Feast of St. Albert of Jerusalem

September 17, 2020 |

Albert of Jerusalem, as he is now known, was appointed patriarch of Jerusalem in 1205 by Pope Innocent III. At the time of his election he had been count-bishop of Vercelli for some twenty years. The Avogadro family to which he belonged was the most prominent and richest of all the first families of Vercelli.

Albert came out of the north of present day Italy. It had always existed at the convergence of many peoples and empires. He descended from two prominent families who lived in the tension between the papacy and the empire. The Avogadros supplied administrators for the church of Vercelli. Over the course of two centuries six of their members achieved the office of bishop. Albert was the third one to do so.

His birth in Castel Gualtieri tells us that his mother must have been a member of the Del Persico family, the counts of Sabbioneta along the southern banks of the Po. They, too, were part of the lesser nobility that formed the administrative officers of the empire, and once under Countess Matilda of Tuscany and Canossa. They would have kept the river traffic flowing, collected tolls and taxes and made sure that the imperial river-fleet could pass through unimpeded.

AlbertStampAs a northerner of Celto-Germanic background Albert proved himself a worthy member of his family. From the time of the formidable Countess of Matilda who dared to rule in her own name, and ally herself with the popes rather than with her cousin, the emperor, the local nobility had to take sides carefully. The northern gentry had always lived between the emperors and the church. The emperors liked appointing churchmen to imperial posts; it meant that they always had a steady supply of talent.

Religious Life
Having joined the Canons Regular in Mortara tells us that early on Albert was more interested in putting his talents into a religious context than in joining the diocesan clergy with all its political ramifications. But his talents were too great to remain strictly local. The superior general, Boniface of Novara, started including him in his own ecclesial outreach and he soon achieved wider notice. From being local superior he was chosen to be bishop of Bobbio, but before he could be installed there he was transferred to Vercelli.

Vercelli’s origins go back before those of Milan. Its bishops were often granted the pallium, as a sign of their personal connection to the papacy, a sign normally reserved to archbishops. The previous bishop, Guala Bondano, had been a great friend of the emperor Frederick I, Barbarossa. However, he was removed from office for alienating church property to his own family’s benefit. Choosing someone from the Avogadro clan to succeed him indicated the church’s desire to have someone who was more favorable to papal as well as ecclesial interests.

One of Albert’s first official acts shows him requesting and receiving permission to wear the pallium. For a bishop to wear the pallium in the northern regions dominated by imperial politics was quite a statement. Every public liturgy would show where his main loyalties lay. Yet Albert mastered the art of walking a fine line. Instead of alienating his imperial overlords he was taken into their confidence. Henry VI, the son of Barbarossa, even appointed him a Rechtsfürst, or imperial prince with a seat on the council. At the 33-year old emperor’s early and untimely death, Albert was immediately drafted into papal matters. He was often asked to mediate between warring parties, sometimes between secular communes, sometimes between religious and diocesan disputes.

In 1205 Pope Innocent urged him to accept another election, one that required all the diplomacy and tact for which he was famous – that of Patriarch of Jerusalem. Venetian commercial interests managed to hijack the Fourth Crusade to their own purposes. They had even gone so far as to ransack and pillage Constantinople, a totally Christian city, driving its ruler and its patriarch into exile and setting up their own emperor and patriarch. At this shocking news, all the pope could do was try to shape the outcome, but it really meant that the Holy Land would receive none of the help he had intended for it.

Patriarch of Jerusalem
Albert2In early 1206 Albert finally arrived in the Holy Land. He found things in a dilapidated state. The king and queen who had confirmed his election had both died within 5 days of each other. They left behind a 14-year old heiress who needed to find a husband to help her rule and to govern the powerful and independent barons of the kingdom. Many of his bishops and clergy were absent – gone off to Constantinople or back to Europe. Meanwhile he had to keep the local barons from fighting one another, while keeping on good relations with the Saracen rulers – never letting thing spill over to a war they had not the resources to win. Luckily the Saracen princes were often more taken up with one another than with the crusaders. Besides, trading with the West made for rich profits.

In 1210 the French king found a husband for the young queen. He was an impoverished second son of the House of Brienne. His older brother Walter was assembling an army to invade Sicily. A young knight from Assisi coming south to join him, then suddenly turned back. Overcome by an indefinable interior unrest, he gave his armor away and returned home. We know him today as St. Francis of Assisi.

