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Aristocratic Monasticism and the Order of St. John, called of Malta

by Fra' Franz von Lobstein

(Published in Rivista Internazionale - December 1997)

Summarised here are the salient points regarding our Order from a talk of an hour which, on the invitation of the "Cultura, Insieme" Club, the Grand Prior of Rome, the Ven. Bailiff Fra' Franz von Lobstein, gave in Chiasso on the evening of 5 November 1997. The encounter with the public concluded with a lively discussion prompted by numerous questions from the audience to which the speaker replied at length.
Blessed are the merciful: because they shall obtain mercy. How can we not keep in our hearts the sublime words of the Sermon on the Mount? It can even be said that the history of the Order of St. John, now better known as the "Order of Malta", is the history of a request for solidarity and love nine and a half centuries long, to which has been and is still being given an equally lengthy response of solidarity and love.

Infirmis servire is therefore firmissime regnare in the twofold exhortation of that tuitio fidei and obsequium pauperum which ab antiquo characterised and still characterises the Sovereign Order's action.
The action of the Hierosolymite Order which was created in the 12th century by the commendable intuition of Brother Gerard Sasso of the city of Scala. Brother Gerard was present and active in the places where the Son of Man had been born, had preached, and had accomplished his passion, death and resurrection and he instituted a Johanniter Domus Hospitalaria in the Holy City of Jerusalem to serve "our lords the sick". Sad to note is the persistency of some - albeit steadily falling in number - who attribute Fra Gerard to a family called Tenque or Tonco, on the basis of an ancient inscription: "Geradus tune magister..."

So the Latin phoneme "tune", which everyone knows means "then", gives rise to a Tenque or Tonco family!
The pilgrims from distant lands visiting the Holy City had to come to terms with another, not insignificant, presence: the Muslims who soon started a continual action against them, often unfortunately ending up as real, personal attacks against the Christians. Hence the immediate need to provide the pilgrims not just with a roof and shelter, but also with assistance and defence. And talking about assistance, just think of the eating habits of those times, just think of the recurrent endemic diseases, such as pellagra, gout and shingles, then very serious illnesses, and many other afflictions, not least fractures and sprains, especially of the legs. Therefore, Gerard considered it providential to take care of the pilgrims and establish the xeonodoquium, sheltering strangers under the patronage of St. John. We know that Gerard died in 1120 and therefore he had fifty years or so of "administrative management" as we would say today with an ugly expression. It was Gerards successor Raimond du Puy, naturally French, who obtained that recognition with which Paschal II formally granted in 1113 what he had already given to the institutor, Gerardus, with his Bull. Thus the existence of the Order as a religio was sanctioned. And the religious and military aspects merged to create a religio militaris, a religious militia or, as jurists would say, a persona mixta.
This nucleus of religious fitted out one of those fleets which became an authentic "police" force in the Mediterranean and the Order was a beneficial and naval power until - oh alternating omnipotence of human events - Napoleon Bonaparte deprived Grand Master Hompesch and his knights of territorial sovereignty on Malta in 1798.

Sovereign Order, military Order, naval Order in all its different occupations: first in Jerusalem, then in St. Jean d'Acre, Rhodes and finally Malta. In 1522, the Order, or convent as it was called, was forced to leave Rhodes when the Muslims surrounded the island. It withdrew to Europe and in 1530 obtained from Charles V the Maltese territory still today we tend not to call it the Order of St. John and if we do we are not always understood. We say Order of Malta. And this was due to its long presence on the island, from 1530 to 1798, over two and a half centuries. How is the Order organised? At the beginning, those brothers became warriors and then, after various decrees over nine centuries, quite a few changes took place with 45 generations succeeding each other for almost a thousand years.
One could never run out of things to say about the Order The history of the Italian Risorgimento has university chairs and specific courses in this country but, with all respect for Risorgimento events, even if we trace their origin back to the first liberal movements, or even to the French Revolution, and even if we arrive at the so-called liberation of Rome in 1870, we are looking at a scant seventy years. Instead, here we are in the presence of nine and a half centuries of history; hence there are not a few difficulties for those venturing to give a brief compendium of the Order and its history.
The Order took as its now universally recognised emblem the octagonal or Maltese cross - in heraldry, a cross formed with V-shaped indentures - to symbolise, it is said, the eight Beatitudes. What is the Order's present structure? The Order has three assemblies, three gatherings which govern its life. The Council Complete of State elects the Grand Master The Grand Master's office is for life. Then, every five years the Chapter General is convened, which has the task of electing the government which will rule the Order alongside the Grand Master Then there is the Sovereign Council, presided over by the Grand Master The Sovereign Council is renewed, at least in theory, every five years and is composed of four high offices, four councillors and two deputies.

The four high offices are the Grand Commander, called to substitute for the Grand Master in case of absence, impediment or death. The second high office is the Grand Chancellor, with functions similar in some ways to that of the Italian prime minister The third high officer is the Hospitaller, who presides precisely over the Order's hospitaller activities. The fourth high office, the Receiver of the Common Treasure, is similar to the three ministries of Finance, Treasury and the Budget in the present Italian state structure. The four councillors are like "ministers without portfolio" in our practice, the two deputies and this is rather singular - attend the sessions of the Sovereign Council without the right to vote.

