by Jon L. Rewinski, KM and John H. Porter

On February 15, 2013, the Order will celebrate the 900th anniversary of the issuance of Pie postulatio voluntatis, the papal bull (or bulla sacra) through which Pope Paschal II officially granted to the Hospital of Saint John certain protections, rights, and privileges in perpetuity. Pie postulatio voluntatis is Pope Paschal II’s response to a petition submitted by Blessed Gerard, the Order’s founder and Master of the Hospital. Gerard’s request demonstrates how much he had accomplished in the first decades of the Hospital.


The members of Gerard’s fraternity were a monastic community whose men took the evangelical vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. At the time of Gerard’s petition, the Hospital had already amassed substantial assets quæ ad sustentandas peregrinorum et pauperum necessitates (“that are needed for sustaining pilgrims and the poor”). Ever the practical man, Blessed Gerard wanted to protect those assets as well as the Hospital’s autonomy.

The rights granted to the Hospital by the papal bull of February 15, 1113, certainly have historical significance. They gave the Hospital autonomy, the foundation of the independence and sovereignty that the Order enjoys to this day. But beyond the bull’s historical significance, its language continues to resonate today.

Bullæ Sacræ
Since at least the sixth century, popes have issued decrees and grants of privilege in writings authenticated by the pope’s metal seal (the bulla). By the thirteenth century, these official documents became known as bullæ sacræ. The seal itself was typically round and made of lead, like a large coin. One side of the seal bore an image of the heads of Saints Peter and Paul identified by the letters S.PA.S.PE. (for Sanctus Paulus and Sanctus Petrus). On the other side was the name of the issuing pope. The word for seal, bulla, is derived from the Latin word bullire, which means to boil, probably a reference to the process for creating the bulla. The bulla, or seal, was attached to the official document by a cord woven through the vellum at the bottom of the document.

By the middle of the eleventh century, tradition had created two classes of papal bulls—greater and lesser. Those of the greater class typically address subjects of greater solemnity, such as the founding of an order or the confirmation of property rights or charters of protection in perpetuity to monasteries and religious institutions. The text of bulls (bullæ) of the greater class ends with certain imprecatory and prohibitory clauses and a formulaic blessing. As an added protection against fraud, bulls of the greater class typically include, in addition to the issuing pope’s name and seal, the pope’s rota, a symbol like a wheel with two concentric circles. The space between the two circles contains the issuing pope’s personal motto. Bullæ of the greater class typically bear attestations by several cardinals and other church leaders, another safeguard of authenticity. Finally, bullæ of the greater class end with formulaic language including the date and place of issuance and the name of the scrivener.

By the middle of the eleventh century, the structure of the papal bull had become fairly standardized. It begins with the name of the pope written in the Lombard style, often called littera romana, in very large letters with his titles episcopus (bishop) and servus servorum Dei (servant of the servants of God). The second title was first added by Pope Saint Gregory the Great between 590 and 604. The bulla ends with “bene valete,” or “Farewell.”


Over the centuries, popes have issued bullæ sacræ covering a variety of subjects, including statutory decrees, episcopal appointments, dispensations, excommunications, apostolic constitutions, canonizations and convocations. For example, popes issued bullæ sacræ calling for the Second Crusade (by Pope Blessed Eugenius IIIi in 1145), the Third Crusade (by Gregory VIIIii in 1187) and the Fourth Crusade (by Innocent IIIiii in 1198). In 1139, Innocent IIiv issued Omne datum optimum, endorsing the Knights Templar. Almost two centuries later, in 1307, Clement Vv issued Pastoralis præminentiæ, ordering the arrest of the Knights Templar and confiscation of their property, and then in 1312, he issued Vox in excelso, which formally disbanded the Knights Templar, and Ad providam, which transferred most of Templar property to the Order of Saint John (now, of course, commonly known as the Order of Malta).

In 1216, Honorius IIIvi established the Dominican Order by issuing Religiosam vitam. In 1223, he approved the Rule of Saint Francis by issuing Solet annuere. In 1540, Paul IIIvii approved the formation of the Society of Jesus in Regimini militanitis ecclesiæ. In 1520, Leo Xviii excommunicated Martin Luther in Decet Romanum pontificem. In 1254, Pope Innocent IVix issued Querentes in agro, recognizing the University of Oxford. Pope Gregory Xx issued Ubi periculum in 1274 to establish the papal conclave as the method for selecting a pope. In 1738, Clement XIIxi banned Catholics from becoming Freemasons in In eminenti apostalotus specula.

More recently, in 1950, Pius XIIxii defined the dogma of the Assumption of Mary in Munificentissimus Deus. In 1961, John XXIIIxiii summoned the Second Vatican Council in Humanæ salutis. And in 1998, John Paul IIxiv established the indiction of the Great Jubilee of 2000 by issuing Incarnationis mysterium.

Pope Paschal II and the Hospital Prior to Pie Postulatio Voluntatis
Pope Paschal II, who issued Pie postulatio voluntatis, was from Tuscany and a monk of the Cluniac Order. He was elevated to cardinal in 1076 by Urban II. In August 1099, a few weeks after the First Crusade had delivered Jerusalem into Christian hands, Urban II died and Paschal II was elected his successor. Paschal II held the papacy until his death on January 21, 1118, about twenty years. Pascal II spent much of his papacy negotiating separately with the Holy Roman Emperors (first, the German king Henry IV and then his son, Henry V) and the king of England (Henry I), attempting to return the process of the selection of bishops to the Apostolic See.

