Saints of the Society of Jesus: Saint John Berchmans

13 August, Confessor

John Charles Berchmans was born at Diest, in Belgium, on the 13th of March, 1599. He entered the Society at the age of seventeen, and from the beginning of his religious life he placed Saint Aloysius before him as the model whom he was to imitate. Yet the Holy Spirit did not conduct them by like paths; in Aloysius much was extraordinary, in Berchmans nothing. But they both placed their wills in God’s hands with the same docility, and to-day both have been declared, saints. Obedience became the distinctive virtue of Berchmans. “I am determined to become a saint,” said he, “and I find all that is necessary to accomplish that object in the observance of the rules.” It took him five years to make good his pledge. Thus does his Belgian Master of Novices explain why he writes of him in so laudatory a manner: “Truth obliges me to declare that what I had the honor of forwarding to you, the author of his life, is nothing in comparison to what I saw. What I advance may perhaps surprise those persons who measure the merit of the saints by their exterior conduct; but those who believe with the royal prophet that the beauty of the daughter of Sion (that is to say, the perfection of just souls) is quite interior, will not be at all surprised at the manner in which I express myself when speaking of the high sanctity of this faithful servant.” And Father Cepari, his Superior in Rome, declares of himself: “On one occasion, when describing to me with his usual candor the singular favors which God conferred upon him, and the exact fidelity with which he endeavored to correspond to these graces, I was seized with admiration (which, however, I endeavored to conceal), and exclaimed within myself: ‘O my God! this is truly a precious soul in whom You are well pleased, since You adorn him thus early in life with the most tender proofs of Your mercy. This grace of the new man which You have conferred upon him appears to me to resemble that first state of innocence in which You created man! So slight are the traces of original corruption in this young heart that it seems to be re-established in the state of primitive purity.'” Still he admits that Berchmans committed some faults. “What gave me a secret veneration for him,” says another of his companions, “was the acknowledgment he often made, with expressions of humble candor and intense gratitude towards God, that he did not remember having committed during the whole course of his life one deliberate venial sin.” Berchmans fell ill shortly after the Feast of Saint Ignatius, while studying in Rome, and died before the Assumption. At the last hour, holding in his arms, pressed to his breast, his beads, his crucifix, and his book of rules, he exclaimed: “These are what I most love; with these I die content.” And when his Brethren begged some last advice, he recommended to them devotion to the Blessed Virgin, prayer, and the observance of the rules. He was in his twenty-third year. We have many maxims and resolutions of Saint John Berchmans, a most precious legacy, full of instruction for all young religious and all who aspire to Christian perfection. They are very much like what other souls write in times of retreat and fervor; their specialty is that John Berchmans observed them and lived up to them. Even more, perhaps, than the Blessed Peter Favre, whose spiritual documents are so valuable, is Saint John Berchmans the model to be proposed for imitation in our age. People shrink from austerity, distrust revelations; here is a boy who had no visions, worked no miracles, did little extraordinary penance, and yet in five years he became a saint! How? By giving to God his whole heart. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and thy whole soul, and all thy might, and all thy mind: this is the first commandment.” Let us try to observe the first commandment and we shall become saints. Saint John Berchmans had bound himself by vow to defend the dogma, not yet defined, of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin.