Saint John of the Cross, Priest, Doctor

Matthew 21:23-27 

‘I will not tell you my authority for acting like this’

Jesus had gone into the Temple and was teaching, when the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him and said, ‘What authority have you for acting like this? And who gave you this authority?’ ‘And I’ replied Jesus ‘will ask you a question, only one; if you tell me the answer to it, I will then tell you my authority for acting like this. John’s baptism: where did it come from: heaven or man?’ And they argued it out this way among themselves, ‘If we say from heaven, he will retort, “Then why did you refuse to believe him?”; but if we say from man, we have the people to fear, for they all hold that John was a prophet.’ So their reply to Jesus was, ‘We do not know.’ And he retorted, ‘Nor will I tell you my authority for acting like this.’

Numbers 24:2-7,15-17 

The oracles of Balaam

Raising his eyes Balaam saw Israel, encamped by tribes; the spirit of God came on him and he declaimed his poem. He said:

‘The oracle of Balaam son of Beor,

the oracle of the man with far-seeing eyes,

the oracle of one who hears the word of God.

He sees what Shaddai makes him see,

receives the divine answer, and his eyes are opened.

How fair are your tents, O Jacob!

How fair your dwellings, Israel!

Like valleys that stretch afar,

like gardens by the banks of a river,

like aloes planted by the Lord,

like cedars beside the waters!

A hero arises from their stock,

he reigns over countless peoples.

His king is greater than Agag,

his majesty is exalted.’

Then Balaam declaimed his poem again. He said:

‘The oracle of Balaam son of Beor,

the oracle of the man with far-seeing eyes,

the oracle of one who hears the word of God,

of one who knows the knowledge of the Most High.

He sees what Shaddai makes him see,

receives the divine answer, and his eyes are opened.

I see him – but not in the present,

I behold him – but not close at hand:

a star from Jacob takes the leadership,

a sceptre arises from Israel.’

Psalm 24(25):4-6,7a-9 

Lord, make me know your ways.

Lord, make me know your ways.

  Lord, teach me your paths.

Make me walk in your truth, and teach me:

  for you are God my saviour.

Lord, make me know your ways.

In you I hope all day long

  because of your goodness, O Lord.

Remember your mercy, Lord,

  and the love you have shown from of old.

Do not remember the sins of my youth.

  In your love remember me.

Lord, make me know your ways.

The Lord is good and upright.

  He shows the path to those who stray,

He guides the humble in the right path,

  He teaches his way to the poor.

Lord, make me know your ways.

Source: Jerusalem Bible

Catechism of the Catholic Church

The proclamation of the kingdom of God

543 Everyone is called to enter the kingdom. First announced to the children of Israel, this messianic kingdom is intended to accept men of all nations. To enter it, one must first accept Jesus’ word:

The word of the Lord is compared to a seed which is sown in a field; those who hear it with faith and are numbered among the little flock of Christ have truly received the kingdom. Then, by its own power, the seed sprouts and grows until the harvest.

544 The kingdom belongs to the poor and lowly, which means those who have accepted it with humble hearts. Jesus is sent to “preach good news to the poor”; he declares them blessed, for “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” To them – the “little ones” the Father is pleased to reveal what remains hidden from the wise and the learned. Jesus shares the life of the poor, from the cradle to the cross; he experiences hunger, thirst and privation. Jesus identifies himself with the poor of every kind and makes active love toward them the condition for entering his kingdom.

545 Jesus invites sinners to the table of the kingdom: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” He invites them to that conversion without which one cannot enter the kingdom, but shows them in word and deed his Father’s boundless mercy for them and the vast “joy in heaven over one sinner who repents”. The supreme proof of his love will be the sacrifice of his own life “for the forgiveness of sins”.

546 Jesus’ invitation to enter his kingdom comes in the form of parables, a characteristic feature of his teaching. Through his parables he invites people to the feast of the kingdom, but he also asks for a radical choice: to gain the kingdom, one must give everything. Words are not enough, deeds are required. The parables are like mirrors for man: will he be hard soil or good earth for the word? What use has he made of the talents he has received? Jesus and the presence of the kingdom in this world are secretly at the heart of the parables. One must enter the kingdom, that is, become a disciple of Christ, in order to “know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven”. For those who stay “outside”, everything remains enigmatic.

