Blessed Gerard Tonque was a French Benedictine monk and guardian of a guesthouse in Jerusalem, founded after the Seljuks’ Raids of 1070-1078 by merchants from Amalfi, Italy. The hospital was founded on the most important pilgrim route of Christendom. Named ‘Santa Maria Latina’ the hostel, which later became a hospital, was situated opposite the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Many Christian pilgrims from the west arrived sick and severely ill. Santa Maria Latina operated similarly to the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena, which was founded in the year 898 and welcomed the pilgrims arriving from Canterbury in England, through France and finally to Rome along the Via Francigena. To the east the pilgrims who were harassed by robbers and rendered ‘penniless’ by the ‘jizya’ or ‘tax for allowed entry,’ a humiliation tax paid to the Muslim Emir/Governor of Jerusalem, earnestly sought the ‘hospitality’ offered by Blessed Gerard at Santa Maria Latina. The hospital also accommodated abandoned children, fed the starving, clothed the needy and cared for discharged prisoners. As the Siege of Jerusalem raged, the citizens were ordered to defend the Holy City. Likewise Blessed Gerard was obliged to defend Jerusalem by pelting rocks over the bastions onto the crusaders. The famous miracle attributed to this monk occurred during these days. Each day the Benedictine monk climbed upon a parapet and, rather than stones, threw small loaves to the besieging crusaders. This action did not pass unobserved; the Islamic guards arrested Blessed Gerard and took him before the Governor. For evidence the sack of loaves was produced, nonetheless, the accuser could draw but stones from the sack. The loaves were miraculously turned into rocks. The monk was freed to be subsequently arrested and charged with keeping treasure in his hospital. The only treasure Blessed Gerard kept were his ‘holy-poor.’ The monk suffered greatly at the hands of the Islamists. He was savagely tortured, his feet and hands atrociously burnt. On liberating Jerusalem, the crusaders freed him from the Governor’s dungeons and from his fetters. The new Guardian of Jerusalem, Godfrey of Bouillon, was grateful for the monk’s services, for nursing back to health many crusaders at Santa Maria Latina.
Following the First Crusade, Blessed Gerard branched off from the Benedictine Convent and together with a few crusaders and pilgrims, set up his own Brotherhood under the Patronage of the Blessed Virgin and Saint John the Baptist, the patron Saint of the Benedictine Monastery of Monte Cassino, Italy. He retained the Amalfi cross as the symbol for his new Order. The Order’s regulations were the best of Benedictine and Augustinian ingredients and also had rules of their own. Many of the sick became brothers and worked as nurses, while others gave their donations and assets in Europe. Godfrey of Bouillon and King Baldwin I, helped Blessed Gerard found new hospitals in the Mediterranean and European cities. The Hospital of Saint Egid in Asti, hospitals in Pisa, Bari, Ydrontum, Taranto and Messina were founded by the Order. Godfrey was nursed and died in one of Gerard’s hospitals. Therefore, one of the main protagonists of the First Crusade and the first Christian humble undeclared King of Jerusalem, Godfrey of Bouillon, descendent of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Great, died in the hospital of the Military and Hospitaller Order, the Knights of Saint John the Baptist of Jerusalem, Rhodes and of Malta.
