August 7, 2015

Saint Joseph the Gerontogiannis of Kapsa (+ 1874)

St. Joseph the Gerontogiannis (Feast Day - August 7)

John Vintsentzos, or Gerontogiannis, was born in the ruins of the Monastery of the Honorable Forerunner in Kapsa of Crete in 1799, when his parents, Emmanuel and Zambia Vintsentzos, had gone there due to an invasion of the Turks. Later, when the situation quieted, the family settled in the village of Lithines. A few years later the boy was baptized in the same Monastery and was given the name John.

At the same time he occupied himself with the family property; he worked in his father’s fields and tended the family's flock of sheep in the area of Kapsa of Sitia. As soon as he reached adulthood, he married a pious young maiden named Kalliopi from his village. The young woman was so beautiful that she attracted the attention of the Turks. To protect their daughter from the Turks, they would hide her in remote caves of southern Crete, due to the fact that their other daughter, who was sought by a Turk, committed suicide rather than marry a Turkish Muslim. Ultimately they found a man for her who would be able to protect her. This man was John Vintsentzos. Their marriage was officiated at the Monastery of Honorable Forerunner, which was still in ruins. Together they had four children, three daughters and one son.

The surname "Gerontogiannis" was given to the Saint by the family of his wife. John and his wife lived in the village of Lithines and devoted themselves to the upbringing of their children.

John was untamed, but especially pious as an Orthodox Christian. Many times he had been targeted by Turkish authorities and was targeted by the Turkish police. This is why he often resorted to the canyon of Pervolakia, where it was impossible to find him. Most of the year he lived in the metochion Katsalori, near Lithines.

According to tradition, one Sunday John gathered wood and after loading it on his animal he went to sell it, as he often did, in the villages of Armenoi and Handras, in order to buy wine. He had taken his wife Kalliopi in order to drop her off in Lithines to see her family, while the children remained in the metochion. On their return Kalliopi had a bad feeling, inciting her and her husband to walk faster. When they returned they found their youngest daughter Irene burnt  and out on the threshing floor, where her siblings had taken her, thinking that the wind would put out her dress that had caught on fire. This accident brought about the death of their daughter, and John considered this as a divine punishment for his sins, especially over the fact that he worked on a Sunday. This event marked his life and was a reason for his transformation.

John and his family left the metochion and settled permanently in Lithines. The villagers, relatives and friends of Gerontogiannis daily witnessed his alteration. The obdurate, irascible and quarrelsome John was transformed into a longsuffering, merciful, meek and guileless man. His conscious participation in the Holy Mysteries, fasting, prayers, alms and constant repentance purified his heart, raised his mind, and he was found worthy of a divine revelation, which was instrumental in his later life.

On Holy and Great Friday of 1841, when John was 42 years old, he fell in a deep sleep and all efforts to wake him up failed. Forty-three hours later John woke up, in a serene state, to find his family and a number of friends at his bed side. Among them was a paralyzed old lady, and after putting his hands on her and whispering a prayer, she was healed in the presence of all the stunned bystanders. He then related to them his experience during his short hibernation. He said that he had been taken up to heaven where, like the Apostle Paul, he saw and heard things wonderful which cannot be put into words. There he saw the ranks of the righteous in heavenly glory and joy, but he also saw the various punishment of the damned in eternal hell. Later John shared his experience with the bishop of Ierapetra and with the local commander.

Immediately after this vision John began to preach and work miracles. Many residents of Sitia would visit him in his house to get his blessing and to be treated of their various ailments.

The Cave of Gerontogiannis

These events, unsurprisingly, created noise around his name. This particular year there was a revolution going on, and Gerontogiannis was suspected by the Turkish authorities of being a danger to public safety, because supposedly the religious gatherings in his home had revolutionary ends with a religious pretext. In reality, however, the sick and disabled gathered around Gerontogiannis to receive his blessing, be consoled, and be healed. Three times he was invited to explain himself before the Governor of Crete, Mustafa Pasha. But these repeated prosecutions and arrests in Heraklion had the opposite effect, since every village he passed meant news went out and there gathered a crowd to greet him and receive his blessing.

Indeed, during the third arrest Gerontogiannis gathered a crowd of believers, thus enraging the governor who ordered his guard to disperse the crowd by force and lead Gerontoginnis immediately to prison. Following a request from an advisor to the Governor of Sitia, John Kapetanakis (or Galanakis) from the village Krya, he was allowed to bring to his home Gerontogiannis, however he was not allowed to leave until judgment was delivered, which would have resulted in his exile outside Crete or imprisonment.

However, the young daughter of the Governor one day was seriously injured, having fallen from the stairs and remained unconscious, and no doctor was able to bring about her recovery. Paternal affection forced the Turkish Governor to call on the miraculous healer of the Greeks, Gerontogiannis, who as soon as he touched his hand over the unconscious half dead child and recited a prayer, she immediately became conscious and revived. A similar treatment was given to the mother in law of the Governor, who was relieved from a chronic and incurable illness. Then the Turkish Commander released Gerontogiannis, who was free to return to his village to continue his philanthropic work. Out of much gratitude the Turkish Governor sent lavish gifts to his village, but Gerontogiannis agreed to keep only seventeen oil lamps for the Church of Panagia Lithines.

