“He was an admirable and eloquent witness to evangelical poverty.”
– Homily of Pope Paul VI at the Canonisation of St John Macias
Have you ever heard of Saint John Macias? No? Well, you may have heard of his best friend – Saint Martin de Porres. Both were Dominicans and lived in the city of Lima, in Peru, although in different Dominican monasteries. These two were very close friends, sharing a great love for Our Lord and His Blessed Mother, manifested in both their lives as a tremendous love of prayer and a kindness towards others which reflected the very love of Christ. In 1837, both were solemnly beatified by Pope Gregory XVI. Saint Martin was declared a Saint in 1962, while Saint John was canonised by Pope Paul VI on 28 September 1975.
Here are some of the stories from the life of Saint John, a man who known in his lifetime as the ‘Father of The Poor’, a named given to him because of his great similarity to his Master, Jesus Christ.
John was born not in Lima but in Spain, in a small town called Rivera, on 2 March 1585, into a very poor family. Although poor in the eyes of the world, the family had a burning love of God and neighbour. John’s mother was Agnes Sanchez, his father Peter d’Arcos.
Supernatural events surrounded John throughout his life, beginning at the age of four when he was visited by his patron, Saint John the Evangelist. Saint John promised the young boy that throughout his life, he would be his special protector. This was a help he was soon to have need of, for the following year both of his parents died within a very short space of time. And so John and his sister were placed in the care of their uncle. From this time onward, John was sent to work as a shepherd on the hills. Around this time he developed the noteworthy habit of saying each day three Rosaries – for himself, for the conversion of sinners and for the Holy Souls in Purgatory. Indeed, the young boy spent most of his time in prayer whilst on the lonely hills, and he was often visited by his heavenly protector, who revealed to him the Truths of the Faith. Saint John also explained the Rosary to John in great detail, imbuing him with a great love of the beads, a love he would never relinquish but which would grow and develop and become almost a trademark of the man he would become.
Saint John the Evangelist was not his only heavenly visitor. On a number of occasions the Blessed Virgin Mary also appeared to the boy to guide, instruct and console him. When, after these visits, he went to thank neighbouring shepherds for having guarded his sheep, they would often reply that they had done no such thing, since a beautiful young Lady had watched over them.
One day, John went to a deep well to allow the sheep a drink. He took water from the well and put it into a nearby trough. Suddenly, one of the sheep fell into the well. The water was too low for John to reach in to grab the sheep – it seemed that the poor animal would drown. John immediately fell to his knees and began to pray his Rosary that God might work a miracle and help the poor creature, which by now was thrashing around wildly in the water far below. John looked into the well – he saw the water level rising and the sheep quite calm now. As the water reached the top of the well, John arose and lifted out the sheep; the waters began to return to their former level. Once more, John knelt down and prayed his beads – this time to thank God for His great kindness.
One day, when John was twenty-three years old, Saint John appeared again and told the young man that he was to leave Spain – his destiny lay elsewhere. John went to Jerez, near the border of Portugal, where he took up residence near a Dominican monastery. Seeing the holiness of the young mans life, the Dominicans offered to take him in and clothe him in their habit. However, John felt that he was being led toward South America, so he refused the offer.
At length, he arrived in New Granada. he was convinced he was to go to Lima in Peru, but how was he to get there? Lima was more than a thousand miles away – and John had no money for transport. So he decided he would walk there. The journey took more than six months but despite all the risks to which John was exposed, no harm befell him.
After his arrival, he took up work as a shepherd once more, continuing his devotion to prayer and allowing him to save money. Also at this time, he finally decided exactly where his future lay. He divided his money – giving half to a local Church and sending the other half to his sister in Spain. Then he went to one of the Dominican Priories, dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene and was allowed entry. At long last, he knew he had come to the place where God wanted him.
Seeing the graces given to him by God, the Dominicans allowed John to forego the usual process of preparation, allowing him to join the Order almost immediately. In January of 1623, John took his perpetual vows, after only twelve months of postulancy.
One of the most notable features of his life was his deep and genuine humility – he sincerely believed himself to be the most unworthy member of the Community and the most undeserving of any consideration. This remarkable humility was shared by a fellow religious, Martin de Porres, also a Dominican, who was living in the Priory of the Holy Rosary, on the other side of Lima. Both were the Porters of their Priories, waiting at the door and providing food and clothing for any of the poor who came to the Priories. Each week, John gave out vast quantities of food to the poor – to the extent that his superiors could not understand where the food had come from, or who had provided it all.
