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The Church’s 911 Force

Knights of Malta Giorgio Minguzzi

Giorgio Minguzzi

William Van Ornum - published on 06/26/14

The Order of Malta goes any place, any time.

They’re everywhere.

In Syria, Jerusalem, Damascus, Turkey, Lebanon, Haiti, Africa, and even New York City.

The eight-point Maltese Cross (representing the eight Beatitudes from the Sermon of the Mount) over their heart or on their shoulder identifies each as one of the 13,500 Knights and Dames of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta (SMOM), or as one of the 82,000 members of Malteser International—their on-the-ground, mostly volunteer force that goes anywhere they are called.

Their masters and lords are the sick and the poor, which now include the socially isolated, victims of persecution, and refugees of any faith and race.

In Cambodia, SMOM runs specialized hospitals for leprosy sufferers. Despite rumors to the contrary, leprosy has not been eradicated as a crippling health menace.

“People don’t like lepers. Our strange disease makes them scared,” said Yim Heang, of Cambodia. “Some people show kindness and pity for lepers, but most are worried about infection and do not want any contact with us.”

During the Fall of 2013, bombs dropped on Aleppo, Syria—one of the oldest settled cities in the world. Its longevity was no match for explosions that demolished structures that had been standing for hundreds—maybe even a thousand—years.

Fleeing Aleppo, a wave of desperate and injured refugees overwhelmed the Syrian refugee camp in Kilis, just over the border in Turkey. On the first day 4,000 people fled their country. Soon there was no food, no shelter, no medicine. Malteser International brought in the needed supplies and soon built a field hospital and triage center.

The Order of Malta supports the Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem, located in an area that is a maelstrom of competing factions and opposing loyalties. This hospital is the largest maternity hospital in Palestine. Sadly, in the past, many needing care were turned away—no room at the inn.

Today, in place of shepherds viewing the Nativity scene in ancient Bethlehem, helpers from Malteser International surround the maternity wards, ready to help as needed.

The Order of Malta does not take sides, even in the most vicious conflicts. They are present to serve their lords and masters—the sick and the poor.

Last week, a film about Malteser International was presented at the International Green Film Festival in Seoul, Korea. Volunteers are shown working in Myanmar, in an area buffeted by cyclones and floods. Along with villagers, Malteser International volunteers planted 18,000 Mango trees–to serve as wind-breakers and water barriers that will protect the village in the future.

From last May into early June, the Order of Malta’s embassy in Belgrade delivered food to flood victims in Serbia, where 50 people have already died.

Over 25.000 doctors (primary care and specialists) and nurses participate in the work of the order. Medical Centers are an Order of Malta trademark. Most of the order’s hospitals are in Germany, France, and Italy. Some have special units for the terminally ill where palliative care is provided. During World War I, the order ran hospital trains that could travel wherever needed.

Paul Wright, a cardiologist from the United States, travels to Calcutta each year to offer screening and treatment free to the needy. He joined this ministry after visiting Mother Teresa, who took him to the House of the Dying. Mother Teresa brought him to a room where people came to die, and said to him, “We cannot cure them. We ease their pain, give them compassion and lots of love.”

Service and detachment from material things has brought him a feeling of serenity. “I have also discovered that I require fewer things to make me happy,” said Wright. “The dream house I planned on building years ago is forgotten.”

In 2013, the Order of Malta celebrated its 900-year birthday. The 4,000 members who were able to travel to Rome received a Papal blessing.

Vatican radio reported that, while the order is not a country, it is a sovereign entity. It has observer status at the United Nations, as well as embassies in nearly 100 countries.

“Wherever we operate, we are builders of peace,” said Jean-Pierre Mazery, Minister of Foreign Affairs. “We do not depend on anyone, we do not defend territories, we do not take part in conflicts, we act only to help people, regardless of nationality, race, or religion.”

The order was founded in the 12th century to assist poor pilgrims as they traveled to the Holy Land. In the last two hundred years the order has not engaged directly in combat, but does support those who are, for example, through its collaboration with military hospitals.

The order now has fewer than 100 professed religious who take permanent vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, although they are not required to live in community. Lay members comprise two other levels of commitment. Special concern is given to promoting each member’s sanctity and journey toward holiness.

In the United States the Order of Malta has about 1,300 members. Their works of service may not be as dramatic as those being done in far-flung places, but they sponsor hundreds of charitable endeavors that include nursing-home ministry, assisting Catholic schools in highlighting their identity, taking trips as volunteers to other countries when there is an emergency, delivering suppers and serving in soup kitchens, operating food trucks in port ministries, and serving in many other venues.

Every year associations from different geographic areas sponsor pilgrimages to Lourdes. Not only does this recapitulate the original charism of the order, it presents an opportunity to bring persons who are sick or disabled, along with their caretakers, to participate in the healing powers of this Marian shrine.

This week the Order of Malta celebrates the Feast of St. John the Baptist, its patron.


"Be it mine to to protect and defend the Catholic, the Apostolic, the Roman Faith against the enemies of religion. Be it mine to practice charity toward my neighbors, especially the poor and the sick,” is part of the prayer individual members read each day. “Give me the strength I need to carry out this my resolve, forgetful of myself, ever learning from the holy Gospel a spirit of deep and generous Christian devotion."

William Van Ornum is professor of psychology at Marist College and director of research and development/grants at American Mental Health Foundation in New York City. He studied theology and scripture at DePaul University.

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