One of the main lessons learnt from the First Crusade was that the wives, family and property left behind in Europe by the Crusaders suffered greatly on their leave. This was entirely avoided with the formation of the hospitallier and military orders, the members of the brotherhoods could concentrate solely on their duties. The Brotherhood took the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience seriously. The religious vestment was a black habit with a white cross at the left side. On February 15, 1113, Pope Paschal II solemnly approved Blessed Gerard’s new Order, five years previous to the establishment of the ‘Order of the Knights Templar.’ The Pope addressed his Apostolic letter, ‘Piae postulatio voluntatis,’ to “Gerard, Founder and Warden of the hospice at Jerusalem and to his lawful successors.”(1) Later the Order came to be known as the ‘Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of Saint John the Baptist of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta.’ Chapter 53 of the Rule of Saint Benedict 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 honor must be shown to all, especially to those who share our faith (Gal 6:10) and to pilgrims.”(2) This meant that the Order cared also for the Non-Christians, for the converted Muslims. The Rule of the Order of Saint John, reads in chapter 17: “When a sick (person) 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.”(3) The brothers referred to the sick as; “The holy-poor” and desired “to be servants and slaves to our Lords, the sick”(4) as they kept close to heart, the grace of being close to Christ represented by the ill pilgrims and poor. The ward was a large room having an altar, so that all the sick could participate in Holy Mass without getting up from bed. The Rule of the Order of Saint John reads in chapter 15: “All these things… we command and ordain in the Name of Almighty God, and of the Blessed Mary, and of the Blessed Saint John, and of the holy-Poor.”(5) In 1239, a church erected in close proximity to Santa Maria Latina served for the ‘initiation’ of novices received into the Order. The ‘initiation’ consisted in pledging faithfulness and the vow: “I vow and promise to God Almighty, to the Most Blessed Virgin Mary and to Saint John the Baptist, that I will always be obedient to the superior which God and our Order have given me, that I will live without property and that I will keep chastity, so help me God.”(6) Evidently by these rules and pledges the Order placed itself beneath the direction of Our Lady. Is not this an edifying initiation? Surely secret fraternal societies do not initiate their neophytes in such manner. The nursing-warrior-monks led by Our Lady and the Baptist essentially cared for ‘their Lords the holy-Poor,’ for they desired to serve the suffering Christ and be blessed with enough graces and mercy to do battle against His enemies on Earth. Therefore, the Order’s activities consisted of nursing, prayer, diplomacy, politics, astuteness and war. Blessed Gerard died in Jerusalem on September 3, 1120; his Feast is kept on October 13. Interestingly, this Feast Day corresponds with the miracle of the sun and the last apparition of ‘Our Lady of Fatima’ in 1917. In 1283, the times of the capture of Acre, Blessed Gerard’s remains and relics were kept at Manosque, until the French Revolution in 1789 destroyed them. Two bones were saved and kept in the Church of Martigues and today kept in a closet in the city’s town hall. Blessed Gerard’s entire skull is kept for pilgrim veneration at the monastery church belonging to the cloister nuns of Saint Ursola. He originally founded the nunnery in Jerusalem, today the cloister nuns are found in Valletta, Malta.
The tending of the sick was essentially necessary both for the spiritual and temperol health of the Order and the countries hosting it. The reference to what is today referred to as ‘patients’ or ‘clients’ were back then called ‘our Lords the holy poor.’ This included the pilgrims, first crusading soldiers, and also muslims who confessed that Jesus Christ was the Saviour of Humanity and the Son of God and God Himself. This appellation parallels somewhat the activities of the modern day nuns of Mother Theresa whose aim is to give comfort to the dying regardless of their creed. Anyway, the tending of the ‘holy poor’ was done in wards which had the blessed sacrament and tabernacle in full view. Evidently the ward was considered to be a second church and this reference perfectly mirrors Padre Pio’s words that a hospital can be compared to a tabernacle and the patient to the Lord within the said tabernacle. This the knights knew too well, for they served the sick from silver platters and were happy and joyous about the fact that they were serving Christ with their very best means and comforts. On the battlefield such generosity towards the Lord was repaid with blessings and graces of protection and victory. The sick were blessed and received the Holy Eucharist daily, this to nourish the soul, the physical tending of the sick was akin to praying to the Lord, the former is physical prayer while the latter verbal. Referring to scripture it is appropriate to quote John 9, “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
Blessed Gerard was succeeded by Raymond du Puy de Provence (1121-1160) who was a relative of Adhemar of Le Puy, the papal legate during the First Crusade. Raymond du Puy de Provence developed the Knights Hospitallers into a strong military power. Raymond accepted the eight-pointed Amalfi cross as an official symbol of the Order, which after the establishment of the Order in Malta, became also known as the Maltese Cross and crowned the Icon of ‘Our Lady of Philermos.’ Probably, an ancient sign used in the early church symbolizing the Holy Spirit in a dove like figure. Mary of Agreda in the ‘Mystical City of God,’ mentions, that before the Dormition and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, she witnessed in vision Our Lady receiving from the apostle the Holy Sacrament of the Lord from a box in the shape of an eight pointed cross. The cross represents the eight beatitudes, the four cardinal virtues, and the eight gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Order was named after Saint John the Baptist, who baptized with water and promised the people that the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit. The Saint baptized the Lord with water. The Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, was seen descending upon the Lord (Luke3:15-22). By means of Saint John’s baptizing hand and the Lord’s humility, the Holy Spirit was at that point manifest upon Him. It is not my desire to overdo the significance, however, isn’t the dove a symbol of peace, the strong Christening hand of peace and war was unleashed in the defense of Christendom. In the future years the Knights of Saint John spilled the enemies’ blood (and had their own spilled in the process) within the salty waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
During the Knights’ history, the Mother of God played an important role. The chronicler and historian of the Order, Bosio said: “The veneration, which the knights showed to the most Blessed Virgin and from the shrines, which they erected to her honor. The shrine of Our Lady of Liesse is especially worth being mentioned among those, which was built by three French Knights, who were saved miraculously by Mary.”(7) The Statue of ‘Our Lady of Liesse’ was brought from Egypt to Liesse, the diocese of Soissons, by three Knights of Saint John of Malta, who were miraculously freed from their Islamic enemies. In the Siege of Askalon in 1134, three brothers, Seigneur d’Eppe, Seigneur de Marcois and their younger brother were captured and taken to Egypt. Failing at converting them to Islam, the Sultan sent his daughter Ismeria to seduce and convince them on Mohammed. The Sultan’s daughter was on the contrary converted to Christianity by the brothers and acquired a great interest in Our Lady. One night the brothers and Ismeria witnessed a blinding light and mysterious singing was heard, a statue of Our Lady miraculously appeared. Carrying the statue in turns, the four escaped and walked until exhausted, they slept in the countryside. They woke up in Picardy, France. Near Laon they built a church dedicated to ‘Our Lady of Liesse’ or ‘Our Lady of Happiness.’ Ismeria changed her name to Mary. The original statue was destroyed during the French Revolution, a copy was crowned in 1857 and the Feast is held on December 2. In 1620 the French Knights in Malta erected a church in Valletta, Malta, dedicated to Our Lady of Liesse, it was rebuilt in 1740. In truth the Knights of Saint John of Malta venerated Our Lady under many titles, principally ‘Our Lady of Philermos,’ ‘Our Lady of Liesse,’ ‘Our Lady of Damascus,’ ‘Our Lady of Eleimonitria’ and ‘Our Lady of Carafa.’