John of the Cross (born Juan de Yepes y Álvarez; Spanish: Juan de la Cruz; 24 June 1542 — 14 December 1591), venerated as Saint John of the Cross, was a Spanish Catholic priest, mystic, and a Carmelite friar of converso origin. He is a major figure of the Counter-Reformation in Spain, and he is one of the thirty-six Doctors of the Church.

John of the Cross is known especially for his writings. He was mentored by and corresponded with the older Carmelite, Teresa of Ávila. Both his poetry and his studies on the development of the soul are considered the summit of mystical Spanish literature and among the greatest works of all Spanish literature. He was canonized and declared Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726. He is regarded as the “Mystical Doctor” by the Church.


Early life and education

He was born Juan de Yepes y Álvarez at Fontiveros, Old Castile into a converso family (descendants of Jewish converts to Catholicism) in Fontiveros, near Ávila, a town of around 2,000 people. His father, Gonzalo, was an accountant to richer relatives who were silk merchants. In 1529 Gonzalo married John’s mother, Catalina, who was an orphan of a lower class; he was rejected by his family and forced to work with his wife as a weaver. John’s father died in 1545, while John was still only around three years old. Two years later, John’s older brother, Luis, died, probably as a result of malnourishment due to the poverty to which the family had been reduced. As a result, John’s mother Catalina took John and his surviving brother Francisco, first to Arévalo, in 1548 and then in 1551 to Medina del Campo, where she was able to find work.

Joining the Reform of Teresa of Ávila

In Medina, John entered a school for 160 poor children, mostly orphans, to receive a basic education, mainly in Christian doctrine. They were given some food, clothing and lodging. While studying there, he was chosen to serve as an altar boy at a nearby monastery of Augustinian nuns. Growing up, John worked at a hospital and studied the humanities at a Jesuit school from 1559 to 1563. The Society of Jesus was at that time a new organisation, having been founded only a few years earlier by the Spaniard St. Ignatius of Loyola. In 1563 he entered the Carmelite Order, adopting the name John of St. Matthias.

The following year, in 1564 he made his First Profession as a Carmelite and travelled to Salamanca University, where he studied theology and philosophy. Some modern writers claim that that stay would influence all his later writings, since Fray Luis de León taught biblical studies (Exegesis, Hebrew and Aramaic) at the university. León was one of the foremost experts in biblical studies at that time and had written an important and controversial translation of the Song of Songs in Spanish.

John was ordained as a priest in 1567. He subsequently thought about joining the strict Carthusian Order, which appealed to him because of its practice of solitary and silent contemplation. His journey from Salamanca to Medina del Campo, probably in September 1567 became pivotal. In Medina he met the influential Carmelite nun, Teresa of Ávila (in religion, Teresa of Jesus). She was staying in Medina to found the second of her new convents. She immediately talked to him about her reformation projects for the Order: she was seeking to restore the purity of the Carmelite Order by reverting to the observance of its “Primitive Rule” of 1209, which had been relaxed by Pope Eugene IV in 1432.

Under the Rule, much of the day and night were to be divided between the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours, study and devotional reading, the celebration of Mass and periods of solitude. In the case of friars, time was to be spent evangelizing the population around the monastery. There was to be total abstinence from meat and a lengthy period of fasting from the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14) until Easter. There were to be long periods of silence, especially between Compline and Prime. More simple, that is coarser, shorter habits were to be adopted.There was also an injunction against wearing covered shoes (also previously mitigated in 1432). That particular observance distinguished the followers of Teresa from traditional Carmelites, now to become known as “discalced”, i.e., barefoot, differentiating them from the non-reformed friars and nuns.

Teresa asked John to delay his entry into the Carthusian order and to follow her. Having spent a final year studying in Salamanca, in August 1568 John travelled with Teresa from Medina to Valladolid, where Teresa intended to found another convent. After a spell at Teresa’s side in Valladolid, learning more about the new form of Carmelite life, in October 1568, John left Valladolid, accompanied by Friar Antonio de Jesús de Heredia, to found a new monastery for Carmelite friars, the first to follow Teresa’s principles. They were given the use of a derelict house at Duruelo, which had been donated to Teresa. On 28 November 1568, the monastery was established, and on that same day, John changed his name to “John of the Cross”.

Soon after, in June 1570, the friars found the house at Duruelo was too small, and so moved to the nearby town of Mancera de Abajo, midway between Ávila and Salamanca. John moved from the first community to set up a new community at Pastrana in October 1570, and then a further community at Alcalá de Henares, as a house for the academic training of the friars. In 1572 he arrived in Ávila, at Teresa’s invitation. She had been appointed prioress of the Convent of the Incarnation there in 1571.

