St Francis and the Franciscans are constantly portrayed as hippie-esque children of nature. The Holy Man of Assisi and his disciples are known in the popular mind as garden statues accompanied by birds – one step above gnomes. But the reality is quite different.
Francis himself had a gallant and chivalric nature which initially impelled him towards the military. That militance he put into the Faith – as did such of his later followers as Blessed Ramon Lully and St Junipero Serra. Some of these, such as Blessed Marco d’Aviano and St Lawrence of Brindisi, actually led troops into battle against the enemies of the Church.
The inspirer of both of these latter was another son of St Francis, St John Capistran (1386-1456). Born in Capestrano in the Abruzzi to a French soldier father, he studied law at the University of Perugia. Having graduated, he was in 1412 appointed by the King of Naples as governor of that difficult city.
For four years he carried out his role successfully; but life changed on his wedding day. Immediately after the ceremony, he was sent as an emissary to a family with whom the town was at war. The latter threw him into prison.
While there he thought of the realities of life, and had a dream in which St Francis warned him to join his order if he wanted to save his soul. Convinced, he applied for his unconsummated marriage to be annulled and, when the annulment went through, he joined the Franciscans.
John came under the influence of St Bernardine of Siena, and after his ordination in 1425 he cooperated with that saint in spreading devotion to the Holy Name, and preached throughout Italy and Central Europe. Thousands turned out to hear him. He was also very active in the various issues affecting his order.
All the while he was doing this, however, the Turks were swallowing up more and more of the Balkans. In 1453, the fall of Constantinople hit all of Europe like a thunderclap. The following year, a Crusade against the Turks was launched, and John was called upon to co-command with the Hungarian nobleman, Jan Hunyadi.
Peasants flocked to John’s banner, and he commanded the left wing of the Christian army which approached the besieged city of Belgrade. He successfully led his poorly armed troops against the Turks, and the city was saved. John was dubbed the “Soldier-Priest.”
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