A Lesson in Loving Our Neighbor From St. John Berchmans
I recently stumbled upon an article on Aleteia, in which the author, Joanne McPortland, proposes making a list of our enemies and intentionally praying for them every day. This isn’t a radically new idea, but it is a radical practice that transforms us into people of mercy. As McPortland puts it, “It changes how we see, transforming enemies into beloved sisters and brothers.” By petitioning our heavenly Father on behalf of those who wrong us, we become like Christ who utters from the cross, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). We begin to see our enemies as beloved brothers and sisters precisely because we see them through the eyes of Christ.
It is this transformative vision that St. John Berchmans embodied during his brief life. He, like McPortland, compiled a list of individuals for whom he would pray, but he took it a step further. He also praised God for a specific quality that each person possessed. Through this practice, St. John Berchmans taught himself to see God in every person, even those who might annoy him.
St. John Berchmans was born in 1599 in Diest, which is located in modern day Belgium. From an early age, John exhibited a life of piety and virtue beyond his years. He regularly avoided anything that would be displeasing in the eyes of God or his parents. His childhood friends marveled at his integrity, which stood unshaken, even in the midst of peer pressure.
When St. John reached the age of 17 he joined the Jesuits in Mechelen, desiring nothing more than to commit his entire life to Christ and His Church. There he continued to be a model of virtue – observing the Rule of the Jesuits with zeal, humbly accepting correction, and avoiding occasions of gossip. He desired to perform his daily tasks with the greatest charity, regardless of their glamour or significance. Whenever he performed household duties, he did them without complaint or hesitation.
In addition, St. John was an exceptional student. He excelled in the classroom and was thought to be one of the great scholars among his peers. While studying in Rome, he was chosen to give a lecture at the Greek College, which was profoundly moving according to those who witnessed it. Unfortunately, this lecture would be the hallmark of St. John’s blossoming academic career. After giving the lecture, he succumbed to illness and died shortly after at the age of 22.
Although St. John’s life was brief he left a lasting mark on the world and the people that knew him. They were regularly impressed with his intellectual gifts and virtue, but upon his death, new details about his sanctity emerged. His superiors found among his possessions the list that we mentioned earlier.
The list contained the names of individuals whom John had lived with in community. He begins the list with these words, “Notice what pleases you in others, and imitate them in that.” From there he begins to name and praise the members of his community,
“I like in our Father General his modesty, affability, and cordiality and joyful face; and his following in all things the order of the community. In Father Provincial, his love of literature; in Father Rector, and the Spiritual Father, their being always the same; in Father Prefect of Studies, his respect for all; in my professor, his affection and his delight at his scholars’ progress in their studies…”
The list continues, but from this brief excerpt we get a glimpse of the love and mercy that radiated from the heart of St. John Berchmans. He practiced the virtue of charity by committing himself to seeing the good things in other people. Compiling his list of likes was a practical measure growing in virtue and love of neighbor. By focusing on these admirable qualities in his superiors and companions, he protected himself from being uncharitable towards them and creating enemies. St. John imitated Christ in his charity towards others and saw them as beloved in the eyes of the Father.
St. John Berchmans undoubtedly prayed for the members of his community, but he also praised God for the distinct qualities he saw in these men. This practice of virtue helped bring him to perfection and raise him to the seat of honor in heaven reserved for the saints. By his example we are reminded to pray for the people around us and to identify the wonderful qualities that God has bestowed upon them.