The people’s sin caused the Christian Kingdom in Outreamer to come to an end. When the Turk Rukn-ad-Din Baybers became Sultan of Egypt and of Damascus, the Latin Franks were on their way of being driven out completely from the Holy Land. In 1265, Rukn-ad-Din Baybers strengthened his castles in Syria and fell on Caesarea in Palestine, killing all Christian inhabitants and leveling the city to the ground. The same fate befell Arsoof, Jaffa, Sidon, and Safad. Next to fall was the Roman ancient City of Antioch, all the inhabitants were massacred or carried off as slaves. The priests and monks were slaughtered in their churches, and unmentionable acts and sacrileges were committed. The same actions were repeated at Cilicia, 60,000 Christians were killed. Next to fall was the Hospitaller castle Krak des Chevaliers, the headquarters of the Knights of Saint John. The successor of Baybers, Saladin, carried on the same ruthless policy of Christian settlement extermination. In 1285, the Fortress of Margat belonging to the Knights Hospitallers fell to their enemy. Finally, Sultan Saladin besieged and conquered Jerusalem, the heart of the Frankish Kingdom. Next on the extermination list was the port of Tripoli and the port of Acre, which at this point stood alone in the Levant, the last of the Christian strongholds in the post-crusading era. Eight hundred knights and fourteen thousand-foot soldiers defended Acre. The Sultan laid siege upon the port with an army the size of five to ten times larger than the defending number. On April 11, 1291, the new Sultan Khalil attacked Acre. Amongst his weaponry he had an arsenal consisting of ninety mangonels and trebuchets. Courageously led sorties, on the part of the Knights, proved partially successful. Specialist Egyptian sappers and miners quickly brought down the English towers of Blois and of Saint Nicholas. Mameluks breached the double fortified walls of the city in the area of the Gate of Saint Anthony and attacked the Hospitaller positions. The Grandmaster of the Templars led a group of his Knights in support of the Hospitallers, which held out for a while, nonetheless, they were overrun and the entire party killed. The Grandmaster John de Villiers and a handful fled unharmed. The Templars held for a week longer, but the continuous tunneling and sapping brought down the walls of their fortress in the northern tip of the promontory. At Acre, the Germanic Teutonic Knights could not resist the hordes of Mamelukes and fought courageously alongside the military orders. Thousands of Christians were taken into slavery and in this manner the Crusading Age and Christian ambitions in the Middle East were forcefully ended.
In 1238, the Pope issued a bill accusing the Hospitallers of leading lives of scandal, breaking their vows of chastity and poverty. After the grand failure of the seventh crusade, many dissensions occurred between the Christians. At one point, two Catholic chivalric orders (the Templars and the Hospitallers) fought on opposite sides, two centuries earlier this was unthinkable, the Templars were dabbling in the occult and associated with the Assassins. In 1307 the decrepit Order of the Temple was condemned and its leaders arrested. In 1314, its Grandmaster Jacques De Molay accused of various deeds, was burnt at the stake. His Knights were suppressed. The Chinon Parchment exposes certain details which must be mentioned here. The Grandmaster admitted that the initiation practices encouraged the denouncement of the cross and to homosexual acts. Therefore, the initiation practices had truly indeed gone astray from the initial consecration to Our Lady. The logical reason behind this development is the Templar assocation with the Islamic secret society referred to as the Assassins who ‘spat’ on the Holy Cross and were accustomed to sodomy. Apparently though, following a secret general confession, the brothers received absolution (the Sacrament of Reconciliation) from the Pope in 1308. However, why had the Grandmaster not changed such initiation practices earlier, previous to his arrest? Evidently his final death was caused by the French King’s mischief. An interesting coincidence linking the Templar history to the Hospitalier Order is that the day of Grandmaster Jacques de Molay’s arrest was October 13, coincidentally the Catholic Feast Day dedicated to the founder of the Knights of St John the Baptist, Blessed Gerard of Tonque. Also evident is the fact that the French King desired their demise to acquire the Templar’s legendry wealth. Secret fraternal societies claim that much treasure belonging to the Templars, fell into King Philip’s coffers, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The Templars’ wealth (in major part) was not secured by King Philip of France, but transferred by papal bull to the Order of Saint John the Baptist. Following Acre, Pope Clement V protected the refugee Order of Saint John and later granted the Hospitaller Grandmaster Fulk de Villaret, permission to invade the Island of Rhodes. The Pope must have recognized the importance and usefulness of the Knights of Saint John against the sinfulness of the Templars, who similarly to King Solomon fell away. In 1307, Rhodes witnessed the first landings and in 1309 on the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven (August 15) the Knights of Saint John won the Greek Island of Rhodes for themselves. The Knights established their headquarters and renamed themselves as the Knights Hospitallers of Jerusalem and of Rhodes. There was little bloodshed during the Rhodian takeover and the Greeks adapted quickly to the new rulers of their Island.