Then Bishop Hilarion of Hiera and Sitia advised Gerontogiannis to go to a distant deserted region so as to stop the reactions and complaints of the Turks. As a most suitable spot the Saint could not think of any other place than the ruined Monastery of the Honorable Forerunner in Kapsa, where he was born, baptized and married. Thus, the modern history of the Monastery begins with the decision to establish it in the year 1841, in the desert of Kapsa.

After 1840 the administration of Crete under Mustafa Naili Pasha was often tolerant, and Turkish authorities showed tolerance towards the renovation of monasteries and the repairs of churches neglected for centuries. Thus in 1841 the last owner of the area of the small ruined Monastery of the Honorable Forerunner, Hadji-Nikolaos Zafiris from the village of Agia Triada in Sitia, who had bought it from the Turkish Dervish Aga Chatzarifaki, gave the cavernous temple and its ruined surroundings to Saint John the Gerontogiannis, its new founder. Because John was illiterate, we do not have written documents of what the state of the Monastery was at the time and what he found. We do know there was a church dedicated to Saint John the Forerunner, which had apparently attracted many visitors from the surrounding regions, and two buildings next to the church. There was even a well with brackish water, and an icon that testified to its existence as a monastery. Over the ruins a new Monastery was built, and thus the abandoned Monastery was revived. After acquiring life it attracted pilgrims, and many sick came who wanted to receive healing and treatment from the holy hermit.

Gerontogiannis lived in a cave for seventeen years northwest of the Monastery, and old cells were allotted to various pilgrims and several candidates who wanted to live as monastics near the hermit, thus forming the first brotherhood. This necessitated the renovation of the Monastery and the repair of the old buildings. Construction continued for several years, with the exception of a break in 1858, when for five months Gerontogiannis went to Kasos because a new revolution broke out in Turkish-occupied Crete.

By 1863 the Monastery was completed with an expanded church and included cells, a guest house, a dining room, a kitchen, a bakery, warehouses and a large cistern for collecting rainwater. Bishop Hilarion celebrated the inauguration of the Monastery and gave John the Great Schema and renamed him Joseph.

Gerontogiannis remained in Kapsa Monastery until revolution broke out in 1866, and fearing the conquers would destroy the Monastery, he decided to settle with his brotherhood in the old abandoned Monastery of Hagia Sophia, located on the plateau of Armenoi in the middle of Sitia. Only one caretaker was left behind in Kapsa until 1870. While in the Monastery of Hagia Sophia, Gerontogiannis and the brotherhood renovated the Monastery and cultivated the land, and in literally a short time transformed the area, which brought on the admiration of all. Because many pilgrims visited him there also, Gerontogiannis fell victim to slander, so he returned to Kapsa Monastery after he was ordered to do so by Bishop Neophytos of Hiera and Sitia.

There the Saint lived in intense asceticism, prayer and fasting. He ate little food, mainly olives, plants and dry bread. Most of the day he spent in his cell in prayer. He followed the Services from the window of his cell, and would only enter the church on Sundays when he received Holy Communion. Acquiring many gifts from God, many came to the Monastery to be healed by him. His fame not only spread throughout Crete, but also the islands of Halki, Kasos and Symi, and people from these places visited him daily. Meanwhile, Gerontogiannis maintained his inner state of quietude and was driven by his infinite love for others according to the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, healing their bodies and their souls.

It was widely known that the Saint would often do the sign of the cross over the waters to make them fresh and sweet. He would even throw his cassock onto the sea and used it as a raft to regularly travel to the island of Koufonisi for silence, several miles from the Monastery. He also had the gift of foresight to be able to distinguish what gifts to the Monastery from pilgrims were stolen, and he would ask them to return them where they got them.

After years of struggles, he gradually lost his voice due to his severe asceticism, so that those visiting him found it difficult to hear his advice. In the last months of his life he was bedridden in his cell. Having foreseen his death, he asked his brotherhood to come to him to ask their forgiveness and to give his final words of advice. As his successor he named Monk Ananias, and he foretold what would happen to the Monastery after his death, and even told the exact hour of his own death. Gerontogiannis' grandson, now a Deacon, was asked with Hieromonk Gennadios to celebrate a Liturgy to allow him to receive the Holy Mysteries.

On August 6, 1874 Gerontogiannis again invited the brotherhood back to his cell to ask their forgiveness, and received Holy Communion. He did the sign of the cross, turned right, and crossing his arms he delivered his venerable soul into the hands of the transfigured Lord.

For three days his body was unburied and was a means of popular pilgrimage for the faithful to say their final greetings and venerate him. He was buried in the Church of the Honorable Forerunner, where many continued to come and venerate his relics and icon and take dirt from his grave.

The translation of his relics took place on May 7, 1982, which was 108 years after his repose, and it is celebrated annually on Bright Tuesday, along with his primary feast day on August 7th. The sacred relics were placed in a silver casket with his honorable skull in a prominent place of the church and they give off an unspeakable fragrance.

Monk Gerasimos Mikragiannanitis wrote a Service in his honor, and it was published with his Life by Kapsa Monastery in 1993. He was officially canonized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 2004.