If the Catechism is the user’s guide to Catholicism, then some of our Catholic classics are the weird fandom wikis that give us way more info than we could ever use on the subject. For example, The Cantena Aurea gives the early Father’s reflections on the Scriptures, while the works of Josephus and Eusibius give us an understanding of life in the early Church. My personal favorite, The Golden Legend, tells the lives of over 150 of our early saints.
To be honest, some of the stories read like absolute nightmares (looking at you, St. Thais the Courtesan). I guess these horror stories somehow helped rebut the paganism and hedonism that were so prevalent at the time. However, other stories capture what had before been mere oral tradition about many of our favorite saints. You’re bound to find new stories by reading about them.
In my humble opinion, St. John the Evangelist is the second greatest man to have ever lived, after only Christ himself. Luckily, The Golden Legend has several stories about him that aren’t found in his Gospel. Mercy is a recurring them in all of them, but especially so in the story of his prodigal disciple.
Many years after Our Lord died, St. John converted a “handsome and headstrong young man and commended him as a ‘deposit’ to certain bishop.” In other words, St. John brought this young man into the Church. When he had to travel elsewhere, he entrusted his spiritual son to the local bishop.
Unfortunately, the young man left the bishop and became a robber. St. John eventually made his way back and asked the bishop for his “deposit” back. The bishop informed him that the young man was spiritually dead and leading a band of robbers in the mountains.
This is where the story gets interesting. Remember this is St. John we’re talking about. This story takes place after the Lord revealed the Apocalypse to him, but before he recorded his Gospel. He travelled around Asia and Greece spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ. He was in constant demand to come to local churches, as he was the only disciple who had followed Christ all the way to Cross. In other words, he was kind of a big deal.
And yet, when he heard that one person had turned away from Christ, he didn’t give up on him or shrug him off as inconsequential. Instead, he began to tear his clothes and beat himself. “A fine guardian you have been for the soul of a brother whom I left with you!” he screamed at the bishop.
Even though he was super old (the Golden Legend doesn’t say exactly how old, but it says “despite his age” a lot), St. John jumped on a horse and “rode fearlessly toward the mountain.”
The young man saw him and was overcome with shame. He, too, jumped on a horse and tried to run away. St. John put his spurs to his horse, and begged the boy for his soul.
“What, beloved son! Do you flee from your father, an old man, unarmed? My son, you have nothing to fear! I shall account for you to Christ, and be sure I will gladly die for you, as Christ died for all of us,” he shouted.
The young man turned back and wept bitterly. St. John knelt in front of him and began to kiss his hand.
I love this image. Sometimes the story of the Prodigal Son seems a little worn, or I’ve spent so much time with it that I can’t hear anything new. That’s when I love to come to this one. I love the image of the elderly St. John chasing after this young man, with his Gandalf-beard streaming behind him as tears slip down his face. I love thinking about the deep love and spiritual fatherhood he held for this young man, even though his own bishop had given up on him.
That’s the image for the Year of Mercy. Even as God is chasing us like St. John, we, too, should chase our family and neighbors relentlessly until they truly know the mericful love of Christ.