In 1454, Grandmaster de Lastic chose a thirty-one year old knight, on a delicate mission of securing in Europe, the finances and armaments against the impending Ottoman onslaught planned upon Rhodes. The Knight, Pierre D’Aubusson, was a Frenchman belonging to the Langue of Auvergne. De Lastic was aware of the preparations being implemented by Mehmet, the son of the Sultan Murad. Mehmet was referred to as the ‘Scourge of Europe.’ In 1453, on the Greek Orthodox Feast Day of the Holy Spirit, Constantinople fell beneath the blows of his mace and become the capital city of the Ottoman Islamic Kingdom. The young and energetic Pierre D’Aubusson, was appointed to the post of Captain General and personally supervised the ongoing works of fortification, preparing the city in Rhodes for the impending siege. As the Grandmaster De Lastic was old and ill, D’Aubusson was elected head of the Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem and of Rhodes. In 1479, D’Aubusson declined to pay tribute to the Sultan Mehmet and kept harassing his shipping. The rumor soon circulated that the Sultan’s Armies and Fleets were preparing for an assault upon Alexandria. Grandmaster D’Aubusson was not deceived into believing the fabricated intelligence spread by the Sultan’s agents. As the Sultan’s forces assembled at Marmarice, Mehmet was confident of overcoming and destroying Rhodes, which he referred to as: “That abode of the sons of Satan.” A staggering army of 70,000 men assembled under Mehmet’s standard. The Christians had a force of 600 Knights and 2,000 local militia. Mehmet’s genius developed extensively the purpose of the cannon, to damage and breach city walls. To augment his baleful intentions, at his disposal he owned a heavy battery consisting of three ‘basilisk’ cannons. The cannons, seventeen feet long, firing cannon balls of seven feet in circumference, at a rate of one round per hour, was an unheard of feat of technology for those days. On landing at Trianda, the Turks immediately commenced their bombardment upon the Fortress of Saint Nicholas, which had walls twenty-four feet thick. Other cannons of varying weights hurled projectiles over the city walls bombarding the inner city.
In this hour of dire necessity and need of assistance, the Grandmaster sent an urgent dispatch to all members of the Order in Europe concluding: “What is more sacred than to defend the Faith? What is happier than to fight for Christ?”(8) Sipahi troops assiduously attempted at breaking in through the port’s defenses, only to have their vessels repulsed and many of the troops lost their lives in the process. The incessant bombardment born upon the city caused the defenses and certain parts of the walls to the point of collapse. The Janissaries, the ‘new soldiers’ or the ‘Yeni-Cheri,’ the baneful militia of the Turks, were unleashed upon the Rhodian defenders. They were Christian by birth, selected according to their physique during a five yearly inspection throughout the empire for seven-year-old males. Torn away from their families, they were recruited as strict Islamic warriors and instructed in the art of warfare, a similar tactic is employed today by Al-Qaida operatives in ‘non-governmental spaces’ and refugee camps. The American historian W.H. Prescott wrote on the Janissaries in the following manner: “Those given the greatest promise of strength and endurance were sent to places prepared for them in Asia Minor. Here they were subjected to a severe training, to abstinence, to privations of every kind, and to the strictest discipline…. Their whole life may be said, to have been passed in war or in the preparation for it. Forbidden to marry, they had no families to engage their affections, which, as with the monks and the friars of Catholic countries, were concentrated in their own order.”(9) On June 18, the Turks constructed a floating pontoon upon which the Janissaries were towed under cover of darkness, up to the menaced Tower of Saint Nicholas. The knights were definitely feigning their sleep, as every manned defending gun opened fire upon the pontoon and the towing vessels. As testimony of the garrison’s resilience, bodies of the feared Janissaries were floating lifeless in the waters.
