Saint of the Day – 12 July – St John Gualbert (c 985-1073) Abbot, Founder of the Vallumbrosan Order and many monasteries, Apostle of the poor, Reformer – born Giovanni Gualberto in c 985 at Florence, Italy and died in 1073 at Passignano near Florence, Italy of natural causes. Patronages – Forest workers, Foresters, Park rangers, Parks, Badia di Passignano, Vallumbrosan Order, Italian Forest Corps, Brazilian forests.
Giovanni Gualberto was born circa 985 to nobles who hailed from the Visdomini house, he was born in the castle known as Poggio Petroio. His sole sibling was his older brother Ugo. He was also related to the Blessed Pietro Igneo.
He was educated and raised Catholic but in his adolescence cared little for religion. He was instead focused on frivolous things and was concerned with vain amusements and romantic intrigues. When his brother Ugo was murdered, Gualbert set out to avenge his death.
On Good Friday, as he was riding into Florence accompanied by armed men, he encountered his enemy in a place where neither could avoid the other. John would have slain him but his adversary, who was totally unprepared to fight, fell upon his knees with his arms stretched out in the form of a cross and implored him, for the sake of Our Lord’s holy Passion, to spare his life. St John said to his enemy, “I cannot refuse what you ask in Christ’s name. I grant you your life and I give you my friendship. Pray that God may forgive me my sin.” Grace triumphed.
Gualbert entered the nearby Benedictine church at San Miniato al Monte to pray and the figure on the crucifix bowed His head to him in recognition of his generous and merciful act. Gualbert begged pardon for his sins and that week cut off his hair and began to wear an old habit that he had borrowed.
This holy miracle, forms the subject of Edward Burne-Jones’s artwork, “The Merciful Knight” and Joseph Shorthouse, the author, adapted this in his celebrated novel “John Inglesant”. The explanatory inscription provided by Burne-Jones tells the viewer of a knight who forgave his enemy when he might have destroyed him and how the image of Christ kissed him in token that his acts had pleased God.
Gualbert became a Benedictine monk at San Miniato despite his father’s opposition. His father hastened to find his son but gave him his blessing when he heard his son’s arguments and saw that he was resolute in his decision. But he counselled his son to do good. He fought against simoniacal actions of which both his Abbot Oberto and the Bishop of Florence, Pietro Mezzabarba were accused and their guilt discovered. Unwilling to compromise, he left to find a more solitary and strict life. He often fasted and imposed other strict penances on himself. His attraction was for the cenobitic and not eremitic life so after he spent some time with the monks at Camaldoli but later settled at Vallombrosa where he founded his own convent in 1036. Instead of a traditional garden he opted to have his monks plant trees (firs and pines for the most part), hence his patronage of forests and foresters. He founded additional monasteries for his order in locations such as Rozzuolo and San Salvi.
He became a noted figure for his compassion to the poor and the ill. Pope Leo IX travelled to Vallambrosa to see and talk with St John. Pope Stephen IX and Alexander II held him in the greatest esteem as did Pope Gregory VII who praised Gualbert for the pureness and meekness of his faith as a staunch example of compassion and goodness. Gualbert also admired the teachings of the Church Fathers, in particular Saint Basil and Saint Benedict of Nursia.
He never wished to be ordained to the priesthood and nor did he even wish to receive the minor orders. He fought manfully against simony and in many ways promoted the interest of the Faith in Italy. After a life of great austerity, he died whilst the angels were singing round his bed, on 12 July 1073
The holy lives of the first monks at Vallombrosa attracted considerable attention and brought many requests for new foundations but there were few postulants, since few could endure the extraordinary austerity of the life. Thus only one other monastery, that of San Salvi at Florence, was founded during this period. But when the founder had mitigated his rule somewhat, three more monasteries were founded and three others reformed and united to the order during his lifetime. In the struggle of the popes against simony the early Vallumbrosans took a considerable part, of which the most famous incident is the ordeal by fire undertaken successfully by St Peter Igneus in 1068. Shortly before this the monastery of St Salvi had been burned and the monks ill-treated by the anti-reform party. These events still further increased the repute of Vallombrosa. A Bull of Pope Urban II in 1090, which takes Vallombrosa under the protection of the Holy See, enumerates fifteen monasteries besides the Motherhouse.
St John was Canonised by Pope Celestine III on 24 October 1193.
Pope Pius XII named St John – in 1951 – as the patron saint for the Italian Forest Corps while he was named as the patron for Brazilian forests in 1957.