[Diest (Belgium), March 12, 1599 – Rome, August 13, 1621]
The eldest of five children of John Berchmans, shoemaker and tanner, and Elizabeth, daughter of the mayor Adrian Van den Hove, when in 1609 the mother was hit by a slow and incurable disease, John was given, along with his brothers, the care of two aunts, and in October, placed in the pension managed by Peter Van Emmerick, pious premostratensian priest of the church of Our Lady of Diest. Directed towards the ecclesiastical life, he began his latin studies at the Scuola Grande of Diest; but in 1612 his father was forced, by the economic situation, to ask John to abandon his studies and to learn a trade; the help offered by a few relatives made possible another solution, more appropriate to the skills and commitment of the boy. In mid-September 1612, John entered the house of the canon Froymont, in Mechelen, to continue his studies at the Scuola Grande of this city, but at the same time served as waiter the Froymonts and as tutor some young boys of the nobility, in the boarders rectory. Having in 1615 the Jesuits opened a boarding school in Malines, John was able to perform under their direction studies of rhetoric and also became a member of the Marian Congregation. Tested some uncertainties with regard to concrete form in which to implement his priestly vocation, reading a biography of St Luigi Gonzaga, he realized that God was calling him in the Society of Jesus. Yet still had to overcome resistance pleaded against him by his father, who dreamed for him a rich prebend: he managed that in a manner so convincing that the father himself, after his wife’s death, which occurred in 1616, embraced the ecclesiastical state and became a priest.
Concluded the humanities in a brilliant way, John began his novitiate in Mechelen under the direction of A. Sucquet, author of the famous work “Via Vitae Aeternae”. The spiritual progress was so rapid and sure that the superiors granted him to issue, after only one year of novitiate, the three vows called “of devotion” and named him “ianitor”, ie the prefect of the novices, who were then more than a hundred . Shortly after the end of the novitiate (September 24, 1618) was chosen to be sent to Rome to do his philosophical studies at the Roman College, where he arrived on January 2, 1619. Here he was lucky enough to find in the person of Virgil Cepari – one of the best spiritual writers of that century – an excellent spiritual director. At the end of philosophical studies, John was commissioned to support the honor and solemn “actus publicus”, in the course of which the clarity of his intelligence and the depth of his knowledge aroused great admiration as well as his modesty, humility and gentleness. Though the rigid standard of living he followed and the climate of Rome, not suited to him, had undermined his very delicate health; when, August 7, 1621, he was attacked by violent fevers, accompanied by intestinal catarrh and lung inflammation, the doctors despaired of being able to save him, and in fact he died six days after giving an example of a holy death. If John reached in short duration of his life, which took place in circumstances quite ordinary, the heights of canonized holiness, this must of course be attributed primarily to the grace and providence of God, which – in addition to giving him a happy temperament, exemplary christian parents and first-rate spiritual directors – clearly guided him and gave him a lot of graces, among which stands out the most perfect gift of chastity. But we must not forget that John corresponded to these gifts of God with a loyalest love and with a sense of duty quite exceptional. Educated from childhood according to the principles of the ancient mystical-ascetic school of the Netherlands, he is then he opened up completely to the teachings of St. Ignatius and so came to enjoy – as well as a deep piety and ardent devotion to the Eucharist and Blessed Virgin – a healthy and outspoken spiritual realism, which is revealed in his clearly know to prefix a purpose in choosing the appropriate method to follow and in the care of every detail in the implementation.
Faithful to his favorite sayings (“Age quod AGIS” and “Maximi facere minimum”), he managed to do the ordinary things in an extraordinary way and become the saint of ordinary life, in which the rules of his order were as it were “canonized” . He had, however, nothing of the moralist, or ascetic drive, or the painstaking restless: his was a spirituality instead of joyous freedom, joy and serenity in the Lord, of active love, warm and affable, which deepened and more and more simplified especially towards the end of life, that is, when, after a prior period of spiritual dryness, John was favored the mystical experience of the divine presence. It was precisely this profound loving union with God and his smiling implementation industrious in the circumstances of real life, which exercised a charm and an extraordinary ascendancy over those who had the good fortune to know and explain the amazing reputation for holiness spread immediately after his death, both in Rome and abroad.
A year after the death of John became the first canonical investigations in Rome and in Belgium; the decrees of Urban VIII (1625) and Innocent XI (1678), on the process and procedure and, then, the suppression of the Society of Jesus delayed the progress of the case. When it was reactivated in 1830, progress was rapid: June 5, 1843, the decree on the heroic virtues; May 9, 1865, beatification; November 27, 1887, the decree said the “Regulations”; January 15, 1888, solemn canonization.
The saint’s body rests in the Church of St. Ignatius in Rome, while his heart is worshiped in the church of the Jesuits in Leuven. His feast is celebrated on 13 August. Along with s. Luigi Gonzaga, John is venerated as the patron of the student youth.