COLORADO SPRINGS. The vocation of every baptized Christian is to glorify God through their personal growth in holiness and carrying out his will in the world. This is going to look different for each soul. While the destination remains the same, the paths upon which we find ourselves will vary. For some, their call to holiness includes following the life and principles of the Order of Malta.
"The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta" is the official title of the order, but try getting all of that on a business card. Its common title is just the "Order of Malta." Yet, there are some important details contained in the official name of the one of the oldest religious orders in the history of the Church.
The order began as a religious community in 1048 A.D., when a group of merchants built a convent, church and hospital in Jerusalem to care for pilgrims of all faiths. This monastic community of service was officially recognized in 1113 A.D. by Pope Paschal II, establishing Blessed Gerard as the Founder and First Grand Master of the Order. He and the professed members of the order lived their religious vocation through prayer and service to the sick and poor. In 1099 A.D., when Christian crusaders recovered Jerusalem (from the Muslim conquest in 637 A.D.), the order was also tasked with the defense of pilgrims as the Kingdom of Jerusalem was constantly under threat by their Muslim neighbors.
When the Holy Land was lost in 1291, the order moved its operations to the island of Cyprus and then to the island of Rhodes in 1310, where they greatly expanded their naval forces. In 1523, after a heroic six-month defense of this island against the Turkish Sultan Suleiman, they were forced to leave. Their valor won the respect of the invading Sultan, who allowed the order to leave with full military honors. Seven years later, the Knights finally took possession of the island of Malta.
During this time, they led the way with great medical advancements, construction of cities and churches, as well as bolstering Christian Europe’s naval forces against piracy in the Mediterranean Sea. The Knights of Malta were critical players in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, when Christian Europe united to block and neutralize the grave threat of the Ottoman Empire’s westward expansion. In the 18th century, the order was forced to leave its home when Napoleon Bonaparte occupied the island of Malta. The island was handed over with only a single canon shot. (Two centuries earlier, the order took an oath that they would never take up arms against Christians. The canon shot was in protest of the invading force.) In 1834, the order was given territory in the city of Rome where it enjoys sovereign status to this day.
After years of growth in membership and international involvement, the order remains true to its principles: Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum (Defense of the Faith and Service to the Sick and Poor). While the order is very active on the diplomatic level, negotiating peace between feuding nations, advocating for justice and peace on the international level and defending religious freedom around the world, the primary mission has become its hospitaller efforts.
This is carried out through establishment and support of actual hospitals and medical facilities around the world as well as on-the-ground humanitarian aid at crisis locations. Just a few examples of relief efforts include aiding in the Middle East refugee crisis, the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, medical support after the Paris terror attacks, and ongoing HIV care in Africa. The 13,500 members of the order, 80,000 permanent volunteers, and 25,000 paid staff serve in 120 countries providing medical, social and other humanitarian support to people of all faiths.
The members of the order fall into three "Classes." The First Class consists of Professed Knights and Conventual Chaplains. These members make the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and are considered "religious" by Canon Law.
The Second Class are Knights and Dames who, while not religious, make the promise of obedience and have a special commitment to live the principles of the Church and the order.
The Third Class, while not making the vows or promise of obedience, consists of Knights, Dames and chaplains who are nonetheless committed to living the principles of the Church and the order.
All the three Classes strive to live fully the precepts of the Church as they grow in prayer and virtue, seeking to exemplifying Christian life. They are also committed to serving the activities of the order as they seek to be faithful in their family and professional lives.
The men and women who are called and accepted into the order undergo two provisional years of formation in prayer, study and service. After that time they are invested as Knights and Dames of the order. Their support and service to the order include participating in the annual pilgrimage to Lourdes, where a number of Catholics who are ill with a life-threatening or life- changing illness are brought to the southern-France village and served by the Knights, Dames and volunteers. In Lourdes, the sick and poor are the center of attention. The Knights, Dames, volunteers and malades (French for people who are sick) all worship, laugh and live together, offering a beautiful Christian witness to the call of Jesus Christ and the maternal help of Our Blessed Mother.
As a Magistral Chaplain for the order, it is my privilege to serve these men and women who generously serve others. We have a wonderful (and growing) presence in Colorado Springs and Denver. You will probably see these Knights and Dames at diocesan Masses, dressed in their black church robes embroidered with the white Maltese Cross. There might even be a Knight or Dame in your parish. If you are curious, I encourage you to ask them about their experience of the order and how the Lord has worked in their lives through this beautiful community.
By Father Jim Baron
If you’d like to learn more, please visit our international page at www.orderofmalta.int. (Father Jim Baron is pastor of Holy Apostles Parish.)