Earlier this year, our friends in the Oxford Companions established a proto-Shrine to Blessed Gerard, founder of the Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. The Shrine stands at the entrance to the Catholic Chaplaincy of the University and was blessed by the Very Reverend Fr. Nicholas Edmonds-Smith Cong. Orat. in the presence of the Grand Prior of England, Fra’ Max Rumney. The icon of their glorious founder accompanied by prayers of the Order of Malta has become and does stand as a focus point to the student volunteers before they serve “Our Lord’s the Poor” every day in term! Earlier this year, Dr Max Lau, co-founder of the Oxford Companions, wrote this piece about Bl. Gerard for the Society Magazine, Cor ad Cor.
Blessed Gerard stands all but unique in being the founder of a major medieval religious order who has not yet been recognised as a saint. We have no clear idea of where he was from, what he did before becoming rector of a hospital in Jerusalem, or indeed what his last name may have been, if he even had one. And yet, hundreds of Oxford students since 2011, and therefore many of you reading this, have received an email from our email address calling on you to volunteer your time and skills for the poor, the sick and the marginalised in Oxford. As of Trinity Term 2023, the Chaplaincy will soon have a small shrine to the Blessed Gerard at its entrance: a simple icon with an accompanying plaque. On this will be written the prayers said by the Oxford Companions of the Order of Malta as they go to feed the homeless people of Oxford. Hopefully this shrine will inspire others to join them through the years to come, as well as serve as a locus for devotion to the Blessed Gerard. As both a historian and founding member of the Oxford Companions of the Order of Malta, the editor has asked me to put these words together to introduce the Blessed Gerard to those of you unfamiliar with him, and I will also suggest that as far as patrons go, he may well be perfect for Oxford students and alumni in particular.
To begin with what we do know of Blessed Gerard, is to immediately admit how much we do not know. But, these lacunae in themselves imply a history that matches what we do know. We know he was a lay Benedictine brother, which is our first clue as to his life beforehand. Lay brothers are all but gone from most modern monasteries, but previously they were drawn from uneducated working people. This is not to say they were unskilled or unvalued: some would be the great artists and builders, while others would be expert farmers and brewers, but they were still usually marked out from their brothers who would receive full holy orders by distinctive dress (for example the English Benedictine lay brothers had a hood of a different shape and no cowl). Considering no family name has been passed down either, we must therefore assume that Blessed Gerard came from a lowly background, or that if he did come from a somewhat higher station, that he had left all of that behind. In either respect, this adds extra context to his life. Some lay brothers joined as youths, but others joined as frates conversi – that is, men who have lived a secular life for many years – and we know that he was attached to the abbey of St Mary of the Latins in Jerusalem.
We have varying traditions as to his birthplace: one points to Martigues in Provence, and one to Scala on the Amalfi coast, whilst the late 12th century historian William of Tyre claims Amalfi itself as his birthplace. All are possible, as all had links with the Holy Land, with Amalfitan merchants in particular being connected to Jerusalem as they helped to rebuild a hospice in the 1020s after it had been destroyed by Caliph Al-Hakim in 1005 (a man described as the ‘Nero of Islam’ by one 21st century historian, who also all but destroyed the church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009). Wherever he may have been born, in 1070 we know the abbot of St Mary’s appointed him rector of the hospice of Muristan, in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem (the name of the area deriving from Bimārestān, Persian for hospital). Such a position speaks of his administrative skills, as well as perhaps a familiarity with medicine (Amalfitan doctors were renowned at this point as some of the most learned, which again suggests an origin for him there), but it was the dramatic events to follow thirty years later that were to propel the Blessed Gerard to our inboxes in Oxford today.
As in 1099, the armies of what would later be called the First Crusade besieged the city – most of the Christian population had been expelled to prevent collusion with the attackers, but those working in the hospital were permitted to stay as they treated all, regardless of origin or religion. A 13th century tradition tells us that Blessed Gerard threw bread to the starving crusaders outside the walls during the siege, and that when caught doing so by its defenders, the loaves of bread hidden in his coat turned into stones. Another tradition said he was tortured by the Islamic defenders for hiding the hospital’s money from them, leaving him crippled for the rest of his life as he sought to help the poor himself.
With the capture of Jerusalem by the crusaders, Christians not only returned to the city, but many from the west poured in, increasing the need for the hospital especially as the pilgrim trade grew exponentially. Fortunately, the city’s new secular rulers patronised the hospital: Godfrey of Bouillon, the crusader too humble to call himself king where Christ wore his crown, gave it some initial property, but then the first King, Baldwin, granted it 1/10 of the spoils of the 1101 battle of Ramla – pilgrims such as Theoderich and John of Wurzburg described it as a palace for the sick and poor when they saw the hospital later in the century. In the ten years since the capture of Jerusalem, it became one of the most important institutions in the nascent kingdom, with daughter hospitals founded along Benedictine lines along the pilgrim trail to the west. The Blessed Gerard and his followers set up hospitals in the major pilgrim ports of Bari, Otranto, Taranto, Messina, Pisa, Asti and Saint-Gilles-du-Gard. It completely eclipsed its nominal parent abbey of St Mary of the Latins, and so in 1113 Pope Paschal II promulgated the Papal Bull Pie Postulatio Voluntatis, which recognised the Hospital as a new religious order, and confirmed its independence and sovereignty. Blessed Gerard died in his seventies on the 3rd September sometime between 1118 and 1121, with the late 12th century historian Fulcher of Chartres giving him this epitaph:
Here lies Gerard, the humblest man in the East, the servus of the poor, hospitable to strangers, meek of countenance but with a noble heart. One can see in these walls how good he was. He was provident and active. Exerting himself in all sorts of ways, he stretched forth his arms into many lands to obtain what he needed to feed his own. On the seventeenth day of the passage of the sun under the sign of Virgo [3rd September], he was carried into heaven by the hands of angels.
