Saint Saves Europe for Christianity – St. John Capistrano
The feast day of St. John Capistrano (1385-1456) is October 23. He was born in Perugia and practiced law in the courts of Naples. He was later appointed governor of Perugia. St. John Capistrano’s life changed unexpectedly when he was captured, as Governor, in a dispute with a neighboring town. When he was released, instead of resuming his former life, he joined the Franciscans in 1416.
Certainly, St. John Capistrano would have been remembered for his preaching in many countries and setting up convents as part of the Franciscan renewal. His travels took him through Italy, Germany, Bohemia, Austria, Hungary, Poland and Russia. At the age of 68, his long life, at a time when people were lucky to make it into their 50’s, seemed like it might be summarized by his accomplishments as a jurist, governor, and evangelist.
However, Providence, in the form of Pope Callistus III, would call on St. John Capistrano to play a major role in shaping European and Christian history. The Pope called on him to preach and lead a crusade against the Turks, who were laying seige to Belgrade. Constantinople had fallen to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and the Sultan planned to be on his way to Vienna after Belgrade.
Prior wars and skirmishes with the Turks and other groups in the Balkans had depleted the ranks of the nobility who made up the armies. Peasants were conscripted to make up the shortfall. The Hungarians, under Janos Hunyadi, had waged several successful campaigns against the Turks, but they were surprised by the rapid arrival of the Sultan’s forces at Belgrade. It is worth taking the time to read the whole story at TheHistoryNet.
We have seen this scene in movies and on TV many times. A rag tag army is up against a much larger, better, equipped and trained imperial force. Before reinforcements and St. John Capistrano’s Hungarian crusaders arrived, the city garrison was down to 5,000 men. The Turks probably had about 100,000 troops and blockaded the city’s harbor on the Danube. St. John Capistrano probably led a group of about 30,000 peasants, to bring Hungarian forces up to about 60,000 or 70,000.
Now, we all remember the fictional Hollywood scene in which a courageous leader launches a futile sally that leads to a rout of the imperial troops. Well it actually happened. The walls had been breached. The elite Janissary troops had entered the city. Hunyadi had the defenders set the moat on fire and slaughtered the invaders inside the walls. The next day, as the Turks were burying their dead, a small group of peasants – against orders – came out through the walls and started to fight. St. John Capistrano, while trying to get them to retreat inside the walls, found himself surrounded by 2,000 men and advancing on the Turks. He lead the advance with the words, “The Lord who made the beginning will take care of the finish.”
In a sequence of events that seemed highly improbable, other units joined in a cascade that led to a complete rout of the Turks. The Hungarian forces lost about 10,000 men. The Turks lost 50,000 in the battle and another 25,000 were slain by Serbs during the retreat. The Sultan lost most of his officers and almost all of his equipment.
Hunyadi and St. John Capistrano died shortly thereafter. With them died hopes that Christian forces could retake Constantinople. Today 550 years later, the Ottoman empire is gone and the former Christian Byzantium, now modern, secular, Moslem, and known as Turkey, is trying peacefully to join the European Union.
Certainly, St. John Capistrano never sought his place in history. His Franciscan vocation was a renunciation of the life of a jurist and governor. It is also probable that he saw his crusade as highly unlikely to succeed. Courage, holiness, learning, and leadership make a combination that is exceptionally rare. It is the stuff of legends, Hollywood sagas, and saints.