 John became the spiritual director and confessor of Teresa and the other 130 nuns there, as well as for a wide range of laypeople in the city. In 1574, John accompanied Teresa for the foundation of a new religious community in Segovia, returning to Ávila after staying there a week. Aside from the one trip, John seems to have remained in Ávila between 1572 and 1577.

At some time between 1574 and 1577, while praying in a loft overlooking the sanctuary in the Monastery of the Incarnation in Ávila, John had a vision of the crucified Christ, which led him to create his drawing of Christ “from above”. In 1641, this drawing was placed in a small monstrance and kept in Ávila. This same drawing inspired the artist Salvador Dalí’s 1951 work Christ of Saint John of the Cross.

The height of Carmelite tensions

The years 1575–77 saw a great increase in tensions among Spanish Carmelite friars over the reforms of Teresa and John. Since 1566 the reforms had been overseen by Canonical Visitors from the Dominican Order, with one appointed to Castile and a second to Andalusia. The Visitors had substantial powers: they could move members of religious communities from one house to another or from one province to the next. They could assist religious superiors in the discharge of their office, and could delegate superiors between the Dominican or Carmelite orders. In Castile, the Visitor was Pedro Fernández, who prudently balanced the interests of the Discalced Carmelites with those of the nuns and friars who did not desire reform.

In Andalusia to the south, the Visitor was Francisco Vargas, and tensions rose due to his clear preference for the Discalced friars. Vargas asked them to make foundations in various cities, in contradiction to the express orders from the Carmelite Prior General to curb expansion in Andalusia. As a result, a General Chapter of the Carmelite Order was convened at Piacenza in Italy in May 1576, out of concern that events in Spain were getting out of hand. It concluded by ordering the total suppression of the Discalced houses.

That measure was not immediately enforced. King Philip II of Spain was supportive of Teresa’s reforms, and so was not immediately willing to grant the necessary permission to enforce the ordinance. The Discalced friars also found support from the papal nuncio to Spain, Nicolò Ormaneto [it], Bishop of Padua, who still had ultimate power to visit and reform religious orders. When asked by the Discalced friars to intervene, Nuncio Ormaneto replaced Vargas as Visitor of the Carmelites in Andalusia with Jerónimo Gracián, a priest from the University of Alcalá, who was in fact a Discalced Carmelite friar himself. The nuncio’s protection helped John avoid problems for a time. In January 1576, John was detained in Medina del Campo by traditional Carmelite friars, but through the nuncio’s intervention, he was soon released. When Ormaneto died on 18 June 1577, John was left without protection, and the friars opposing his reforms regained the upper hand.

Foundations, imprisonment, torture and death

On the night of 2 December 1577, a group of Carmelites opposed to reform broke into John’s dwelling in Ávila and took him prisoner. John had received an order from superiors, opposed to reform, to leave Ávila and return to his original house. John had refused on the basis that his reform work had been approved by the papal nuncio to Spain, a higher authority than these superiors. The Carmelites therefore took John captive. John was taken from Ávila to the Carmelite monastery in Toledo, at that time the order’s leading monastery in Castile, with a community of 40 friars.

John was brought before a court of friars, accused of disobeying the ordinances of Piacenza. Despite his argument that he had not disobeyed the ordinances, he was sentenced to a term of imprisonment. He was jailed in a monastery where he was kept under a brutal regime that included public lashings before the community at least weekly, and severe isolation in a tiny stifling cell measuring barely 10 feet by 6 feet. Except when rarely permitted an oil lamp, he had to stand on a bench to read his breviary by the light through the hole into the adjoining room. He had no change of clothing and a penitential diet of water, bread and scraps of salt fish. During his imprisonment, he composed a great part of his most famous poem Spiritual Canticle, as well as a few shorter poems. The paper was passed to him by the friar who guarded his cell. He managed to escape eight months later, on 15 August 1578, through a small window in a room adjoining his cell. (He had managed to prise open the hinges of the cell door earlier that day.)

After being nursed back to health, first by Teresa’s nuns in Toledo, and then during six weeks at the Hospital of Santa Cruz, John continued with the reforms. In October 1578 he joined a meeting at Almodóvar del Campo of reform supporters, better known as the Discalced Carmelites. There, in part as a result of the opposition faced from other Carmelites, they decided to request from the Pope their formal separation from the rest of the Carmelite order.

