St. John of Capistrano is well known in the United States as San Juan Capistrano, his Spanish name, which is also the name for one of the most popular California missions, the seventh mission founded by St. Junipero Serra in 1776. Father Serra, a Franciscan himself, named a number of the California missions after Franciscan saints for whom he had a special devotion.
St. John was born in Capistrano in the Abruzzi region of Italy in 1386. He was brilliant, studied law in Perugia, and became the governor of the city in 1412 at the young age of 26. He was also married. A war broke out between Perugia and Malatesta, he was captured and imprisoned. His confinement was a time of intense prayer. St. John reported that he had a vision in which St. Francis of Assisi appeared to him and invited him to join his religious order. Upon his release, he petitioned for a dispensation from his marriage so he could enter religious life.
St. John entered the Order of the Friars Minor (OFM), the Franciscans, in 1416, and he was blessed to study under St. Bernardine of Siena. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1420.
St. John was one of the greatest preachers Europe has ever known. He traveled extensively and drew crowds that numbered in thousands to listen to his sermons. His double purpose was to exhort Christians to live holier lives and to fight against heretical teaching.
There was inner strife among the Franciscans between the Observant, the Spiritual, or the stricter friars and the Conventual, the Relaxed, or the more lenient friars when it came to poverty. St. John made attempts at reform and reconciliation that were resisted and had disappointing results. He was a contrite penitent and strict with himself, an ascetic: he went about barefoot, wore a hairshirt, and deprived himself of food and sleep.
St. John had a reputation for a fiery style and tremendous toughness, and was commissioned to undertake a variety of papal diplomatic missions. In 1426 he was appointed by Pope Martin V as the Inquisitor in the proceedings against the heretical Fraticelli; in 1439 he was sent to Milan and Burgundy to refute antipope Felix V; in 1446 he was sent as a special envoy to the King of France; and in 1451 he was appointed by Pope Nicholas V to go to Vienna, Austria, to fight against John Hus and the Hussite heresy, and as Inquisitor, he took stern, harsh measures against them. In 1452 he was appointed Commissioner General for Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia, and he preached widely throughout the region with much success.
In 1453 the Turks conquered Constantinople, and subsequently he was asked by Pope Pius II to preach a crusade against the Turks. While his preaching roused little support in Austria and Bavaria, he had outstanding results in Hungary which was under the threat of imminent attack. St. John personally led the left wing of the Christian army in the Battle of Belgrade of 1456, while Janos Hunyady led the right wing. The Hungarian army inflicted severe losses upon the Turks, fended off the Muslim advance, and saved not only Belgrade but Christian Europe. After the battle thousands of bodies were left unburied and disease was rampant. St. John walked among the corpses, contracted the plague, and died at Villach, Austria, on October 23, 1456. He was canonized in 1690 and is the patron saint of military chaplains and lawyers.