(LifeSiteNews) — Never, from the day when Simon Magus was baptized at Samaria, had hell seemed so near to conquering the Church, as at the period brought before us by today’s feast. Rejected and anathematized by Peter, the new Simon had said to the princes, as the former had said to the apostles: “Sell me this power, that upon whomsoever I shall lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost.” And the princes, ready enough to supplant Peter and fill their coffers at the same time, had taken upon themselves to invest men of their own choice with the government of the churches; the bishops in their turn had sold to the highest bidders the various orders of the hierarchy; and sensuality, ever in the wake of covetousness, had filled the sanctuary with defilement.
The tenth century had witnessed the humiliation of the supreme Pontificate itself; early in the eleventh, simony was rife among the clergy. The work of salvation was going on in the silence of the cloister; but Peter Damian had not yet come forth from the desert; nor had Hugh of Cluny, Leo IX, and Hildebrand brought their united efforts to bear upon the evil. A single voice was heard to utter the cry of alarm and rouse the people from their lethargy: it was the voice of a monk, who had once been a valiant soldier, and to whom the crucifix had bowed its head in recognition of his generous forgiveness of an enemy.
John Gualbert, seeing simony introduced into his own monastery of San Miniato, left it and entered Florence, only to find the pastoral staff in the hands of a hireling. The zeal of God’s House was devouring his heart; and going into the public squares he denounced the bishop and his own abbott, that thus he might at least deliver his own soul.
At the sight of this monk confronting single-handed the universal corruption, the multitude was for a moment seized with stupefaction; but soon surprise was turned into rage, and John with difficulty escaped death. From this day his special vocation was determined: the just, who had never despaired, hailed him as the avenger of Israel, and their hope was not to be confounded. But, like all who are chosen for a divine work, he was to spend a long time under the training of the Holy Spirit.
The athlete had challenged the powers of this world; the holy war was declared: one would naturally have expected it to wage without ceasing until the enemy was entirely defeated. And yet, the chosen soldier of Christ hastened into solitude to “amend his life,” according to the truly Christian expression used in the foundation-charter of Vallombrosa. (Melioranda vita gratia; Litteræ donatias ITTÆ Abbatise; UGHELLI III, 299 vel 231) The promoters of the disorder, startled at the suddenness of the attack, and then seeing the aggressor as suddenly disappear, would laugh at the false alarm; but, cost what it might to the once brilliant soldier, he knew how to abide, in humility and submission, the hour of God’s good pleasure.
Little by little other souls, disgusted with the state of society, came to join him; and soon the army of prayer and penance spread throughout Tuscany. It was destined to extend over all Italy, and even to cross the mountains. Settimo, seven miles from Florence, and San Salvi at the gates of the city, were the strongholds whence the holy war was to recommence in 1063. Another simoniac, Peter of Pavia, had purchased the succession to the episcopal see. John, with all his monks, was resolved rather to die than to witness in silence this new insult offered to the Church of God. His reception this time was to be very different from the former, for the fame of his sanctity and miracles had caused him to be looked upon by the people as an oracle.
No sooner was his voice heard once more in Florence, than the whole flock was so stirred, that the unworthy pastor, seeing he could no longer dissemble, cast off his disguise and showed what he really was: a thief who had come only to rob and kill and destroy. By his orders a body of armed men descended upon San Salvi, set fire to the monastery, fell upon the brethren in the midst of the Night Office, and put them all to the sword; each monk continuing to chant till he received the fatal stroke. John Gualbert, hearing at Vallombrosa of the martyrdom of his sons, intoned a canticle of triumph. Florence was seized with horror, and refused to communicate with the assassin bishop. Nevertheless four years had yet to elapse before deliverance could come; and the trials of St. John had scarcely begun.
St. Peter Damian, invested with full authority by the sovereign pontiff, had just arrived from the Eternal City. All expected that no quarter would be given to simony by its sworn enemy, and that peace would be restored to the afflicted Church. The very contrary took place. The greatest saints may be mistaken, and so become to one another the cause of sufferings by so much the more bitter as their will, being less subject to caprice than that of other men, remains more firmly set upon the course they have adopted for the interests of God and His Church. Perhaps the great bishop of Ostia did not sufficiently take into consideration the exceptional position in which the Florentines were placed by the notorious simony of Peter of Pavia, and the violent manner in which he put to death, without form of trial, all who dared to withstand him.
