18 May 2010

Feast Day of Blessed Gerard Mecatti

H/T to Fr. Gerard of the South African Association of the Order for this information.

Born at Villamagna near Florence about 1174, he followed his feudal lord to Palestine and there became a 'serving brother' of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. After returning home he lived as a hermit in penance and prayer. He died about 1245: the date is uncertain. His body is still at Villamagna, where his Memorial is kept every year on 18 May.

O God, who called blessed Gerard, like your own Son, to intense striving in the wilderness, strengthen us by penance and prayer and make us fitter for our Christian duties. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.(From: The Missal with readings of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes, & of Malta, London 1997)
Next to St. Hugh and St. Ubaldesca, Blessed Gerard Mecatti is the most famous of the saints venerated in our Order of Chivalry. He was born in 1174, at Villamagna not far from Florence. As soon as he reached his adolescence, he led an existence worthy of admiration for his humility, piety and compassion for the poor. At an early age, he requested and obtained admission as a "servant d'armes" in the Order of Saint John, in which he set an example of disinterested charity, giving all he owned to the unfortunate.

As his virtue increased through his perfect correspondence with grace, he felt the need of banishing from his life every thing which might distract him from communion with God alone or prevent his total solitude. Having met St. Francis of Assisi, he received from his stigmatized hands the habit of the Friars Minor. But, in spite of this, he did not leave the Order of Saint John; all his life he wore on his garments the white cross of the Religion. He was content with putting the habits of both religions one over the other, and he added the observances of vows and promises of one order to those of the other.

From then on, he withdrew into a wretched hovel not far from the place of his birth. There he led the most strict life as an hermit, entirely occupied with contemplation and penance. He wore a hair shirt, scourged himself, fasted, and humiliated himself incessantly. These practices caused his reputation for sanctity to spread; he was called by no other name than the Antony or Hilarion of his age! Each night, so as not to be seen, he was accustomed to cover on his knees a distance of three miles.

In the 17th century, the Confraternity of Saint Donino of Villamagna still covered in procession that same distance in memory of the holy penitent, but not on their knees. Finally, the saint fell ill, and nuns were sent to take care of him. one night in January, as the sister asked him whether he wanted anything, he answered with a smile: "Yes, I should like to eat some cherries". She thought he was delirious. He insisted, however, and she went out partly convinced that she would find cherries. There, in a small enclosure, she saw a cherry tree full of very red and very ripe fruit "as fine and fresh as in June".

It was for that reason that in the picture that Frà Francis dell'Antella, Commander of Saint James in Campo Corbellini, in Florence, Majordomo of H. S. H. the Grand Duke of Tuscany, sent to Frà James Bosio, historian of the Order, one can see the Blessed Gerard Mecatti dressed in grey but wearing the cross of Saint John on his breast and carrying a branch loaded with red cherries.

On May 13, 1254, he died in his hermitage, full of meritorious years and virtues. His body was placed not far from there in the branches of an oak tree, so that he might be out of reach of the fanatic piety of the villagers who would not have hesitated to dig him up in order to divide his relics. But the precaution did not suffice; the Republic of Florence had to send soldiers to protect the saint in that elevated position. Then, it was decided to build a church in his honour in Villamagna. He now rests there, under the main altar, in a reliquary of stone. As late as the 17th century, his body was still well preserved and intact; it emitted a pleasing fragrance, as could be corroborated every year on the day of his feast - the second day of Pentecost - when it was shown to the people.

This was a new aspect of sanctity in an Order strong enough to adapt itself to all the needs of the souls entrusted to it. A solitary Knight, the Blessed Mecatti was able to overcome the greatest enemy of God he had met: himself; and that, through silence and humiliation.
Let us ask him, we who are so invaded by the tumult of the world, to help us know, for a few moments each day, how to be hermits of God, the contemplative and praying individuals who make possible on earth the supernatural fruit of good works: the reign of grace and the triumph of the Cross.
(From: Ducaud-Bourget, Msgr. François: The Spiritual Heritage of The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, Vatican 1958)

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