Tag Archives: Florence

Forgiveness and forestry – St. John Gualbert

On a hill in Florence there is the beautiful Romanesque church of San Miniato. He was, according to the legends, Saint Minias was a royal Armenian in the Roman army. He converted to Christianity and became a hermit near Florence. Denounced to the authorities, he refused to abandon his faith. After tortures he was beheaded, about 250 AD. Like Saint Denis of Paris, he is said to have picked up his head and carried it to the site of his tomb.


San Minato, Florence


Interior of San Miniato


But the monastery is also important in the life of another saint of Florence, St. John Gualbert. He lived a frivolous life until an event one Good Friday.


Altarpiece of Saint John Gualbert, in Santa Croce Church Florence

His only brother Ugo had been killed shortly before. Entering Florence with some armed men, he ran across his brother’s murderer. The man opened his arms in the form of a cross and asked for mercy, reminding John that it was Good Friday. John let the man go.

He then went up to the church of San Miniato. Praying before the crucifix he saw Christ bowing his head as the murderer had done. He cut off his hair and soon joined the Benedictine monastery.

This example of breaking the cycle of revenge was very important for his culture, as it is for Honduras. This then is a good day to pray for an end to violence of revenge.

(A side note: revenge is such a problem here because there is no effective judicial system and so there is little follow-up to violent crime. The criminals get off – sometimes with a bribe, but often due to people’s fear of making public charges.)

John entered the order but after accusing the abbot and bishop of corruption, most notably simony, and desiring a more vigorous monastic life, he left. He eventual founded a branch of Benedictines, known as Vallambrosians, after the name of the place where he established his monastery

At Vallambrosa, he had his monks plant trees. He is the patron saint of parks, park rangers, and foresters. Maybe we should look to him as the patron saint of reforestation.

(Another side note: According to one report, the Vallambrosans left manual work to the lay brothers, a practice which I feel is an error and a deviation from the wisdom of St. Benedict who called his monks to “Pray and Work” – “Ora et labore.”)

He died on July 12, 1073; he was about 80 years old.

May he intercede for Honduras and for all those places in our world where revenge and deforestation are serious.


Apse mosaic, San Miniato

Photos taken by John Donaghy, February 8, 2013








Savonorala: a martyr?

The Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola and two other Dominicans were hanged and burned on May 23, 1498, in Florence. Though he was a friar and not a Florentine citizen, Savonarola was a major voice in promoting republican values in the city.

Savornarola, in San Marco church, Florence

Savornarola, in San Marco church, Florence

He got into trouble with the Pope because of his critiques of papal corruption and his opposition to papal rule in Italy. Though his followers managed to take control of Florentine politics for a short time, he fell out of favor – possibly because of the rather puritanical practices which he promoted (including the “bonfire of the vanities”), but also because of the vagaries of politics in Florence.

Last January I read an historical novel on Florence in Savonarola’s day and was astounded by the intrigue within the various ruling parties of Florence and also in the Vatican.

But Savonarola, no matter what his faults, sought an end to corruption and championed values of government not beholden to rich families. In his fiery sermons he called on Florence to be an example of a just and holy city. He also called for the reform of the papacy which, at that time, was corrupt, to put it mildly.

His memory is preserved in Florence with a plaque at the site of his execution.

Plaque at the site of execution

Plaque at the site of execution

There is also a statue of Savonarola in the church of San Marco and you can visit his cell in the adjoining San Marco Museum which was the Dominican friary where he lived.

Excommunicated and burned at the stake, he might be considered a martyr to the truth. Who knows?

In the midst of troubled times, he dared to challenge the powers that be – ecclesial, governmental, and economic. Would there were more people willing to speak out.

They, however, might also get “burned.”