Preacher of Peace
An Historical Sketch of Blessed John of Vercelli
by REGINALD M. COFFEY, O.P.
The National Association of the Holy Name Society
First printed Feast of the Purification, 1949
God our Father, You raised Blessed John of Vercelli to leadership in Your church and made him an apostle of the Holy Name of Jesus, Your divine Son. We ask of you, through the intercession of Blessed John, a renewal of devotion to Your son among ourselves and our fellow men. May all men come to know, to love and to reverence the most Holy Name of Jesus -- "So that at Jesus' name every knee must bend in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim to the glory of God the Father: JESUS CHRIST IS LORD"
It was in the year of Our Lord 1232 and the Italian university town of Vercelli was buzzing with excitement. The reason for the excitement was not, as one might think, the arrival of a group of jugglers or strolling players; nor was it a startling bit of scandal concerning the private lives of the higher-ups. It was! a reason that was peculiar to the middle ages, the ages of Faith - when a saint could draw a bigger crowd than any spectacle and when holiness of life was a question of paramount concern even to notorious sinners: a famous preacher had arrived in the small university city and was setting the town by its ears. Jordan of Saxony, the second Master General of the young but up-and-coming Order of Preachers, was preaching daily in Vercelli and with great effect.
The citizens of Vercelli had heard of Brother Jordan and the stir that he had caused throughout all Italy, particularly in university towns such as Bologna. A former university man himself, he directed his message in a particular way to this most influential sector of medieval life, and his success had been stupendous. He had succeeded in filling the ranks of the preaching friars with famous professors and brilliant students. It was said in university circles that where Jordan passed scholarship suffered a hard blow because he took the best of the scholars with him.
However, at Vercelli there were several militant professors who were determined that their university would not suffer such a fate, and among these capable and fluent men were two outstanding leaders-Walter of Germany, a professor of physical science, and John Garbella, a renowned professor of both canon and civil law. These two men led the attack (or should we say defense) against Jordan. Daily they harangued their students, warning them not even to go to hear Jordan preach because, as Walter put it, "Like a courtesan he tries to seduce people by his winning address." But in spite of all the eloquent efforts of Walter and John and the other professors many students and professors, too, were attracted by the voice of the angelic siren and many of them never returned.
Then a dreadful thing happened. Walter of Germany himself; impelled by his overwhelming curiosity, went to hear Jordan. Unlike Ulysses, who had permitted himself within range of the siren's voice only after having been bound to the mast, Walter took no such precautions. He depended upon his strong will alone to protect him from the blandishments of the great preacher. Walter became a member of the Order of Preachers. Walter's defection had a great effect upon the other leader of the professors, John Garbella. Upon hearing of it, relates the author of the Vitae Fratrum,". ... at once forgetting self and the open books before him, which he did not even wait to close, and his household goods, set off alone to the convent, like one crazed. Meeting a friend in the street who desired to know where he was bound in such haste and without his servant, he replied without stopping, `l am going to God.’ Upon reaching the place where the brethren were staying ... and finding Master Jordan among the brethren, he threw off his silken gown, fell to his knees and cried out! , 'I belong to God.' Without further inquiry or delay Master Jordan answered, 'Since you belong to God we then in His Name deliver you over to His service. And raising him from the ground he gave him the habit." Thus it was that John Garbella, who was to become known to history as a leader in the devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus which evolved into the Holy Name Society under the title of Blessed John of Vercelli, was received into the Order of Preachers in the most holy Name of God. He was about thirty.
John was born, according to the reckoning of the distinguished Dominican historian, Pere Mortier, in the closing years of the twelfth or the opening years of the thirteenth century at Mosso Santa Maria, a little village near the town of Vercelli. After preparing himself by study at a monastery near his home, he went to the University of Paris, then the greatest seat of learning in the Christian world, at the age of sixteen or seventeen. He received his doctorate in both laws when he w! as about twenty-one.
Even at that early age he enjoyed enough of a reputation as a scholar to open a school of his own at the University, and it seems that he was successful, for he remained in Paris until 1229. The reason for his departure was not lack of success but the force of circumstances. For in 1229 there broke out one of those feuds between town and gown that made the occupation of a student in those days one that was far from boring. However, the riot of 1229 was different. In this case the throne sided with the city authorities against the University. The University authorities were outraged and every professor but one quit Paris. John returned to his native heath and opened a school at the progressive university there. He was happily engaged in his scholarly pursuits, basking in the limelight that his ability as a professor cast about him, and enjoying to the full the good things of this world when his false peace was so rudely shattered by Jordan of Saxony.
