October 23 – James the Just; John of Capistrano

James the Just, Brother of Jesus (d. ca. 63) (James died in 63, not Jesus) brings up the whole argument about whether the Blessed Virgin had any more kids after the Divine One. Of course the Orthodox and Catholic Churches believe her to have been perpetually virgin, as did both Martin Luther and John Calvin, although their latter day followers have drifted somewhat from the ancient doctrine, insisting that Mary and Joseph went on to have children in the normal fashion after Jesus’ miraculous conception and birth. Still others believe Jesus himself was the product of normal human reproduction and not the son of a virgin, but hey, there are people out there who believe all sorts of crazy things. There are people who believe that space alien brain rays can be deflected by a single layer of tin foil. Which explains a lot, if you think about it.

Where were we? James is believed to be the author of the canonical Epistle of James, the only book in the Bible in which the words “faith alone” appear together. (Hint: he didn’t use them the way Luther did.) According to tradition, James was the son of Joseph from an earlier marriage, and acted as flight attendant during the Flight to Egypt (he is often shown leading the donkey, which upon arrival at Bethlehem probably hadn’t bargained for the connecting flight to Alexandria). The Evangelist John tells us that our Lord’s siblings ceased to believe in him at some point, but James at least clearly got over it. He went on to become the first bishop of Jerusalem, and preside over the Apostolic Council in Acts 15. He was killed by stoning, unless it were by beating with clubs, the latter of which explains the club being his symbol, and his patronage of fullers and pharmacists, who use clubs. Or pestles. Which are like clubs. This patronage thing can get interesting.

John of Capistrano (1386–1456) was from Capestrano [sic], although nobody will say why. He studied law in Perugia, about 250 km NNW of Capestrano on the E45, because really, what else is there to do in Perugia? Except be governor, which he went on to do. When war came to Perugia in 1416, John was sent to broker peace with the enemy (probably not, pace Wikipedia, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, since he wouldn’t be born until 1417; the Catholic Encyclopedia just says “the Malatesta”), and was promptly imprisoned. While rotting in captivity (for less than a year as it turned out), he began to think about the state of his soul, and a vision or dream or something from St. Francis sealed the deal. Upon his release he got his unconsummated marriage with some rich but unnamed (in my sources, at least) lady annulled, and he became a Franciscan.

John became a crack preacher, and once he was priested (in 1425), he began his ministry in earnest. Well, in Italy, really, but he traversed the whole of the country, as well as Germany, Bohemia, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and even Croatia, if you can believe it. He gathered such large crowds that he had to preach out of doors, attracting as many as 126,000 (give or take) at one time. When he wasn’t preaching he was writing tracts against heresies of various sorts, as well as trying to reform the Franciscan order, which had gotten pretty lax, as anybody who has followed these hagiographies will know that it did from time to time.

What really got his goat, however, was the Ottomans, and when they marched up the Danube and laid siege to Belgrade, John, then 70 years old, strapped on a sword and led a contingent of 70,000 soldiers into battle. The siege was raised, but the “Soldier Priest” (as he was thereafter called) caught the plague in the unsanitary military encampment, and died (in Ilok, Croatia). He is the patron, understandably, of military chaplains.