Starting from the indisputable principle that inferiors have no right to depose their superiors, the legate reprehended the conduct of the monks, and of all who had separated themselves from the bishop. There was but one refuge for them, the Apostolic See, to which they fearlessly appealed; a proceeding which no one could call uncanonical. But there, says the historian, many who feared for themselves rose up against them, declaring that these monks were worthy of death for having dared to attack the prelates of the Church; while Peter Damian severely reproached them before the Roman Council. The holy and glorious Pope Alexander II took the monks under his own protection, and praised the uprightness of their intention. Yet he dared not comply with their request and proceed further, because the greater number of the bishops sided with Peter of Pavia; the archdeacon Hildebrand alone was entirely in favor of the Abbott of Vallombrosa. (Vita S. J. Gualbert ap. BARON, ad an 1063)
Nevertheless the hour was at hand when God Himself would pronounce the judgment refused them by men. While overwhelmed with threats and treated as lambs amongst wolves, John Gualbert and his sons cried to heaven with the psalmist: “Arise, O Lord, and help us; arise, why dost Thou sleep, O Lord; arise, O God, and judge our cause.” At Florence the storm continued to rage. St. Savior’s at Settimo had become the refuge of such of the clergy as were banished from the town by the persecution; the holy founder, who was then residing in that monastery, multiplied in their behalf the resources of his charity.
At length the situation became so critical that one day in Lent of the year 1067 the rest of the clergy and the whole population left the simoniac alone in his deserted palace, and fled to Settimo. Neither the length of the road, deep in mud from the rain, nor the rigorous fast observed by all, says the narrative written at that very time to the sovereign pontiff by the clergy and people of Florence, could stay the most delicate matrons, women about to become mothers, or even children. Evidently the Holy Ghost was actuating the crowd; they called for the judgment of God.
John Gualbert, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, gave his consent to the trial; and in testimony of the truth of the accusation brought by him against the Bishop of Florence, Peter, one of his monks, since known as Peter Igneus, walked slowly before the eyes of the multitude through an immense fire, without receiving the smallest injury. Heaven had spoken: the bishop was deposed by Rome, and ended his days a happy penitent in that very monastery in Settimo.
In 1073, the year in which his friend Hildebrand was raised to the Apostolic See, John was called to God. His influence against simony had reached far beyond Tuscany. The Republic of Florence ordered his feast to be kept as a holiday, and the following words were engraved upon his tomb-stone:
TO JOHN GUALBERT,
CITIZEN OF FLORENCE, DELIVERER OF ITALY
Let us read the notice which the Church consecrates to his blessed memory, though with a few differences in detail.
John Gualbert was born at Florence of a noble family. While, in compliance with his father’s wishes, he was following the career of arms, it happened that his only brother Hugh was slain by a kinsman. On Good Friday, John, at the head of an armed band, met the murderer alone and unarmed, in a spot where they could not avoid each other. Seeing death imminent, the murderer, with arms outstretched in the form of a cross, begged for mercy, and John, through reverence for the sacred sign, graciously spared him.
Having thus changed his enemy into a brother, he went to pray in the church of San Miniato, which was near at hand; and as he was adoring the image of Christ crucified, he saw it bend its head towards him. John was deeply touched by this miracle, and determined thenceforward to fight for God alone, even against his father’s wish; so, on the spot he cut off his own hair and put on the monastic habit. Very soon his pious and religious manner of life shed abroad so great a luster that he became to many a living rule and pattern of perfection. Hence on the death of the abbot of the place he was unanimously chosen superior. But the servant of God, preferring obedience to superiority, and moreover being reserved by the Divine Will for greater things, betook himself to Romuald who was then living in the desert of Camaldoli, and who, inspired by heaven, announced to him the institute he was to form; whereupon he laid the foundations of his Order under the Rule of St. Benedict at Vallombrosa.
Soon afterwards many, attracted by the renown of his sanctity, flocked to him from all sides. He received them into his society, and together with them he zealously devoted himself to rooting out heresy and simony, and propagating the apostolic faith; on account of which devotedness both he and his disciples suffered innumerable injuries. Thus, his enemies in their eagerness to destroy him and his brethren, suddenly attacked the monastery of San Salvi by night, burned the church, demolished the building, and mortally wounded all the monks. The man of God, however, restored them all forthwith to health by a single sign of the Cross. Peter, one of his monks, miraculously walked unhurt through a huge blazing fire, and thus John obtained for himself and his sons the peace they so much desired. From that time forward every stain of simony disappeared from Tuscany; and faith, throughout all Italy, was restored to its former purity.
John built many entirely new monasteries, and restored many others both as to their material buildings and as to regular observance, strengthening them all with the bulwark of holy regulations. In order to feed the poor he sold the sacred vessels of the altar. The elements were obedient to his will when he sought to check evil-doers; and the sign of the Cross was the sword he used whereby to conquer the devils. At length worn out by abstinence, watchings, fasting, prayer, maceration of the flesh and finally old age, he fell into a grievous malady, during which he repeated unceasingly the words of David: “My soul hath thirsted after the strong living God: when shall I come and appear before the face of God?”
