The Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem, Part 1

Tonight Saturday 1st October, 2011, Schola Cantorum of St Peter's Cathedral joined forces with Cappella Caeciliana to present a concert of music ranging from the 16th to the 21st centuries. The event was organised by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (Ulster Division) and the Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem ( Commandery of Ards). Proceeds were in aid of the St John Eye Hospital, Jerusalem and the Holy Family Maternity Hospital, Bethlehem, and Malta Charities. I was invited as High Sheriff to attend, and as a Serving Brother of the Venerable Order of St John since 1998 would have liked to go. However the Lord Mayor's Installation Dinner and the 60th Anniversary of my friend Dr Ian Paisley's Martyrs Memorial Church were both taking place  at the same time, so I regretfully had to decline.

The foundation year of our Order was 1099 when, as a result of the First Crusade (1095-1099), Jerusalem was captured from the Moslems. Crusades were holy wars fought against those who were perceived to be the enemies of Christendom for the recovery of Christian property or in the defence of the Church or Christian people. Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont in 1095, calling on western Knights to liberate Jerusalem from Moslem occupation.

When the Knights, soldiers and Christian men and women who made up the members of the First Crusade under Godfrey de Bouillon captured Jerusalem in 1099, they found there a hospice and hospital for Christian pilgrims, dedicated to St John the Almoner, under Benedictine control. In charge was the Blessed Gerard, who had devoted his life to this work after making the pilgrimage from Martigues in Provence. The hospice had been founded in about 600 AD. In 1010 it was destroyed, along with other Christian buildings, but the citizens of the wealthy maritime Republic of Amalfi restored it in 1023.

The Crusaders were impressed by the good work being done to the Blessed Gerard and his helpers. On return to their own countries, they spoke so well of him that benefactors sent rich gifts. With these additional funds, the Blessed Gerard was able to free his hospice from the control of the Benedictines and to found a new Order of Hospitallers which adopted the Augustinian rule. The long cloaks of the monks had on them a white cross which ultimately took the form of the eight-pointed cross included in the arms of the Republic of Amalfi.

The Order’s larger hospice included what was the Orthodox monastery of St John Baptist and so their patron became St John Baptist in place of St John the Almoner. In 1113 Pope Paschal II issued a Bull taking the hospice under his protection and giving it the privilege of electing its own superior. The Hospitallers secured their presence in the Holy Land by building strategically placed fortresses, particularly two great castles at Margat and Krak des Chavaliers. The Crusaders remained in Jerusalem until 1187, when they were forced out by the great Saladin and his Saracens (a multi-national army of Moslems) after the battle of Hattin. They moved their headquaters to Margat.

To be continued

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