John Gualbert was born in Florence sometime around the year 995. He was educated in a cathedral school, but in his teen years he fell in with the wrong crowd and was drawn away by worldly vanities. As a young man, his brother was murdered, which devastated John. John resolved to take vengeance, and on Good Friday cornered his brother's killer and drew a sword to slay him. The man, however, dropped to his knees and begged mercy in the name of Jesus Christ. Moved at the appeal to pity and the invocation of the Savior's adorable name, John had mercy and let the man live. Then the both of them went into a Church to weep and beg pardon for their sins. This was the beginning of St. John's conversion.
We next see him in a local Benedictine monastery, where his progress in virtue was so swift and pure that his brothers began to whisper his name as a potential successor to the abbacy. Horrified by the thought, John and another companion left the monastery to seek greater solitude. He finally settled down at the Valle Ombrosa in Tuscany, and with some other hermits whom he found already living in the place, founded a small Benedictine monastery dedicated to observing the primitive Rule of St. Benedict. This was the seed of what would become the Order of Vallombrosa.
The commitment of the brothers of St. John to poverty was absolute, and he was particularly insistent that the brothers give all they could to succor the poor. As the community grew, St. John traveled about the region founding no less than ten other monasteries. He is also remembered for his fierce denunciation of simony, a major problem in the Church of the 11th century. Tradition says that his preaching was so effective that simony was practically eradicated in the region of Tuscany.
Despite his holiness, St. John Gualbert never allowed himself to take Holy Orders, not even minor orders. He died in 1073 at the ripe age of 80. St. John was canonized in 1193, but veneration of St. John never really caught on outside northern Italy. He was not added to the universal calendar until 1595. His feast unfortunately was one of that suffered degradation when it was removed from the Novus Ordo cycle in 1969, though the Roman Missal still allows an optional memorial of his feast day on July 12 (GIRM, 355,c).
The Vallumbrosan Order was extremely popular during the 11th and 12th centuries, though its notoriety waned after the Mendicant movements. The wars of northern Italy often devastated the Vallumbrosan monasteries; the motherhouse, for example, was looted and burned in 1529 during the invasion of Charles V. The order dwindled in the post-Reformation era, was eventually merged with the Sylvestrines, and was ultimately suppressed by the atheist Italian government in 1866. Only four monasteries and a few monks remain to the order.
He is the patron saint of forests and foresters.
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