At that meeting John was appointed superior of El Calvario, an isolated monastery of around thirty friars in the mountains about 6 miles away from Beas in Andalusia. During that time he befriended the nun, Ana de Jesús, superior of the Discalced nuns at Beas, through his visits to the town every Saturday. While at El Calvario he composed the first version of his commentary on his poem, The Spiritual Canticle, possibly at the request of the nuns in Beas.

In 1579 he moved to Baeza, a town of around 50,000 people, to serve as rector of a new college, the Colegio de San Basilio, for Discalced friars in Andalusia. It opened on 13 June 1579. He remained in post until 1582, spending much of his time as a spiritual director to the friars and townspeople.

1580 was a significant year in the resolution of disputes between the Carmelites. On 22 June, Pope Gregory XIII signed a decree, entitled Pia Consideratione, which authorised the separation of the old (later “calced”) and the newly reformed, “Discalced” Carmelites. The Dominican friar Juan Velázquez de las Cuevas was appointed to oversee the decision. At the first General Chapter of the Discalced Carmelites, in Alcalá de Henares on 3 March 1581, John of the Cross was elected one of the “Definitors” of the community, and wrote a constitution for them. By the time of the Provincial Chapter at Alcalá in 1581, there were 22 houses, some 300 friars and 200 nuns among the Discalced Carmelites.

In November 1581, John was sent by Teresa to help Ana de Jesús to found a convent in Granada. Arriving in January 1582, she set up a convent, while John stayed in the monastery of Los Mártires, near the Alhambra, becoming its prior in March 1582. While there, he learned of Teresa’s death in October of that year.

In February 1585, John travelled to Málaga where he established a convent for Discalced nuns. In May 1585, at the General Chapter of the Discalced Carmelites in Lisbon, John was elected Vicar Provincial of Andalusia, a post which required him to travel frequently, making annual visitations to the houses of friars and nuns in Andalusia. During this time he founded seven new monasteries in the region, and is estimated to have travelled around 25,000 km.

In June 1588, he was elected third Councillor to the Vicar General for the Discalced Carmelites, Father Nicolas Doria. To fulfill this role, he had to return to Segovia in Castile, where he also took on the role of prior of the monastery. After disagreeing in 1590–1 with some of Doria’s remodelling of the leadership of the Discalced Carmelite Order, John was removed from his post in Segovia, and sent by Doria in June 1591 to an isolated monastery in Andalusia called La Peñuela. There he fell ill, and travelled to the monastery at Úbeda for treatment. His condition worsened, however, and he died there, of erysipelas on 14 December 1591.


The morning after John’s death huge numbers of townspeople in Úbeda entered the monastery to view his body; in the crush, many were able to take home bits of his habit. He was initially buried at Úbeda, but, at the request of the monastery in Segovia, his body was secretly moved there in 1593. The people of Úbeda, however, unhappy at this change, sent a representative to petition the pope to move the body back to its original resting place. Pope Clement VIII, impressed by the petition, issued a Brief on 15 October 1596 ordering the return of the body to Úbeda. Eventually, in a compromise, the superiors of the Discalced Carmelites decided that the monastery at Úbeda would receive one leg and one arm of the corpse from Segovia (the monastery at Úbeda had already kept one leg in 1593, and the other arm had been removed as the corpse passed through Madrid in 1593, to form a relic there). A hand and a leg remain visible in a reliquary at the Oratory of San Juan de la Cruz in Úbeda, a monastery built in 1627 though connected to the original Discalced monastery in the town founded in 1587.

The head and torso were retained by the monastery at Segovia. They were venerated until 1647, when on orders from Rome designed to prevent the veneration of remains without official approval, the remains were buried in the ground. In the 1930s they were disinterred, and are now sited in a side chapel in a marble case above a special altar.

Proceedings to beatify John began between 1614 and 1616. He was eventually beatified in 1675 by Pope Clement X, and was canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726. When his feast day was added to the General Roman Calendar in 1738, it was assigned to 24 November, since his date of death was impeded by the then-existing octave of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This obstacle was removed in 1955 and in 1969 Pope Paul VI moved it to the dies natalis (birthday to heaven) of John, 14 December. The Church of England commemorates him as a “Teacher of the Faith” on the same date. In 1926, he was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI after the definitive consultation of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange O.P., professor of philosophy and theology at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum in Rome.