A Chivalrous Look at the New Year

Sovereign Order of Malta Presents

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, JAN. 14, 2010 (Zenit.org).- It wasn’t just Benedict XVI who delivered his annual ‘state of the world’ address this week. 

A mile away, on the Aventine hill overlooking Rome, another head of an ancient sovereign state gave his own yearly perspective on the world. 

Fra’ Matthew Festing, the 79th Prince and Grand Master of the Sovereign Order of Malta, addressed an audience of diplomats and their spouses Tuesday — 104 ambassadors in total, each accredited to the tiny state. 

Speaking in French and English in the small yet prestigious setting of the Magistral Villa — one of the Order’s two extra-territorial headquarters in Rome — he gave a précis of the work of the Church’s oldest charitable lay order in 2009, whose humanitarian assistance stretches across the world (more on his speech below). 

The history of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta (to give it its full title), is a fascinating one. Filled with drama, valor and self-sacrifice, its past dates back to 1048 when it was founded in Jerusalem to care for pilgrims, the sick and the needy. 

Awarded the Papal Bull by Pope Paschal II in 1113, the knights became military defenders of the sick and of Christian territories during the Crusades. But from the beginning, its independence and its right to maintain and deploy armed forces has meant the Order has always been internationally sovereign. To this day, it has its own passports, stamps, constitution and diplomatic corps.

In its early days, the Order had significantly more territory. The knights took possession of the Greek island of Rhodes in 1310 and assembled a powerful naval fleet to protect Christians in the Mediterranean. Although forced to surrender the island to Sultan Suliman the Magnificent 13 years later, the Order would play a key role in the victory over Ottoman naval power at the battle of Lepanto in 1571.

Driven out of Rhodes, the knights moved to Malta following permission from Emperor Charles V and Pope Clement VII to take possession of the Mediterranean island in 1530. But they were usurped again, in 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte occupied the territory (Napoleon’s forces met no resistance as the knights were forbidden from fighting other Christians). The Order eventually ended up in the Italian capital in 1834, where it made its headquarters at the Magistral Villa and at its Grand Magistry on via Condotti in central Rome.

The Order has long abandoned militarism and instead returned to its original mission: fighting on behalf of the poor and the sick to alleviate their suffering. During the World Wars and under its previous Grand Masters, Fra’ Angelo de Mojana di Cologna (1962-1988) and Fra’ Andrew Bertie (1988-2008), the Order underwent great expansion and now has an enormous outreach. Today it comprises 12,500 members, has 20,000 employed personnel and 80,000 permanent volunteers. It runs 40 hospitals, 1,500 dispensaries and 110 elderly care homes. It is sending a team of doctors and medical experts to Haiti this week. The Order says it already supports a hospital in the north of the country that it has helped run for the past 15 years.

It also takes part in advocacy and mediation. As an independent and politically neutral state with diplomatic representation, it will mediate in international disputes if a state requests it. The Order also has permanent representation at the United Nations and its agencies, and delegations at the Council of Europe, the International Committee of the Red Cross and various other international organizations.  

* * *

Entering the Magistral Villa is an event. 

You walk along a graveled pathway, lined by a tunnel of foliage that frames a misty St. Peter’s rising in the distance. The view is perhaps the most beautiful in all of Rome and, as one knight reminded me, offers the visitor the unique possibility of seeing three sovereign states at the same time. 

Visiting the Villa on Tuesday was visually like being transported back to the 18th century. Knights dressed in white gaiters, coats and tails, wide rimmed hats, and carrying swords stood on red carpets to greet the arriving diplomats wearing court dress. Fra’ Festing and senior members of the Order turned up in full ceremonial regalia: bright red uniforms with gold tassels, a sword and the Order’s distinctive eight pointed cross visible on their chests. 

Fra’ Festing, an Englishman who was appointed Grand Master in 2008, pointed out that the Order is now the largest organization for social assistance in Hungary. It has recently signed an agreement with Lebanon where it has had an uninterrupted presence since 1953, running 12 socio-medical centers and many dispensaries.

He reported that the chivalric Order provided humanitarian relief last year to Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam following natural disasters. It also gave assistance in Pakistan and Sri Lanka to refugees fleeing conflicts, and has been saving lives in Kenya, Congo and Sudan. Closer to home, it built two tent camps for victims of last year’s devastating earthquake in the Italian region of Abruzzo. 

The Order doesn’t discriminate who receives its help. Last year Fra’ Festing visited the Bekaa valley where the Order has assisted hundreds of thousands of people regardless of their faith and background. “The image I carry with me is of the many Muslim doctors and nurses working in our centers, dressed according to Islamic tradition, and proudly bearing on their breasts the Order of Malta’s eight pointed cross,” Fra’ Festing said. “Even more noticeable is the first aid and social assistance the Order carries out with a Shiite humanitarian foundation, and with which we have been serving those in need for many years.”

In closing, Fra’ Matthew Festing, a tall, friendly and imposing figure who was once a soldier in the Grenadier Guards, highlighted that the Order addressed the United Nations Security Council for the first time last year. 

Drawing on their experience of humanitarian work, especially in Africa and Asia, the Order gave its view on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. The knights argued that the basic principles of international humanitarian law should be universally binding and those who violate them should be prosecuted. If that’s not possible, the Order believes, their cases should be referred to the International Criminal Court. 

* * *

Italy, Brazil, and Spain are among the largest of the 104 countries accredited to the Order of Malta. Most of the nations are Catholic (though many are not), and 36 of them come from Africa. But notable among those missing are the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. 

Reasons given for the American and British absence are their relatively recent diplomatic ties with the Holy See and that they are not Catholic-majority nations. There is also said to be a certain amount of resistance among some officials in the Foreign Office in Britain, traditionally a Protestant country (strangely, Queen Elizabeth II, as sovereign of Belize, has formal links with the Order through that country but not through her own native Britain). 

A more interesting question, however, is why Ireland is not a diplomatic member when every other Catholic country in Europe, aside from France, has formal relations. According to one diplomat, the reasons are “very nuanced and complex.” 

A spokesman for the Order said it would like more nations such as Ireland accredited but is simply grateful for the many who already are.

They’re not called chivalrous for nothing.

* * *

Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be
reached at: epentin@zenit.org.

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