John’s reputation for saintliness grew throughout Lima; people would often come to the Priory to ask his advice and to seek his prayers. He was renowned also for his great patience; on one occasion he had to undergo an operation – anaesthetics were not in existence at this time so an operation was a terrifying experience at the best of times. John submitted quietly to the scalpel, uttering not a single cry and showing no sign of pain. Afterward the surgeon asked John to explain his great patience; John replied that the pain had not been so bad when he imagined that he was before the throne of Judgement, and that he had borne the pain in penance for his sins.
Penance was another of the gifts with which Brother John was blessed. He barely slept – never more than three hours each night – so that he could devote himself more fully to prayer. When he did sleep, it was in a kneeling position before a picture of the Blessed Virgin. Since he thought of himself as the least of the brothers, he allowed himself to eat only the scraps left by the others or the parts of vegetables which no-one else would eat, such as the roots and the peelings. Eventually his superiors became concerned by his devotion to physical penance; they insisted that he relax his severity toward himself, but they did allow him to continue to wear a hairshirt and a thick iron chain which had been around his waist for many years. He considered these chains to be friends, as they had been with him for so long. They caused him great pain – tearing at his flesh in the intense heat of summer and chaffing him in the cold winters.
John’s love for the Holy Eucharist was outstanding; he was allowed to approach the altar twice each week in recognition of his holiness. Before receiving Holy Communion, he would spend the full night in prayer. Often, his body would be levitated – other members of the Community remarked that John was sometimes so high in the air that they were able to walk beneath him and that even stretching as high as they could, they were unable to touch him.
The other great love in his life was – naturally – the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. No matter where John was or what he was doing, there was always a Rosary in his hands. He would often tell those who came to him that as we cannot honour the Son without honouring His Mother, so we cannot honour the Mother without honouring Her Son. he had a great devotion to the name of Mary (which he could not even say without being profoundly moved); indeed, John was instrumental in the establishing of the feast of the Holy Name of Mary in Lima.
In his cell was a painting of the Blessed Virgin – the only item he would allow himself other than his clothing and Rosary beads. Often he would speak to Her in front of the painting, asking Her help for the poor and the needy. Often, She would reply to him, naming people who would help him by providing food or clothing for the poor, on whose behalf he was praying. He always followed Her direction and received the help he required.
The poor were John’s special concern and his love of them was immense – just like his Master’s love for them. No person who sought his help was ever refused or turned away. Each morning he would receive people who needed his help – on average there were two hundred people waiting to see him daily. John would pray with these people then give out food. His poor never failed to receive what they needed, but again no-one could understand or explain where the food and clothing had come from. John held in his arms a large wooden bowl, containing enough food to feed around seven people. As each person approached they were given as much food as they requested.. yet the bowl never left John’s hands – and it never seemed to become empty. After all those present had been fed, the bowl was still half full. Amazing as it seems, this remarkable event occurred daily for nearly seventeen years.
One day a little girl was at the end of the queue. John asked her what she wanted and she replied that she needed a new dress. John knew he had nothing to give to her in the way of clothing, but still he told her to come into the Priory so that the two of them could look in the storeroom. All the way there, John prayed for a miracle. Upon reaching the storeroom, John was astounded to see a parcel on the table. Opening it, he found inside a dress – exactly the size needed by the young girl standing next to him. The little girl was delighted, needless to say, at the great kindness of the Brother. The Brother was delighted at the great kindness of God – and spent much time thanking Him.
Once, John approached a local trader to request a piece of cloth with which to make clothing for the poor; the trader refused. John simply thanked him and walked off. But from that moment, the traders business began to fall down around him – he was at a loss to understand what was suddenly happening. Seeking the advice of another local man, he noted how the problems had begun the day he refused Brother John help to clothe the poor. In a flash, all became clear. There was nothing to do except to go to Brother John, apologise for the previous refusal and give what had been asked of him. And from that day on, his business regained its former success.
The brothers in the Priory of Saint Mary Magdalene still speak about one particular miracle attributed to Brother John – the miracle of the wood. During the construction of one of the wings of the Priory, one of the carpenters made an error which resulted in the cutting of a wooden beam to a size much smaller than was required. Because of this error, the work on the Priory would be delayed until a new beam could be purchased and cut to the correct size. At that moment, brother John passed by and the carpenter asked for his help. Immediately, John knelt and began to pray – the assembled workmen did likewise. After a while, John arose and smiled, then walked away. The workers measured the beam – and to their amazement, found that now it was exactly the size needed for the task at hand.