The negotiations were marred by violence. In 1111, Henry V’s army invaded Italy. When he was repulsed, Henry V retreated, taking Pope Paschal II as his prisoner. Paschal II yielded to Henry V, who was then crowned at Saint Peter’s in April 1111. Satisfied, Henry V returned to Germany, but later he was excommunicated and all of the concessions given to him were declared null and void.

Although the roots of the Hospital of Jerusalem stretch back to the middle of the eleventh century (with legends about the placement of the Hospital buildings stretching back much further), Brother Gerard appears to have formed the group around 1080, that is, about fifteen years before the First Crusade, in a building connected to the Abbey of Saint Mary near where, by tradition, the angel had announced to Saint Elizabeth the conception of Saint John the Baptist. In 1099, the year of the conquest of Jerusalem by the crusaders, Brother Gerard reorganized the Hospital to accommodate the vast increase of patients from among the crusaders and pilgrims traveling to the Holy City.

It is, then, in this place that Brother Gerard and his lay fraternity served poor pilgrims, many of whom were ill from battle or travel. Brother Gerard’s care of pilgrims obviously made a major impression on the crusaders. Godfrey de Bouillon, the conqueror of Jerusalem, gave the Hospital its first endowment. Various European kings and nobles followed suit. By 1113, the Hospital possessed significant properties and Brother Gerald ran ancillary hospitals in Bari, Otranto, Taranto, Messina, Pisa, Asti, and Saint- Gilles.

It is for this organization, the Hospital, that Brother Gerard submitted to Paschal II a postulatio voluntatis (roughly, a “voluntary petition”) seeking legal recognition and papal protection.

The Issuance of Pie Postulatio Voluntatis
As one can see from the photograph of Pie postulatio voluntatis and the inserts setting forth the Latin text and an English translation of it, Pie postulatio voluntatis was a bulla sacra of the greater classification. It has a formal introduction in stylized writing identifying Paschal II as “servant of the servants of God” (servus servorum Dei). It grants various rights and protections “in perpetuity” (in perpetuum). It has several warnings to him who intentionally defies the bulla—that “he be stripped of his own authority, honor and title” (potestatis honorisque sui dignitate careat); that “he be denied the most sacred Body and Blood of God and our Lord and Redeemer Jesus Christ” (a sacratissimo corpore et sanguine Dei et Domini redemptoris nostri Jesu Christi); and that “he be thrown down” (subjaceat) and subject to the harshest of punishment on the Day of Judgment (in extreme examine districtæ ultioni). It confers blessings on all others who abide by the bulla’s provisions. It has Paschal’s rota immediately following the text, the attestation of several Cardinals and Church leaders, the formulaic paragraph identifying the scrivener and date and place of issuance, and even the final words of farewell (bene valete). The rota contains Paschal II’s personal motto, written by someone other than John, the Cardinal who wrote the text of the bulla: “Ve[r]bo D[omi]ni Coeli fermata s[unt],” which means, “The heavens are strengthened by the words of God.”


The bulla grants the Hospital several specific rights and privileges, including (i) perpetual recognition and protection by the Apostolic See, (ii) confirmation that the Hospital holds quiet (quieta) and sole (integra) title to all assets donated to it; (iii) confirmation that tithes (decimas) collected through the Hospital’s efforts shall inure solely to the Hospital (its sane fructuum) notwithstanding any adverse claim by the clergy (præter episcoporum vel episcopalium ministrorum contradictionem); (iv) confirmation that donations received from princes belong to the Hospital; (v) the right of professed brothers of the Hospital to select its Grand Master; (vi) freedom from vexatious claims; (vii) punishment on those who receive property stolen from the Hospital; and (viii) control over the sister-hospices under Gerard’s control, among other rights and privileges.


At times, the wording of Pie postulatio voluntatis gives one insight into the Hospital of Gerard’s time. First, the organization is called the Xenodochium, which is typically translated “hospital,” but it is technically the Greek word for “place for strangers,” or an inn. From its beginning, the Order cared for pilgrims. To pilgrims and the poor, the Hospital provided life’s necessities (ad sustentandas peregrinorum et pauperum necessitates). The organization is not called the “Hospital of Saint John,” but rather the “Hospital that [Gerard] founded in Jerusalem adjacent to the Church of Saint John the Baptist” (Xenodochium quod in civitate Hierusalem juxta beati Joannis Baptiste ecclesiam institui[t]). It was the proximity to the Church of Saint John the Baptist that resulted in Saint John’s name being attached to the Hospital.

The bulla contains Paschal II’s praise for the piis hospitalitatis tuæ studiis, that is, the piety and earnestness with which Gerard and his serving brothers cared for their guests. Underscoring this point, the bulla uses the same words when referring to Gerard’s successors (hospitalitis pio studio). Pope Paschal II clearly expected Gerard’s successors to demonstrate the same commitment of service to pilgrims and the poor.

In studying this precious document, as part of the foundation of the Order of St. John, we cannot fail to note how careful Brother Gerard was to make provision for the stability and continuance of his successors and the Hospital. In so doing, he also was giving witness to what would come after him, when he had passed to God.

Gerard died on September 3, 1120. Writing about his death, the French historian of the Order of St. John, the Abbot de Vertôtxv, mourns that “the Hospitallers lost Blessed Gerard, the father of the poor and of the pilgrims; that virtuous man, having arrived at an exceeding old age, expired in the arms of his brethren, almost without any sickness, and fell, as we may say, like a fruit ripe for eternity.”

As a result of Pie postulatio voluntatis, for 900 years, the Order has been able to serve the Church, and those in need, as an autonomous and sovereign lay religious order. Open to the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit, Gerard inspired his brother knights to unflagging service of “the poor and sick, the lords” to whom he paid his deepest homage. And so we are called to continue to do these 900 years later.

Interventions of the Order in the World
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