan priest. A man of his spiritual stature and sanctity often leads people to think he was a religious (or that he is the same person as St. John of the Cross). His life of prayer was not static or isolated. It led to action and transformation. It was his embrace of poverty, chastity, and obedience in his own life that allowed him to be able to minister and relate to so many religious. It was his Christ-like lifestyle that bore fruit with the people God had asked him to serve. His lifestyle was nothing more than a reflection of the love and desire he had for Christ crucified, because prayer is “a response of love to the thirst of the only Son of God.” 6 He embraced the evangelical counsels during a time when most diocesan priests were doing the opposite.

It was the tradition, during his time in Spain, to host a large banquet after one’s ordination, in which the newly-ordained priest would invite friends and family to celebrate. Instead of following this custom, John went out into the streets, found twelve poor men, brought them into his house, washed their feet, and treated them royally. 7 His love of poverty remained amidst his travels around Spain. He refused to stay in a hotel, choosing instead to stay with a priest in a poor cottage or rectory.8 He saw this poverty as necessary for the priest, and he made it known one time, in particular, when he passed a priest on the street, dressed in silk with many people following behind him. St. John stopped him and said, “Signor… the rustle of this dress will alarm your sheep.” 9 The priest got the message and began to change his ways from that day forward.

His chastity was certainly preserved through life by a fervent love of God, but, at the same time, he knew never to let down his guard. He never met with a woman in private, but always in an open church, or a public place. During his life, he onlywrote one book, entitled: Audi, Filia. It was originally written for a spiritual daughter of his who was entering religious life, while he was imprisoned because of the Inquisition. After her death, John of Avila began to make revisions. This book, which is full of practical insights for holiness, has many chapters dedicated to obtaining and preserving the virtue of virginal chastity. This was a serious concern for him, as it is in the Church today.

At the same time, his life was marked by obedience. He obeyed the Franciscan who told him to cease being a hermit, so to more directly serve the Church. After ordination, he strongly desired to be a missionary, and was set to go, until his bishop ordered him to remain in Spain, where he had much work to do. 10 His immediate response was of submission to God’s will, and trust in Divine Providence. It was these three nails of poverty, chastity, and obedience that kept John of Avila nailed to the Cross of Our Lord—the only place he ever desired, or expected to be, in this world. It was his constant sacrifice that preserved his faith and made it fruitful and efficacious.

The Eminence of St. Paul

Christ crucified is the distinguishing factor in John of Avila’s spirituality and theology. He took St. Paul as a model in his life and ministry. His most famous portrait shows him at a pulpit holding a crucifix high. Nothing could better summarize his life, and his love. He was able to look out on his flock without taking his gaze from the cross. His vestment is large and white, similar to the clouds that he soared upon in discovering the truth. This spirituality is what led him to be named the patron of parish priests in Spain. When people can see Christ crucified in a priest, they know that he is not in it for his own glory, but God’s, nor for his personal gain, but so that he may lose the world, and in turn, gain Christ. When faced with exhaustion, and being told to take some rest, St. John would reply: “How can I do that, when I belong not to myself but to others?” 11 His faith found its fulfillment in love.

In his weakness and frequent illness, he ministered on behalf of Christ. His embrace of daily sufferings is what made him the priest (and soon to be doctor of the Church). He transmitted so many graces of conversion to hardened sinners, who could then become saints under his patronage (St. John of God and St. Francis Borgia went to him initially following their conversion toward Christ). Suffering was his language of love, which strengthened his sheep. Many of his letters were written to people who were suffering from disease, the loss of a loved one, or from spiritual desolation. He says that:

{Jesus} will have {no disciples} but those who take up their cross and follow him, as sheep do their shepherd, even though the path leads to death. Tell me what right we have to complain of our trials, for they enable us to rid ourselves of our sins and make us like the Son of God? 12