On one occasion a sailor called to the Priory. Brother John opened the door to him to allow him entry. Suddenly, he called the man into the tiny office where he spent a large part of the day; taking a Crucifix from the wall, he presented it to the sailor and said – “Gaze on your Crucified Saviour and let the fear of God come into your heart!”. The sailor tuned pale and immediately left the Priory. A few days later he was taken seriously ill and sent into Hospital to await death. In the Hospital, he declared publicly what had happened between himself and Brother John; he said he had been a member of a religious community many years before and that he had been ordained to the diaconate. But fearful of committing himself to the priesthood, he had ran off to sea, where he spent many years living a life steeped in sin. When Brother John spoke the words to him while holding up the Crucifix, he had experienced remorse for his life and a sense of inner conversion… and a desire to confess his sins. This he did and was received back into the Church. A few days later he died peacefully in Gods friendship.
After a life spent so devotedly in the service of the poor and needy, John was about to be called to Heaven to receive his eternal reward. It was August in the year 1645. John became very unwell and there seemed no hope of a cure – none of the treatments administered to him made any difference whatsoever, although he patiently accepted each despite his assurance that he was soon to die.
Finally, he was confined to the Infirmary. Once there, his chains were discovered once more. Seeing the deep wounds they had caused to his thin and frail body, the infirmarian ordered their removal – John begged to be allowed to keep them until death, since they had accompanied him all through life. Permission was given, since it was obvious that John would soon be dead.
On 16 September 1645, brother John made a final Confession of his sins and received his God in Holy Communion. Then he told the doctor that he would die the next day. This sad news spread throughout Lima quicker than anyone could have expected and the Priory was besieged by visitors wishing to say goodbye to the man they all knew was a Saint.
On 17 September, while the assembled Community round his bedside began the Salve Regina, Brother Johns face became transfigured, glowing with the light of Heaven. Looking up to Heaven, he commended his soul to God and breathed his last. He was sixty years of age. For three days his coffin remained open, such were the crowds who wished to pay their last respects to this most holy Brother. Finally the coffin was sealed and buried.
A year later the coffin was opened again – John’s cause for Beatification was underway. The body of the dead Brother was found to be perfectly incorrupt and flexible, as fresh as on the day he had died. The Brothers decided to transform John’s old cell into a small chapel and to place his body within it. This was done. Throughout it all, people reported miracles – a constant stream of them – worked through the dead brothers’ intercession.
In 1658 the official enquiry – opened at the command of the Archbishop of Lima – was concluded, having examined the reputation for sanctity and miracles of Brother John Macias. Twenty three volumes were filled with the testimonies of witnesses to his life and wonders -these were then sent to the Vatican, to the Sacred Congregation of Rites. At the same time, the King of Spain also sent a representative to the Pope, begging that Brother John be declared Blessed. He repeated his request the following year also, together with many other religious communities and civil dignitaries who had known or heard of Brother John. Finally, Brother John was indeed declared ‘Blessed’ by the Holy Father and his feast was set as 3rd October (since the day of his death was already set aside as the feast of the Stigmata of Saint Francis of Assisi).
Many years later a miracle occurred which would lead to the Canonisation of Blessed John Macias. Its story is as follows.
Unlike most miracles, this one did not involve the cure of a sick or dying person. Also unlike most miracles, it lasted for more than four hours; during this time, many people were able to witness the miraculous events at first hand.
The Vatican’s own newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, reported the Miracle in its issue dated 27 April 1975. Its report is repeated here –
“It was the morning of 23 January, in the year 1949. The sky was clear and the sun shining brightly, although an icy wind was blowing. It all happened in Olivenza. a little town in Estramadure near Guadajana, almost on the Portugese frontier. The parish priest of Santa Maria Maddalena had just finished saying the half-past twelve Mass and was thinking of going home. He closed the Church and decided to pay his usual visit to the local Nazareth hostel. This had been founded by himself, assisted by some of the women of the parish, for the purpose of welfare work. At his presbytery, his mother, Senora Blanco, was waiting for him for lunch together. Also present in the presbytery were Leandra R Vasquez, the cook, and another lady named Maria Marzal. The latter was helping to look after the fifty poor young of both sexes, who were given food and lodgings free of charge in another home of the parish.