Superior of the Order
For a time, after entering the Order, Brother John disappears into the obscurity of novitiate life. He is not heard of again until 1245, when he became prior of the Dominican convent at Vercelli. But from that point on he stamps his impression upon the pages of history with increasing clarity. His great learning in the law coupled with his ability as a preacher soon drew to him the attention of the Holy See, and in 1251 Innocent IV appointed him legate apostolic to Lombardy and inquisitor. He was sent to Venice, and there he succeeded in making peace between the warring city-states of Lombardy and establishing religious concord.
In 1255, at the general chapter of the Dominican Order at Milan, Humbert de Romanis, the Master General of the Order, appointed him Vicar for Hungary. This was one of the most difficult and dangerous positions in the Order. Hungary, then as now, was under the heel of a conqueror. The tartar hordes from the Steppes of Russia were overrunning the country, They were a barbarous, pagan host and martyrdom among the Christians of Hungary was an everyday occurrence. Whole convents of Hungarian Dominicans had been wiped out and their inmates killed, often by torture. How history does repeat itself! Brother John took the difficult assignment without a word of objection. A detailed account of his adventures in Hungary would, no doubt, make lively reading. But the only chronicler who mentions it is Sebastian D'Olmedo, whose only comment upon the mission is contained in one sentence: "Brother John, appointed Vicar for Hungary by the Master General, proved himself worthy of the post in the accomplishment of his mission.
That he won the esteem of his brethren, who probably heard what heroic acts the "accomplishment of his mission" entailed, is evidenced by the fact that immediately upon his return he was elected prior at Bologna, one of the most important convents of the Order. He held this post only a short time, for at the provincial chapter of 1257 he was elected Provincial of Lombardy. The old writers tell us that during his term of office as Provincial, John had no fixed abode. He spent his time continually upon the road, traveling from house to house and preaching as he went. This constant visiting of the houses of his province was no easy task, for John always traveled on foot in spite of a crippled leg which forced him to limp, and he kept, even on his journeys, the fasts and other observances of the Order. As a result of his constant visitations the houses of Lombardy were kept on the qui vive.
In the spring of the year 1259 he was in attendance at the general chapter of the Order of Valenciennes, a chapter notable not only in Dominican history but in the history of the Church, for it was there that plans were made for the reorganization of the Dominican courses of studies, a curriculum which has served as a model for Catholic seminaries to this day. The task of drawing up a suitable course of studies was entrusted to the hands of three of the greatest scholars in the history of the Church: Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great, and Peter of Tarentasia (who later became Innocent V). At the next General Chapter, held in Paris in 1264, John, who had been retained in his position as Provincial of Lombardy, was elected Master General of the Order. He was a bit elderly for such a strenuous position because at that time he was over sixty years of age, and the position, particularly in John's time when all visiting of convents throughout the whole world was done on foot, called for a man who was in the prime of life.
Nevertheless, John threw himself into the work of his new office with enthusiasm by merely acting on a world-wide scale as he had acted when Provincial of Lombardy. He was constantly on the road. The Dominicans of the world found themselves in the same predicament that the Lombards had been in when he was provincial. No Englishman, Frenchman or German could ever be sure that the next traveler who knocked upon the door of the convent would not be the Master General. Not that John was at all frightening of aspect. On the contrary, he was a pleasant-looking little man, whose small size and limp made him appear pathetic rather than terrifying. Still, it was known throughout the Order that he could be very severe when he came across gross negligence.
Brother John held the office of General until his death in 1283. In that time he traveled much and did great things for the Church and the Order. However, in a short sketch such as this it is not possible to give the life of a great man in detail.
First, let us briefly glance at the great Pope, Gregory X, whose inspiration it was to foster the preaching of reverence to the Holy Name and entrust its promulgation to another great and holy man John of Vercelli. Gregory is known to history as "the Peacemaker" because it was due to his efforts, strenuous and unrelenting, that peace was maintained throughout the Christian world during his reign. Gregory succeeded in his time in establishing peace between warring factions in Germany and Italy and in ending the strife between parties within the German Empire. He also succeeded in re-uniting the Greek Church with Rome, "He desired furthermore," writes Father Theodore English, a competent historian, "to promote peace among individuals as well as nations. To this end he sought to crush the widespread evils of profanity, obscenity, blasphemy and perjury. At his insistence, the closing session of the Council at Lyons on July 17, 1274, unanimously passed a decree ordering that increased reverence for, and devotion to, the name of the Deity be shown by all Christian peoples."
