Ten years ago, after studying the Renaissance at university, I visited Italy to see the art I loved in person. In the middle of the province of Emilia-Romagna there was a small city called Urbino with paintings by Titian I wanted to see. I knew it would be a wonderful place to visit, but I didn’t expect to have a transcendent, spiritual experience there, let alone the one that would convert me to Catholicism.
In Urbino, wandering away from the main streets, I came across a hidden chapel devoted to John the Baptist, the Oratorio San Giovanni Battista. Life-sized scenes from the story of his life were painted on each wall. I knew the Gospel already and felt deeply impressed by the medieval frescoes from 1416, both lovingly preserved and dramatically crumbling. At that point in my life I was still a Protestant, having been baptized in the United Church as a baby, so I believed nothing but faith was needed for salvation (this is the spiritual concept of sola fide, meaning “faith alone”). I hadn’t been taught that a person could advance in holiness by receiving the sacraments and the graces they confer, or that people are given special graces to attain great virtue and become saints out of love for him.
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Gazing at image after image of John the Baptist in the Oratorio, I found I was developing a sense of how he affected the events of the New Testament; it seemed they wouldn’t have transpired the way they did without the special virtue he possessed, about which I knew very little. Suddenly, a beam of light came down from above and entered me; it felt like soft lightning, while at the same time I heard a voice inside me saying, “You see, there are saints, and he is one.” I knew it was the voice of the Holy Spirit sending a message through St. John the Baptist. By the time I left Europe, I knew I’d received a call to become Catholic.
Back at home, I joined RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) classes in the local parish and began attending Mass. My devotion to St. John the Baptist deepened. I discovered he is the patron saint of Quebec, the province where I was born and baptized, and the people of Quebec celebrate their national holiday on June 24, his feast day. On that day, still in RCIA, I spent time in the sanctuary praying to consecrate myself to the Blessed Virgin. It was the first of the three Marian consecrations I have completed. A few weeks later, when I was received into the Faith, I wore a gold pendant in the shape of a scallop shell as a symbol of my devotion to him. And it was he, St. John the Baptist, who was near to my heart as I received my first holy Communion.
John the Baptist is very much a saint of firsts; after all, baptism is the first sacrament each Christian receives. He was also one of the first to see Jesus, and in such a miraculous way — through the veil of flesh that was his mother’s womb. In the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, it says: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice” (v. 41-42). The verse continues with Elizabeth’s exhortation, which is repeated in the Hail Mary: “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
Throughout art history, there have been many classical paintings depicting Mary with Jesus and John the Baptist together as children, showing how close St. John the Baptist was to the Blessed Virgin during his life — for example, “The Virgin of the Rocks,” painted around 1484 by Leonardo da Vinci. I felt comfortable consecrating myself to Mary, for the first time, on the feast of St. John the Baptist because of their nearness to each other.
Another first connected to John the Baptist is found in the Gospel of John, when he says, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (1:29). Here he is telling his two disciples to do, for the first time, what he has done before them: to see and believe. Even today at Mass, in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the priest repeats his words while raising the host, because we are to do what he did: to see and believe as if it’s the first time, every time.
From my first encounter in Italy, there was no doubt in my mind St. John the Baptist was going to accompany me on my most spiritual adventures. As St. John the Evangelist writes: “A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light” (Jn 1:6-8). My experience with the saint shows concretely that his testimony isn’t regulated to biblical times; he is with us now, witnessing the light of God in each of us. We know Christ touched the waters himself so we could all become Christians by water; in a lesser but still very powerful way, St. John the Baptist is also spiritually present to us when we receive the sacrament.
If you haven’t received the sacraments in a long time, or if you don’t receive them as regularly as you’d like, John the Baptist is someone who can help you to return to them, to find your way out of the wilderness and come home. Truly, any saint can do the same, but, next to the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph, John the Baptist is venerated above all other saints due to him being the first outside of the Holy Family to follow Christ. This witness touched my heart with the beauty of his virtue, and I invite you, if you are struggling in your own spiritual desert, to ask him to renew your heart as well.