His humility stretched far and wide: in preparation for this article, I reached out to the Grand Prior of England, Fra’ Max Rumney, and he related how he had discussed the Blessed Gerard with the previous Papal Nuncio to the UK, Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti. The Nuncio is now prefect of the dicastery for the Eastern Churches, which he is eminently qualified for as he was previously posted to Armenia. In the great libraries there, he recalled a text discussing how a 13th century Armenian traveller had met a Knight of St John and seen him care for a wounded man with his own hands. This struck him greatly, as the Knight had servants with him, and was clearly a social superior, but he was not above the most menial of work. Fra’ Max then noted how, 900 years later, this active choice to love your neighbour as yourself, regardless of who you or they are, remains an essential part of the inspiration Blessed Gerard bequeathed to the Order. Indeed, Fra’ Max also shared that he had once asked Cardinal Silvano Maria Tomasi (the Holy Father’s Delegate to the Order) why Blessed Gerard had not yet been recognised as a saint. The answer, apparently, was that in all humility no one had ever asked the Holy See to pursue his cause – although in recent years there has been renewed interest, and so this long overdue recognition of sainthood may be not too many more years in coming.
Msgr. Francois Ducaud-Bourget wrote in 1958 on the spiritual heritage of the Order that Blessed Gerard was “not a man with great projects and plans laid far in advance, but one who met the challenges of the moment and at times foreseed them”. A novena in honour of the Blessed Gerard: https://www.comendadorasdemalta.org/en/2021/10/novena-in-honor-of-blessed-gerard/ is more holistic, acknowledging his noteworthy roles as a Provider and Almoner, Father of the Hospital, Guardian of the Poor and Servant of God. After all, this man had been named rector of the hospital long before the First Crusade began, and to create the first truly international order in just a few years must imply a man with not only vision, but also and incredible capacity for organisation, administration and institution building.
This was how I first encountered him, when my old school chaplain, Msgr. Antony Conlon who was also a chaplain of the order, first mentioned him. Though it was his legendary humility that is remembered at the few shrines to him in Italy, Malta, Germany, France, and indeed small reliquaries in Mandeni, South Africa, and London, it was Blessed Gerard the institution builder, the committee man, who was recalled in the various committees I sat on in first my school days and then at Oxford. Alongside Fra’ John Eidinow (Classics Fellow at Merton) and Gregory Lippiatt (then a Doctoral student at Hertford), we launched the Oxford companions with visits to care homes, but within just a few years we were running a project with meals and showers for homeless people every Saturday, all year, and then food and drink runs to homeless people mornings and evenings during term. Likewise we started operating a café at care homes, organising events such as carol concerts, museum visits for SEN children, and recently we have been investigating whether we can help the travelling community in Oxfordshire as well. Likewise, we started holding regular masses, complines, days of recollection and other spiritual activities, and indeed dinners, garden parties and other socials and fundraising events – all in just a few years, and all this was accomplished using an email account named for Blessed Gerard.
It has been just over ten years since the Oxford Companions launched, and in that time, we have been guided and inspired by him in all our works. Our forthnightly (minimum) committee meetings all call on him to pray for us, and therefore he has always appeared as not only the Order’s saint but our personal patron saint, but in general a saint of committees and developing organisations. From the Blessed Gerard, we learned that no task was so great or so lowly to undertake. Simply because a job is complicated and seemingly insurmountable, following his example and through applying the gifts God has given us to organise ourselves, we can work towards solving it. Further, the Order of St John of Malta today may be often composed of the great and the good, but far from applying themselves to charity at a distance, these men and women directly interact with the poor and the sick, following his example. The same member of the Order who sits on grand committees to provide disaster relief in distant parts of the world would also personally prepare soup for homeless people that evening. This makes the Order unique compared to any other charity I or many others have encountered, and I believe it gains that grace through the intercession of Blessed Gerard.
To conclude, we have seen Blessed Gerard at work through the Companions of the Order in Oxford. We believe him to be a saint who inspires people every day to apply the advantages God gives them towards organising themselves in order to serve those in need. Far from there being no modern miracles attributed to the Blessed Gerard, we can see constant small miracles occurring through the work of the Order both locally and around the world. We request his help at committee meetings and in developing organisations, and his example is one which the world could certainly do with in these times. Beyond the Companions and the Order, he is also a saint well suited to Oxford students and alumni in general: a saint who through hard work and grace builds things better than they were before through the daily grind of committee meetings, writing and people management, which so many of us also spend our time doing. As such, a shrine to Blessed Gerard in the chaplaincy – dedicated at its entrance – is the perfect capstone to a decade of the work of the Oxford Companions. Just as the Order has had 900 years of caring for ‘our lords, the poor’ since his life, so too can we, with the intercession of the Blessed Gerard, pray that our work can continue to thrive in Oxford, and that our alumni can continue these works wherever they may go afterwards.
Blessed Gerard, Pray for Us
by Dr Max Lau, in Cor ad Cor. To find out more or purchase a full copy follow Friends and Alumni – The Newman Society