John Berchmans was born on 13th March 1599, in the city of Diest situated in what is now the Belgian province of Flemish Brabant. His parents were John Charles, a shoemaker and Elizabeth Berchmans. He was baptized named John in honor of St. John the Baptist.
He was the oldest of five children . He grew up in an atmosphere of political turmoil caused by a religious war between the Catholic and Protestant parts of the Low Countries.
He studied at the Gymnasium (grammar school) at Diest and worked as a servant in the household of Canon John Froymont at Malines in order to continue his studies.
When he was age nine, his mother was stricken with a very long and a very serious illness. John would pass several hours each day by her bedside.John also made pilgrimages to the Marian shrine of Scherpenheuvel, some 30 miles east of Brussels, but only a few miles from Diest.
In 1615, the Jesuits opened a college at Malines (Mechelen) and John Berchmans was one of the first to enroll.
Immediately upon entering, he enrolled in the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin. When John wrote his parents that he wished to join the Society of Jesus, his father hurried to Malines to dissuade him and sent him to the Franciscan convent in Malines.
At the convent, a friar who was related to John, also attempted to change his mind. Finally as a last resort, John’s father told him that he would end all financial support if he continued with his plan.
Nevertheless, on 24 September 1616, John Berchmans entered the Jesuit novitiate. He was affable, kind, and endowed with an outgoing personality that endeared him to everyone. He requested that after ordination as a priest he could become a chaplain in the army, hoping to be martyred on the battlefield.
On 25 September 1618, he made his first vows and went to Antwerp to begin studying of philosophy. After only a few weeks, he was sent to Rome, where he was to continue the same study.
He set out on foot, with his belongings on his back, and after on arrrival was admitted to the Roman College to begin two years of study. He entered his third-year class in philosophy in the year 1621.
Later, in August 1621, the prefect of studies selected John Berchmans to participate in a discussion of philosophy at the Greek College, which at the time was administered by the Dominicans.
John opened the discussion with great clarity and profoundness, but after returning to his own quarters, was seized with the Roman fever. His lungs became inflamed and his strength diminished rapidly.
He succumbed to dysentery and fever on 13 August 1621, at the age of twenty-two years and five months. When he died, a large crowd gathered for several days to view his remains before burial in Sant’Ignazio Church, and to invoke his intercession.
That same year, Phillip-Charles, Duke of Aarschot, sent a petition to Pope Gregory XV with a view to beginning the process leading to the beatification of John Berchmans.
At the time of John’s death, his heart was returned to his beloved homeland in Belgium where it is kept in a silver reliquary on a side altar in the church at Leuven (Louvain}. John Berchmans was declared Blessed in 1865, and canonized in 1888.
Statues frequently depict him with hands clasped, holding his crucifix, his book of rules, and his rosary.
The miracle that led to his canonization occurred at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. In 1866, just one year after the Civil War, he appeared to novice Mary Wilson.
Mary’s health was poor, and her parents thought that the gentler climate of south Louisiana could be a remedy. However, her health continued to decline, to the point where for about 40 days she had only been able to take liquids.
“Being unable to speak, I said in my heart: “Lord, Thou Who seest how I suffer, if it be for your honor and glory and the salvation of my soul, I ask through the intercession of Blessed Berchmans a little relief and health. Otherwise give me patience to the end.”
She went on to describe how John Berchmans then appeared to her, and she was immediately healed. When the Academy opened a boys school in 2006, the trustees named it St. John Berchmans School. It is the only shrine at the exact location of a confirmed miracle in the United States.
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