Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Feast of St John Gualbert

On the calendar of the Extraordinary Form, today is the feast of St John Gualbert, founder of the monastic congregation known from their mother-house as the Vallumbrosians (the “Shady Valley” monks.) Like his contemporaries Ss Romuald and Peter Damian, he played an important role in the great reform movement taking place within the Church in the 11th century. The life of the Vallumbrosians was extremely austere in an age of terrible laxity among monks, and Pope Alexander II (who died very shortly before him in 1073) testified that it was largely though St John’s efforts that the vice of clerical simony, which had become so common it was hardly even noticed, was largely extirpated in central Italy.

The Vallumbrosa Altarpiece, by Perugino, 1500. The Saints at the bottom are, from left to right, Bernardo degli Umberti, a member of the Vallumbrosian Order who became a cardinal in 1097, and bishop of Parma in 1106, John Gualbert, Benedict and the Archangel Michael.
However, St John is particularly known for an episode that took place in his early life, before he embraced the monastic state. He was born into a Florentine noble family in the later 10th century, when faction-fighting and street-battles among the nobility were a routine fact of life. In the course of this, his older brother Ugo was murdered, and John determined to avenge him privately. One day (the Breviary says it was Good Friday), when he was in the company of his friends and supporters, all of them fully armed, he came across the murderer, unarmed, in an alley from which there was no way to escape. As John advanced to kill him, the man fell on his knees and threw out his arms like those of Christ on the Cross; the sight of this moved him to repent, and he not only forbore his revenge, but embraced and forgave the murderer. John then went to pray at the church of St Miniato on a hill outside the city, where the crucifix on one of the altars nodded to him, signifying the Lord’s acceptance of this gesture of true Christian forgiveness. For this reason, the Gospel of his feast day is not the taken from the Common of Abbots, but repeated (in part) from the Friday after Ash Wednesday.

“You have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thy enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you: That you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven, who maketh his sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust. For if you love them that love you, what reward shall you have? do not even the publicans this? And if you salute your brethren only, what do you more? do not also the heathens this? Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5, 43-48)

In the altarpiece show above, by Giovanni del Biondo, (ca. 1370), St John is shown forgiving his brother’s killer in the upper left section. Below it is depicted an especially famous episode in the ecclestical history of Florence, one which is connected to a contemporary of St John known as “Petrus Igneus - Fiery Peter.” A simoniac bishop, Peter of Pavia, was made bishop of Florence, much to the indignation of the populace, who demanded a trial by fire to determine the legitimacy of his appointment. Their appellant, a monk of St John’s order also called Peter, celebrated Mass in the presence of a crowd of some 3000 people, then, removing his chasuble (of course), walked between two raging pyres set close very to each other, remaining totally unscathed, even though the fire seemed to fill his alb, and he sank into the hot coals up to his ankles. This was taken as God’s judgment that his cause was just, and Peter of Pavia was removed from the See at the order of Pope Alexander, while Peter the monk was eventually made a cardinal and Papal legate. His feast is kept in Florence and by the Vallumbrosian order on February 8th.

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