Blessed Gérard Tonque (who died on September 3, 1120) was a French Benedictine monk who was the guest master of the Benedictine Monastery St. Maria Latina in Jerusalem. The guest house, situated on the other side of the road of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was very big as it was always occupied by numerous pilgrims who came to see the places where Jesus lived and died and rose from the dead. Because the journeys in those days were a big strain, most of the pilgrims arrived in Jerusalem exhausted or sick.
Therefore the guest house of St. Maria Latina was more a hospital than a hotel and it was in those days commonly known as the Hospital of Jerusalem. Apart from nursing the sick they used to accommodate abandoned children, feed the starving, clothe the needy and care for discharged prisoners. Blessed Gérard's hospital was a well organised charitable organisation.
Blessed Gérard founded the Brotherhood of St. John of Jerusalem to run the hospital.
This community is the historical root of the Hospital Order of St. John, the oldest hospital order of the Church (founded in 1099), known as the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta or in short the Order of Malta, whose Anglican branch, The Grand Priory in the British Realm of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem (founded in 1831), is well known in South Africa as The Priory of the Order of St. John through its offspring the St. John Ambulance Association and Brigade (founded in 1877).
The statutes of the Brotherhood of St. John of Jerusalem are the basis of the Rule of the Order of St. John whose spirituality is going back to the Benedictine principle of hospitality, expressed in chapter 53 of the Rule of St. Benedict which reads: "All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt 25:35). Proper honour must be shown to all, especially to those who share our faith (Gal 6:10) and to pilgrims". And that is exactly what the hospital of Jerusalem and its brotherhood did.
Blessed Gérard and his successors called the sick "the poor of Christ" or simply "the holy poor" indicating that they being welcomed as Christ, thus represent Christ to those who have the honour of serving them. Loving ones neighbour therefore becomes worship of God and the members of the hospital order made the promise "to be servants and slaves to our Lords, the sick". A principle of the brotherhood's spirituality was right in the contradiction of the spirit of the time not to gracefully grant favours to those in need and to be honoured for what they had done, but to consider it a favour to have the honour of serving the needy and thus receive the grace of being close to Christ who is being represented by the poor.
Such an attitude is still a contradiction to the Spirit of our times, where helpers often consider themselves superior to those they help and do not realise what graceful chance they miss to meet the Lord in the needy.
On the other hand the hospital of Jerusalem did not disregard the spiritual needs of their Lords, the sick. The hospital was actually regarded as a spiritual community and the sick were not only cared for bodily but also benefited from the pastoral care of the hospital.
The Rule of the Order of St. John reads in chapter 17: "When a sick comes to the house ... he may be received as follows: After he has first faithfully confessed his sins to a priest, he may receive Holy Communion, and afterwards he may be carried to a bed and may be lovingly fed every day like the Lord, according to the possibilities of the house, even before the brothers have their meal. And the Reading and the Gospel may be read in the hospital on all Sundays and the sick may be sprinkled with Holy Water during the procession."
The hospital was considered both a church building and church community anyway. The ward was a big room with an altar inside, so that all the sick could participate in Holy Mass without having to leave their beds.
All in all the brotherhood and the hospital order founded by Blessed Gérard thought of the hospital as a community of saints: The brothers extended God's loving care to the needy. They acted on Christ's behalf, because the church is the body of Christ and Christ is thus acting at all times through his church. But the brothers met Christ in the Sick as well (cf. "Whenever you did this for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me!" Mt. 25.40).
All involved, the brothers on the one hand and the sick on the other hand, are mutually representing Christ, making life in the community of the hospital a mutual encounter with the Lord and therefore an event of salvation.
Concerning the foundation of the Order of St. John through Blessed Gérard Tonque, the opinions of the scientists differ considerably according to their intention, either to proof the independence of the foundation, or to proof a long tradition. The one group of historians states, the hospital would have been destroyed in the Seljuks' Raid AD 1070 - 1078 and would have been rebuilt soon afterwards. Other historians think, the hospital would have withstood the Seljuks' Raid and its director would also have been in Jerusalem during the siege in 1099.
A fresco in the Chapel of the contemporary Grand Magistry in the Via Condotti in Rome depicts Blessed Gérard (Beato Gherardo) chained with a loaf of bread in the left hand. (The picture at the top of this page!) This reminds us of the legend which tells us, Blessed Gérard would have thrown loaves of bread over the walls of Jerusalem to the hungry crusaders during the siege of six weeks preceding the conquest. He would have been caught and brought before the Ottoman defenders to be charged for supporting the enemy. When evidence was to be produced the loaves of bread in his coat had miraculously changed into stones and Blessed Gérard was acquitted.
Blessed Gérard reorganised the former guest house, which was then the hospice or hospital of Jerusalem totally in AD 1099, the year of the conquest of Jerusalem by the crusaders. Of course, he had to do so, because there was a vast increase of patients admitted to the hospital from among the crusaders themselves and all those who followed their trail as pilgrims again into the freed Holy City. This reorganisation is considered the foundation of the Order of St. John.
It is irrelevant if that reorganisation now means either the detachment from the maybe still existing mother monastery of St. Maria Latina and the modification of the Rule of St. Benedict, or the gradual change of the Brotherhood of the hospital, which was presided over by Gérard, into a religious order in the sense of a daughter foundation, which now took on a mother's role for the Brotherhood which continued to exist. It is certain, that from this time on the Brothers of the Order , which since then is called the Order of St. John, vow to live a life according to the Evangelical Counsels - poverty, chastity and obedience -, wear their own religious vestments ( a black habit with a white beam cross at the left side) and live according to their own regulations. Unfortunately these original regulations got lost, but we may assume, that is was - like the first preserved Rule of Gérard's successor, Raymond du Puy - a conglomerate consisting of Augustinian and Benedictine ingredients with own additions. Therefore I cannot second the opinion , that the Community under Gérard's leadership would have been nothing more than a group of people of similar interests loosely joined together. This is not in contradiction to the fact that in the particular sense of Canon Law we can call the Community an independent order only since the time between 1135 and 1153.
Many pilgrims joined the newly founded order as helpers and brothers already in Gérard's times. Rich donations, e.g. by Godfrey of Bouillon and King Baldwin I (1108) enabled Gérard amongst other things to erect branch hospitals in European Mediterranean harbours. Already before 1113 there were branch hospices at the castle of St. Egid, in Asti, Pisa, Bari, Ydrontum, Tarent and Messina. Pilgrims, who got sick, should be treated there at an early stage, because otherwise the influx of sick pilgrims into the Hospital of Jerusalem would have become too big, especially as the passage to Jerusalem was free again in these times and therefore big amounts of pilgrims came to Jerusalem again.
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