But with regards to the Hierosolymite militia, what does the corpus of the Order of Malta consist of? Who are the knights? The Order is traditionally nobilary, but what is the situation today? How many of the eleven thousand knights, chaplains, dames and donats come from noble families? There are almost 60 percent who are not nobles. The other 40 percent are of noble lineage; they had, that is, to present their so-called genealogical-nobiliary process the provanze, to demonstrate their hereditary nobility. Noble lineage varies according to the nationality, or to the Langues. For the Veneranda Lingua d'Italia, two hundred years of nobility on the paternal and maternal sides, with the same for the paternal and maternal grandparents. For some middle European Langues, today replaced by national associations, where the danger of Muslim or Israeli "infiltrations" was high, the so-called horizontal proof was required: less years of noble lineage were needed, albeit for sixteen quarterings.
The four or sixteen quarterings give the right of access to the class of Honour and Devotion.
There are too few religious, that is those who have taken the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and not all are young. Therefore there is an urgent need for vocations, and lowering the number of years for the proofs of nobility could help them to increase because it could open up access to the class of Justice, which always assumes a religious vocation, or that of Honour and Devotion or Grace and Devotion.

Thus the burden of proof is reduced and the doors open much wider, and may the Lord help us! On the other hand, an excessive cult of youthfulness, of wanting too much innovation, is extremely dangerous for a living monument such as the Order of Malta, which is still today a functioning reality. The Father General of the Jesuits, Ricci, when he was being strongly pressed to amend the structure of the Company of Jesus, used to reply with the famous phrase: "Sint ut sunt aut non sint". So if it is the divine plan that the Order survives, the Order will survive, despite people. We all come and we all go - the Knights of Justice, the Grand Masters, the Pontiffs all pass but the Order remains, the Holy See remains. The Order has a centralised structure, it is an elective monarchy; here I like to recall, si parve licet componere maximis, that another elective monarchy is the Pontificate: also in this the Order follows the Holy See. At this point, a noun of great scope is used: power. Power exercised in a sort of convergent dualism, between the Grand Master, master for life, and the Sovereign Council, which changes. The Grand Master however has powers of independent decisions issuing motu propri. He can decide on his own initiative and the Chapters General will establish this power of the Grand Master in reasonable terms. Convergent dualism is an adequate, albeit partial, definition.
But what should the Grand Master have done about the shrinking religious vocations, also affecting the Christian world in general and the monastic orders in particular? When Malta fell, there were 230-240 Professed Knights. What should the Order have done about it? The Order chose a solution which has withstood the test of time: it has committed knights of exemplary morality, considerable instruction and particular aptitude to a pledge of obedience, thus creating a special class of knights, the Knights of Obedience, who integrate, substitute and support the endangered Professed Knights.

The structure of the Order is a bearing one, notably agile, but it needs physical persons to hold the positions. The government of the Order is composed of the Grand Master, four high officers, four councillors and two deputy councillors; therefore ten sound people fit to govern are needed.

And do not forget, according to Canon Law - which we abide by - a legislature lasts five years. "John Smith" can be a member of the Sovereign Council twice running but the third time he needs a number of votes equal to two thirds of the entire voting assembly, and this limits the already limited rotation of the religious eligible for the government of the Order. We invented the Knights of Obedience - and we are very happy to have done so - because with a special dispensation of the Holy See they can take on the tasks previously performed by the religious. With this pontifical dispensation, to be cautiously requested and cautiously granted case by case, they are entirely equal to the religious. And in our present structure, three of the so-called four high offices are excellently performed by three non-religious, who are Knights of Obedience. All this does not mean that we should not incessantly pray for copious religious vocations to flower in the Order.

One does not need a particular aptitude for maths, nor is this gratuitous pessimism, but the current number of professed, many of which are not in the first flower of youth, has to be worrying. Like it or not, the Order is based on the certainly exemplary presence of the religious knights. Should they no longer exist, the Order would no longer be a religious order and the Holy See would have no more reason to recognise it. Wider perspectives are expected from the current reform of the Constitutional Charter and Code. The Order is sovereign; that is, it is a State sui generis which has the right to passive legislation. The Order is recognised, first of all, by the Holy See. The Order has its own ambassador to the Holy See. It has diplomatic relations with over 75 States. The Order's life is considerably tormented by the incredible number, in the negative sense, of bogus orders which unfortunately even deceive members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and which hold "investitures" of Knights of Malta which have nothing to do with us. Diplomatic passports are even issued and swindlers and charlatans, on the edge of legality, manage to accumulate considerable sums of money and deceive a lot of people by making use of our Order's credit. Today, the Order takes pride in its St. John the Baptist Hospital at Magliana in the city of Rome, specialised in treating injuries. In Europe, the Order is present with its diabetes centres; in Rome, in particular, there are also first-aid and welfare centres for the old, sick and needy in general. In addition, the Order has been, and is still, present alongside the terminally ill and lepers with its welfare activities. Assistance to terminal patients, who often feel very alone, is an admirable activity which undoubtedly requires a suitable psychological preparation. One cannot be weeping and lamenting beside a human life which is fading away, but one must stay beside these brothers or sisters with courage, radiating serenity and resignation. What is the Order's work in the sphere of emergencies? It is universally recognised that the Order knows how to be present in terms of efficiency and efficacy and it has also demonstrated this during the recent earthquakes which are still afflicting our country in the Marches and Umbria. To conclude, via ŕ vis the Order's action in relieving human suffering without distinction of faith or race, it is appropriate to repeat what Albert Schweitzer, the lay missionary of Lambarené, used to say: "The colour of your skin does not matter, I do not care about your religious beliefs, I do not care about your political credo. I only ask you: what are you suffering from?" This seems more relevant than ever today.

Ven. Bailiff Fra' Franz von Lobstein
Grand Prior of Rome

 

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