When death drew near, calling together his disciples, he exhorted them to preserve fraternal union. Then he caused these words to be written on a paper which he wished should be buried with him: “I, John, believe and confess the faith which the holy apostles preached, and the holy Fathers in the four councils have confirmed.” At length having been honored during three days with the gracious presence of angels, in the seventy-eighth year of his age, he departed to the Lord at Passignano, where he is honored with the highest veneration.
He died in the year of salvation 1073 on the 4th of the Ides of July; and having become celebrated by innumerable miracles, was enrolled by Celestine III in the number of saints.
O true disciple of the New Law, who didst know how to spare an enemy for the love of the Holy Cross! teach us to practice, as thou didst, the lessons conveyed by the instrument of our salvation, which will then become to us, as to thee, a weapon ever victorious over the powers of hell. Could we look upon the Cross, and then refuse to forgive our brother an injury, when God Himself not only forgets our heinous offenses against His Sovereign Majesty, but even died upon the Tree to expiate them? The most generous pardon a creature can grant is but a feeble shadow of the pardon we daily obtain from our Father in heaven. Still, the Gospel which the Church sings in thy honor, may well teach us that the love of our enemies is the nearest resemblance we can have to our heavenly Father, and the sign that we are truly His children.
Thou hadst, O John, this grant trait of resemblance. He who in virtue of His eternal generation is the true Son of God by nature, recognized in thee the mark of nobility which made thee His brother. When He bowed His sacred head to thee, He saluted in thee the character of a child of God, which thou hadst just so beautifully maintained: a title a thousand times more glorious than those of thy noble ancestry. What a powerful germ was the Holy Ghost planting at that moment in thy heart! And how richly does God recompense a single generous act! Thy sanctification, the glorious share thou didst take in the Church’s victory, the fecundity whereby thou livest still in the order sprung from thee: all these choice graces for thy own soul and for so many others, hung upon that critical moment.
Fate, or the justice of God, as thy contemporaries would have said, had brought thy enemy within thy power: how wouldst thou treat him? He was deserving of death; and in those days every man was his own avenger. Hadst thou then inflicted due punishment upon him, thy reputation would have rather increased than diminished. Thou wouldst have obtained the esteem of thy comrades; but the only glory which is of any worth before God, indeed the only glory which lasts long even in the sight of men, would never have been thine. Who would have known thee at the present day? Who would have felt the admiration and gratitude with which thy very name now inspires the children of the true Church?
The Son of God, seeing that thy dispositions were conformable to those of His Sacred Heart, filled thee with His own jealous love of the holy city for whose redemption He shed His blood. O thou that wert zealous for the beauty of the Bride, watch over her still; deliver her from hirelings who would fain receive from men the right of holding the place of the Bridegroom. In our days venality is less to be feared than compromise. Simony would take another form; there is not so much danger of bribery, as of fawning, paying homage, making advances, entering into implicit contracts; all which proceedings are as contrary to the holy Canons, as are pecuniary transactions. And after all, is the evil any the less for taking a milder form, if it enables princes to bind the Church again in fetters such as thou didst labor to break?
Suffer not, O John Gualbert, such a misfortune, which would be the forerunner of terrible disasters. Continue to support with thy powerful arm the common Mother of men. Save thy fatherland a second time, even in spite of itself. Protect, in these sad times, the order of which thou art the glory and the father; give it strength to outlive the confiscations and the cruelties it is suffering from that same Italy which once hailed thee as its deliverer. Obtain for Christians of every condition the courage for the warfare in which all are bound to engage.
On this same day the whole Church unites in the solemn homage which Milan continues to pay, after a lapse of sixteen centuries, to two valiant witnesses of Christ. “Our martyrs Felix and Nabor,” says St. Ambrose, “are the grain of mustard-seed mentioned in the Gospel. They possessed the good odor of faith, though it did not appear to men; persecution arose, they laid down their arms, and bowed their heads to the sword, and immediately the grace that was hidden within them was shed abroad even to the ends of the world; so that we can now in all truth say of them: “Their sound has gone forth into all the earth.”
Let us honor them and ask their intercession by the prayer which the Church addresses to God in commemoration of their glorious combat.
Grant, we beseech thee, O Lord, that as the festival of thy holy Martyrs, Nabor and Felix, returns for us to celebrate, it may always be accompanied by their intercession. Through our Lord, etc.