John of Brienne arrived in Acre on 13 September 2014. He was met by the patriarch himself. On the following day – the great festival of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Albert officiated at the wedding of the landless count and the young heiress to the throne. Two weeks later, at the royal residence in Tyre, he crowned them King and Queen of the shrunken Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Somewhere in all this a group of hermits, led by someone, known only to us as “B,” petitioned the patriarch for permission to set themselves up on Mt. Carmel and follow a holy way-of-life there in imitation of the life of the apostles and prophets of old. They asked him to help supply them with a way-of-life they could follow, and if they might also have his blessing on their new beginnings.
Development of the Rule
At last, Albert was being brought back into that sphere of life that he had been famous for in years now long past. He was helping a new group avoid some of the pitfalls he has experienced over his many years in Vercelli. He knew that the church was often suspicious of new groups. They were ever on the watch for heretics and dissidents. However, he himself had helped draft a Rule for the Humiliati some years earlier. He also helped the Canons of Biella revise their legislation. Even those these petitioners could not have known all this, Albert was no stranger to their kind of request. He also knew that these hermits did not yet require a full Rule – just enough legislation to help them get started so that they could discover where God’s Spirit was leading them. The less legislation, the better!

His reflections led him to write out a brief way-of-life for them. He centered its text around two poles: the following of Christ and their call to spend their lives in constant prayer in the manner of the hermits of former times, but even of this time. Even St. Francis used to escape to solitary places, like Mt. Alverno, to pray. He understood them to be walking in the footsteps of the great figures of the past.
The course of action that would both constitute them a real community as well as test their resolve would be the act of electing a prior. To do this they would have to set aside all the individual ideas and agree on one commonly agreed upon choice. It could very well be the “B” who brought this group to the patriarch’s attentions, but it could just as easily be someone else. Albert never specified that the prior had to be someone who knew how to read. He did not have to be a cleric. He did not need the patriarch’s prior permission. Albert never asked them to run their choices by him. They could elect whomsoever they wished, provided they did it in a prayerful way and with full deliberation.

Albert trusted not just the new hermits, whom he probably did not know very well, if at all – but he trusted the Spirit of God at work in them. If what they were trying to do proved to be of God, it would succeed. If not, they would disappear. Hermits served as a spiritual battery for the active church. Albert’s gift to them was helping them stay related to that wider church, by keeping them always within its guidelines.

Triumph of the Cross
Albert wrote out a text starting in the approved canonical style of his age. His approval came with his own name writ large:
ALBERT, by the grace of God, called to be patriarch of the church of Jerusalem, to his beloved sons in Christ: “B” and the other hermits living under obedience to him near the spring on Mount Carmel –
His style reminds us of the times Paul would write out his own name in his own hand. But Albert also knew that his name could eventually stand these hermits in good stead over the decades to come. Popes knew and trusted his judgment. If Albert approved of this group, they deserved a hearing. And they got one.

Albert had little idea of what he was allowing – nor would he have minded that. All exists in God. “All times and all ages” – says the prayer over the Pascal Candle – “belong to Him.” This community, if it stays in communion with Christ, with the Church and with one another will be taken up into God’s time and God’s work.

The paintings of the later ages have Albert coming down in person. Perhaps he did. He would have had to get permission from the Lord and Lady of Haifa/Cayphas to settle them permanently on this hallowed spot – and even to help provide for their welfare. Albert had often travelled with the young emperor on horseback. Now he was serving as a patriarch of a church he would never once enter or even see. It is easy to imagine him getting back into the saddle, returning to his desk, his work and his own personal destiny.

A few years later, on the very anniversary of the marriage of Queen Maria to John of Brienne, on the exact same day he had written into his text for the hermits that should mark as the last day before the time of fasting would set in, on the day that celebrated the Triumph of the Cross found by Empress St. Helena, on his way into the cathedral (not even his own) to celebrate the divine liturgy his life was suddenly taken from him, and his legacy left to the ages. The Carmelites from that time always fasted on that day – in memory of their beloved lawgiver.

His Legacy
Of all the many things he accomplished, of all his offices and titles and negotiations, it is for none of these that he is today remembered, but for the small text he took time to write for a small group of would-be hermits, seeking a foothold in an unsecure land, open to whatever God might have in mind for them. Their future, like Albert’s, lay entirely in God’s hands.

Just as Albert had to relinquish his life to God’s providence, so did those first Carmelites. Theirs proved to be no lasting foothold. Ultimately they could not stay in place on Mt. Carmel. Instead they took Carmel, and its Madonna, and Elijah and the whole prophetic heritage with them. Carmel was no longer a place on a map; it became an icon written in their hearts. When they were forced to leave they took all that with them: the fire descending from heaven, the soft murmur on Horeb, the divine chariot whisking Elijah off to heaven, the cloak falling through the flames, Elisha taking up his mantle – all that was now theirs. It stayed written in their hearts as an ongoing lectio divina. And with them too they took Albert. They folded him into their memories and prayers. He became forever the lawgiver of the Order of Carmel.

Fr. Michael Mulhall O. Carm.
During his career Michael Mulhall O.Carm has worked as a pastor, retreat director and seminary professor. He holds a Doctorate in Scripture as well as a Doctorate in Sacred Theology.
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