In his sermons on the Holy Spirit, he elaborates on the need we have for the Holy Spirit to strengthen and sanctify us amid sufferings, just as the Apostles needed the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. How do you know if you have the Holy Spirit within you? “By the kind of life your soul leads…When the soul is dead, it cannot perform a good action.” 13 If your prayer is true then it will impact your life. If a theologian is called to “deepen his own life of faith and continuously unite his scientific research with prayer [and] … become more open to the ‘supernatural sense of faith’ upon which he depends,” then how much more so a priest? 14

Conclusion
Many people have a tendency to read spiritual writers of the past, thinking that their manner of life is not applicable to us today. Such was the case when St. John Marie Vianney was made the universal patron of priests by Pope Benedict XVI, during the Year of the Priest. One might think: Weren’t they a little over the top? Can anybody really be expected by God to live like that? If that were the case, then our Holy Father would not be bringing such saints to our attention. John of Avila is not being made a doctor primarily because of his flagellation, or hair shirts, or lengthy fasts. Blessed John Paul II spoke about how St. John worked “courageously so that priests would respond suitably to the ambitious project of ecclesial renewal in their time with a deep interior life, a rigorous intellectual formation, an unfailing fidelity to the Church and a constant desire to bring Christ to others.” 15 During a time in history in which the Church was caught in the confusion of the Counter Reformation, and the world was greatly expanding, John of Avila served the Church, and the world, by going inward, forming an interior fire that illumined and inflamed southern Spain.

As a seminarian, I am very grateful for Pope Benedict’s continued efforts to renew the Catholic priesthood, which has been so attacked and wounded, from within and without. We see in a person like John of Avila a sanctity that is not an option in the Lord’s vineyard. St. John shows us that the priesthood is a matter of courage. The need for courage does not begin so much by verbally standing up for the Truth, or being able to call others on to holiness, but it begins with the pursuit of holiness, which is, oftentimes, difficult. Courage is needed to say, “I want to be more than a good priest. I want to be a holy priest, a priest that can effectively help others become saints.” John of Avila knew this, and directed it toward every priest, because it is the priest who is the very person:

…who has entered into agreement with God; he who talks to God, and to whom God speaks…he who is close to God and is nevertheless disconsolate, his sorrow and wretchedness are indeed great! To go to the altar and receive sweetness, and receive none! To light a great fire within our breast, and feel no heat!…If you ask a priest who has dealings with God, what God is like, and he says to you that he does not know, you would wonder who else you should ask. 16

  1. Pope Benedict XVI. “Eucharist with Seminarians at the Cathedral of Santa María La Real De La Almudena – Madrid 20 August 2011.” Vatican: the Holy See. 20 Aug. 2011. Web. 19 Sept. 2011: www.vatican.va…. >
  2. Dávila, Juan Bautista. Letters of Blessed John of Avila. Worcester: Stanbrook Abbey, 1904. Print p.13. >
  3. CCC 2561. >
  4. John of Avila. The Holy Ghost. Dublin,: Scepter, 1959. Print. p. 55. >
  5. Oddi, Longaro Degli. Life of the Blessed Master John of Avila: Secular Priest, Called the Apostle of Andalusia. London: Burns and Oates, 1898. Print. p. 21. >
  6. CCC 2561. >
  7. Oddi, Longaro Degli. Life of the Blessed Master John of Avila. 11. >
  8. Ibid. 84. >
  9. Ibid. 126. >
  10. Ibid. 14-15. >
  11. Ibid. 124. >
  12. Davila, 40. >
  13. John of Avila, 64. >
  14. Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of Theologian.” Vatican: the Holy See. Web. 15 Nov. 2011: www.vatican.va… . >
  15. John Paul II. “To Cardinal Antonio María Rouco Varela.” Vatican: the Holy See. 10 May 2000. Web. 19 Sept. 2011: www.vatican.va…. >
  16. John of Avila, 48. >

Brother John Paoletti, MIC, is a seminarian with the Marians of the Immaculate Conception and studies at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

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