“Fr Luis, the parish priest, never forgot the poor of the town. Each Sunday he gave them a meal in his presbytery, having previously organised the well-to-do people of the town to take their turn at helping. These would send the food on the Saturday evening or Sunday morning to Leandra, so that she would have time to prepare the meal. In this way about eighty meals were distributed in the area every Sunday.
“Now the presbytery wherein the Priest lived was only about a hundred yards from the hostel he was visiting on this particular Sunday morning. Quite unexpectedly, he received a telephone call from the presbytery, telling him something strange was taking place in the presbytery kitchen. He went off at once, alone, and as he would recall later, was the first to arrive. What was happening? Let us allow Leandra, the cook, who was also a helper at the Nazareth Hostel, tell us in her own words.
” ‘That day things had not been running as smoothly as usual’ she says. ‘As I had not received any provisions whatsoever, I could not prepare the meal for the poor of the town nor for the schoolchildren. I just tried to prepare something for the girls belonging to another Charity Home nearby. I had taken three cupfuls of rice from the larder, less than two pounds in weight, and certainly not more. This rice was never taken from the larder for the poor, but at this moment I could not ask the Directress of the Hostel, for she was at Villareal, a village in the country. Now, while the three cups of rice were sufficient for the girls in the Charity Home nearby, they were certainly not enough to provide a meal for the poor. To provide a meal for the girls from the home, the poor of the town and the children from the hostel would have been, of course, completely out of the question. I told Maria Marzal, who was the person responsible for organising the groups, to send in the food, as nothing had arrived. Thinking of the poor people in particular, as I was throwing the cups of rice into the saucepan, I said: Blessed! No lunch for the poor! For me, who comes from Rivera del Fresno, and for all who help at the Hostel, when we say The Blessed, it can only mean the Blessed John Macias.
” ‘Anyway, the enamelled iron pan into which I poured the rice, together with a little meat, held something more than two gallons. I went out of the kitchen, and the only person left in the room was the mother of Fr Luis Zambrano, the parish priest of St.Mary Magdalene. Access to the kitchen was practically barred to anyone, for it would have been necessary to call myself and I would have had to have gone and opened the door. After a quarter of an hour, more or less, I went back to the kitchen to see the rice. I saw to my amazement that the quantity was increasing and the level was rising up to the edge of the pan.
” ‘When I saw the miraculous increase of the rice, all I could do was to call the priests mother. She is old, and reached the kitchen with difficulty. Seeing the saucepan full, she said to me: You’ll have to take another saucepan, for it is overflowing. I do not remember if I called the Parish Priest and Directress at the Hostel immediately, or if I started to pour the rice into another saucepan. In any case, whether it was before or after, we began to take the rice out and put it into a second saucepan, which was a little smaller, holding between one and three quarters and two gallons. But as the level of rice in the saucepan on the stove continued to rise, we had to look for a third saucepan outside the house. This one, which was more or less like the first one, was loaned to us by Miss Isabella Fuentes’.
“When I went into the kitchen” says Father Luis, “there were two pots on the stove. The first was the one into which the rice had been thrown. Beside it was a higher saucepan. You could see that the first one was almost full of rice. If you stirred it, the rice at the bottom was seen to be raw, so that it was necessary to remove it. I myself transferred part of the rice from the original saucepan to the pot on the stove. The level of the first one did not go down, despite these transfers. I can testify to this with my own life.”
And so it continued for over four hours, with rice being transferred from the first pot to many others. By the time it was all over, the priest could not say how many pots and pans had been filled with the rice, since it was immediately distributed to the poor.
However, Father Luis says – “The quantity of the rice multiplied can be deducted from the quantity of the rations distributed, which were roughly one hundred and fifty, including the poor and the children. It should be pointed out that the boys and girls ate as much as they wanted. As well, the poor people in the street, about eighty or ninety, received a ladle per person, sometimes more, according to the number of members in each family.”
In a very short space of time, the news was all over the town. Even those who disbelieved, upon seeing the miracle taking place, were convinced of its veracity.
Numerous people saw the new grains of hard, uncooked rice, appearing in the pot as it was stirred with the ladle. Some of these grains have been kept ever since, treasured because of their involvement in a real life miracle.
Only at five o’clock did the miracle finally end, when the original pot was removed from the stove on the instruction of Fr Luis. Yet despite the wondrous event which had taken place – and at such length – the local papers made no mention of the story.. perhaps another example of the great humility of the Father of the Poor, Saint John Macias.
St John Macias, pray for us.