Traitors were immediately hung by the Knights, this occurred to a gunman named Master George, who was Christian born and supposedly defected from the Ottoman Army. Master George held that he felt ‘pity’ for his coreligionists, but in reality turned out to be a spy. An Italian knight who plotted to murder the Grandmaster was also executed. Wave upon wave of Bashi-Bazouks attacked, they were the scum of the Islamic world. Most Christian by birth, violent, predatory, fighting under the Turkish banner for plunder and not for honor. The Bashi-Bazouks were an undisciplined group harassed from behind by a line of Ottoman Turks, armed with whips and maces constantly urging them forward. Later in the siege, the Janissaries used the fallen bodies of the Bashi-Bazouks as stepping-stones. When the Tower of Italy was crumbling beneath the firepower of the cannons, breaches opened and the Bashi-Bazouks thundered through together with the Janissaries. The green standard of Islam and of the prophet was planted high above the demolished Tower of Italy. On witnessing this development, the Grandmaster led the defenders through the breach, together with a few Knights and standard bearers. He mounted onto a ladder leading on the top of the wall. His armor protected him from many blows, nonetheless he received four wounds and finally a ‘giant’ Janissarie pierced him through his armor with a spear, puncturing his lung.
At this moment the fate of Catholic Hospitaller and Greek Orthodox Rhodes, lay in the balance, some historians would comment that the fate of all Christendom was in peril. The Grandmaster received his seemingly fatal wound and the enemy had breached through the fortified walls. An unexpected and surprising event took place, which defied explanation and changed forever the outcome of the historical events taking place in this part of the world. The wild Ottoman Turks streaming forth through the breach in the city wall, had gained such a seemingly impregnable position on the ramparts, having all the City of Rhodes laid out before them, suddenly and unexpectedly, they reversed in direction and doubled back through the breach. The panic and flight of the Ottoman Turks was initially incomprehensible. Later this action was explained in the following manner: Above the Catholic standards and banners of the standard bearers, upon the narrow walkway, the Knights would claim that a cross of gold appeared in the sky. The captured Islamists claimed of having witnessed apparitions, three glorious figures in the sky right above the Knights, belonging to;
1) Saint John the Baptist, the Patron of the Order, clad in goat skins;
2) Saint Michael the Archangel with unsheated sword;
3) and the Blessed Virgin Mary clothed in armor. In her right hand she held a spear, and a shield in her left.
From that day onwards the Knights regarded the Blessed Virgin Mary as ‘Our Lady of Victory,’ and renewed the dedication of their Order to her, the Patroness of the Sovereign and Military Order of Jerusalem and of Rhodes.
Men spilled off the crumbling parapet, the Ottoman forces fled before the advancing Knights who cut them down unmercifully and the sharpshooters picked the Islamic warrior off, as he fled. Grandmaster D’Aubussan captured the Sultan’s standard, the banner of the Grande Turke. Mischa Pasha and his forces left Rhodes in disgrace, only to return to the Sultan and face his wrath. The siege lasted eighty-nine days, the Islamic conquest of Europe had failed and Christendom and the Church had been defended. Compared to the 231 Knights, who died during the siege, 15,000 wounded of the enemy were carried away and 10,000 were left slain in Rhodes. Grandmaster D’Aubusson survived and is remembered as the ‘Buckler of Christendom.’ Pope Innocent VIII appointed the Grandmaster with the rank of Cardinal of the Church, and bestowed the Order of Saint John with the leadership of two Papal Orders; the Order of The Holy Sepulchre and the Order of Saint Lazarus.
One year later, in Spring 1481, the Sultan was determined to carry out what his Pashas had failed to do and destroy the Knights and their “…damnable Religion.” He personally led an immense army through Asia Minor. While enroute the Grand Turke, the enemy of Christ, contracted dysentery and died falling short of his most wicked aspirations. Once again Divine Providence preserved the Order, by the will of God Europe enjoyed a few years of breathing space and the flourishing and advancement of the arts in the form of the golden age of the Renaissance. Following a victory by the Ottomans in Rhodes, rather than experiencing the Renaissance, Europe would have to contend with the ravaging powers of Islam. However, the Mercy of God, manifested by the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin, Saints Michael and John the Baptist and the interventions of the Knights prevented such events from becoming a reality. O God, who exalted blessed Gérard because of his care for the poor and the sick, and through him founded in Jerusalem the Order of the Blessed Virgin and Saint John the Baptist, give us the grace of seeing, as he did, the image of your Son in our brothers and sisters. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit One God, forever and ever. Amen.