Saint of the Day – San Diego de Alcalá de Henares
November 7 is the current feast of St. Didacus, a latinized form of the name Diego. (The traditional feast day was November 12). San Diego (1400 to 1463), was a Franciscan lay brother who exemplified the reform movement of his time. He never learned to read or write and devoted his life to prayer, penance, and the service of the poor and the sick. San Diego’s life is an ironic example of a man who found fame and posterity by renouncing them.
San Diego was born in San Nicolás del Puerto in the province of Sevilla, Spain. As a boy, he served a local hermit, taking on that austere lifestyle and raising vegetables for the poor. At 30, he joined the Franciscans and around 1441 he was sent with a small group to Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands. Despite his lack of education, he became the Guardian of the small convent. Under his leadership and by his example, the observance and piety of the group came to the attention of Pope Eugene IV. San Diego returned to Spain in 1449 and went to Rome in 1450 for the canonization of fellow Franciscan San Bernardino de Siena. There was a severe outbreak of plague in Rome and San Diego became even more highly regarded for his care of the sick and the dying. He lived at Alcalá de Henares from 1456 until his death on November 12, 1463.
San Diego became a reluctant hero, even in death, because of the number of documented miracles that were attributed to him. However, he was not canonized a saint until 1588, due to reforms that the Church was undertaking to remove the lives of the saints from the realm of legend to those of rigorous historical fact. Despite the reformed standards, the holiness of his life and documentation of miracles made his biography similar to those of devotional legend.
San Diego’s wide popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries was emblematic of a major shift in Spanish society. San Diego’s patron, Santiago (Sant Yago – St. James the Apostle), was the patron of Spain and represented her struggle to reconquer Iberia after the Moorish conquest. As Santiago Mata Moros, St. James the Killer of Moors, was a less relevant model as the Reconquest came to a close. San Diego’s example of heroic Christian virtue became a new model of the Christian ideal in the emerging union of the seven kingdoms.
When Sebastián Vizcaíno entered San Miguel Bay in Alta California aboard the San Diego in 1602, he renamed it San Diego Bay, because his men would hear Mass there on November 12. On July 1, 1769, Blessed Junipero Serra would found Mission San Diego de Alcalá on the same bay, the mission which would later give rise to the City of San Diego, California.
Although San Diego now enjoys the obscurity that he sought in life, he should be remembered and celebrated as someone who saw that mysticism and service to the marginalized could not be separated. Spirituality and social justice are the two necessary dimension of meeting and serving the living Christ.
Mission San Diego de Alcalá, San Diego, CA