Holy Name Commission
On September 20, 1274, the Pope issued his history-making brief, Nuper in Concilio to the Master General of the Order. After the usual beginning and a few general remarks the Pope wrote: "Recently during the Council held at Lyons, we judged it proper to urge the faithful to demonstrate mote reverence for that Name above all names, the only Name in which we claim salvation, the Name of Jesus Christ Who has redeemed us from the bondage of sin. . . . Wherefore, with a view of obeying that apostolic precept, 'In the Name of Jesus let every knee be bent,' We wish that at the pronouncing of that Name, every one should bow his head as a sign that interiorly he bends the knee of his heart. Therefore, We by Our Apostolic authority enjoin upon you and the members of your Order to use solid reason when preaching to the people, that thus they may be led to comply with Our desires,"
Blessed John of Vercelli lost no time in putting the Pope's instructions into action. He sent copies of the Pope's letter with one of his own appended to every Provincial of the Order throughout the world. The General wrote: "Desirous of increasing the honor of God, and anxious to obey the apostolic precept laid upon us, and to incite the faithful to increased devotion, we command that as we personally are fulfilling the will of the Pontiff, you also shall see to it that the preachers subject to your authority carry out the orders of the Pope with utmost diligence, and by methods best calculated to bring conviction." And John, as we have seen in the sketch, was not one to let an order lapse through inactivity. That he followed up this letter by personal supervision is indicated by the fact that in the two general chapters left during his lifetime the Pope's edict was reiterated.
The Dominicans throughout the world, under John's leadership and constant encouragement, threw themselves into the preaching of the devotion to the Holy Name with all the eloquence and ability for which they were famous, a fame that had decided the Pope to entrust this important work to them. Within a short time an altar dedicated to the Most Holy Name was erected in every Dominican Church, and it was at this altar that every procession began and ended. With their experience in organization behind them - an experience gathered in forming a group of lay apostles called the Militia of Jesus Christ, and later in forming the Third Order of St. Dominic, both societies composed of laymen to combat heresy and to raise the standards and increase the faith of the people - the Dominicans realized that a devotion could be made permanent and effective if it were entrusted to an organized group. Thus, the origin of the Confraternity to the Most Holy Name of God - which is one of the founding Confraternities that later become the Holy Name Society.
The nine last years of Blessed John's life were lived as strenuously as the seventy-odd preceding them. During these years he saw one of his subjects elevated to the Papal throne under the title of Innocent V. John himself refused the patriarchate of Jerusalem offered him by Nicholas III. He was entrusted by the Holy See with peace-making missions to the ever restless Italian states, and, as previously, he succeeded in bringing an end to discord. He was constantly on the road, in spite of his age, visiting Dominican convents throughout the world. In 1278 there reached the ears of the ever vigilant General a report that certain English Dominicans were publicly repudiating the writings of the Order's greatest teacher and John's friend, Thomas Aquinas, now dead. John sent a visitator to England with instructions to bring the rebels into line, by harsh measures if necessary. In 1280 John himself went to Oxford for the general chapter of the Order. Upon that occasion he had the opportunity to see how his instructions had been carried out. He was satisfied with what he discovered. The English had returned to ways of sound doctrine.
Returning from England, the General decided to visit the Dominicans in northern continental Europe, so he set off through Flanders for Germany. It is said that he returned from the trip with enfeebled health because he had been subjected to the rigors of a northern winter. In 1282 the little Italian once more set off for the cruel north on foot to attend the general chapter at Vienna, visiting Dominican convents on the way. From Vienna, to commemorate the approaching canonization of St. Thomas Aquinas, he addressed an encyclical letter to the brethren, "a sweetly serene letter" in which he exhorted them to be mindful of the greatness of their ancestors, the Dominics, the Thomases, the Jordans, the Humberts, and to let such glorious example inspire them to greater efforts to perfect their own lives. It is the last letter we have from his pen. Upon leaving Austria, John traveled through France. It must have been a touching sight to see the little old man limping along the roads of Europe headed for far-distant Italy. But this time he didn't make it. Having stopped at Montpelier, France, to preside at a chapter being held there, he was unable to continue his journey. He made a valiant effort to do so but fell sick after he was on the road for two days. He was carried back to a Cistercian Monastery, where he died on November 30, 1283. He was buried in the Dominican convent at Montpelier.IMPRIMATUR:
The tomb of Blessed John was desecrated by the Calvinists in 1562, but so vivid was his memory in the diocese of Vercelli and in the Order of Preachers, that Pope Plus X in spite of the fact that his body could not be found for examination (a deterrent to canonization) raised him to the altars of the Church in 1903, an unusual honor to be accorded after the lapse of six centuries.
Philip F. Hannan
Archbishop of New Orleans
May 4, 1975