A Spiritual Heritage for the Laity: Service, Prayer, and Pilgrimage

The Knights of Malta. The full name — and it is quite a mouthful — is, “The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta.” Because in modern times there are many Dames as well as Knights, the shorthand phrase “Order of Malta” is preferred.

The key word in the lengthy name is “Order.” The Knights are a religious order, the fourth oldest in the Catholic Church, in fact. People sometimes assume that — whatever the glorious military past — membership in the Order today is purely honorary. That is far from the truth. By far the most important thing about being a Knight or Dame of Malta is the commitment (usually without solemn vows) to a religious order. This element of commitment has sometimes been imperfectly realized in the Order; at certain times and places it may have been entirely ignored. But leaders from the Order’s founder to its present head, the Grand Master, Fra Andrew Bertie, have consistently stressed that commitment and vocation lie at the core of the Order. Most Dames and Knights are not called in the same way that, for example, a Franciscan is called to poverty, chastity, and obedience. But they are called, nonetheless, to a unique religious vocation.

A Lay Heritage

The vocation, and the Order, are unique precisely because of their lay character. It is true that many orders make room for the attachment of lay members, such as Third Order Franciscans. And it is also true that few members of the Order of Malta take full vows, and thereby assume a different state of life. But even for the vast majority of members of the Order who do not take vows, the Order is unique. Whereas other orders are primarily for priests or vowed religious women, the Order of Malta is primarily made up of lay men and women. Priests are there to assist the lay people — not the other way around. For the Order has been a lay organization from the outset.

At the end of the eleventh century, monks and serving brothers at the Hospital of Saint John in Jerusalem were organized by one Brother Gerard and called themselves the “Poor Brethren of the Hospital of Saint John.” Next door to the Poor Brethren were serving sisters at the Hospice of Mary Magdalene. Recognition by Pope Paschal II as a religious order came in 1113.

A twelfth-century pilgrim who visited Jerusalem reported that the hospital could accommodate 2,000 patients, and the serving brothers and sisters brought food each day to an equal number of needy people outside the hospital. A twentieth-century counterpart can be seen in the Order’s clinics in El Salvador or Lebanon (among others), or in its members loading food into trucks at the SHARE project in Washington, D.C.

Before long, Brother Gerard had in place a network of pilgrim hostels along the major routes   from Europe to Jerusalem. The demands of the Crusades drew the fledgling order to help defend the pilgrimage routes from the coast of Palestine to Jerusalem, and eventually to assist in the defense of the Crusader kingdom there. This military mission was to dominate the history of the Order for the next 500 years, as it was forced from Palestine to Cyprus, and then to Rhodes, where the Turks ultimately defeated the Knights despite heroic battles of resistance — and thence to Malta. But the primary role of the Order was hospitaller before it was military, and in recent centuries, the hospitaller role has once again predominated.

In many parts of the world, the Order is today organized into national associations, of which there are 41. Because of the size of the United States, three “national associations” exist in this country, the American Association (headquartered in New York), the Western Association (with dual headquarters in San Francisco and Los Angeles), and the Federal Association (headquartered in Washington). These associations in some respects resemble the provinces of a religious order.

The lay aspect of the Order naturally means a vocation different from that of other orders. The Franciscan vocation is to be a mendicant, for instance; the Sisters of the Visitation, cloistered prayer. When Brother Gerard founded the Order of Malta, he founded it for those who wanted to dedicate themselves to religious life while preserving an active role in the world. In effect, he invented the vocation of lay contemplatives active in the world.

A Heritage of Service

And so the Knights and Dames have a vocation to be in the world. But what exactly is it that they are to do in the world? Each member is required to make a solemn commitment to “conduct your everyday life in an exemplary manner in conformity with the teachings and moral laws of the Church.” But there is more. From the outset, the special apostolate of the Order has been expressed in the Latin phrase tuitio fidei, obsequium pauperum.

The first half of this phrase is translated “defense of the Faith.” The defense is not carried out with guns or swords these days, but it still is often necessary to respond to attacks on the Church, although care must be taken to perform this role with prudence and charity. Service to the Catholic Church is today required for admission to the Order, and Knights and Dames are found serving in a variety of capacities around the world: on committees, writing “letters to the editor,” defending the Church and her tenets.

The second half of the phrase, obsequium pauperum, means “service of the poor.” In fact, it means more than “service.” The Latin obsequium suggests to our ears the English “obsequious.” That word nowadays carries the connotation of “fawning,” but the Oxford English Dictionary lists as its primary meaning “compliant with the will or wishes of another; prompt to serve.” And so members of the Order are called to be obsequious in their service of the poor (and, by extension, the sick).

This has been the core mission of the Order from the very beginning. One of the earliest Rules of the Order said:

When a sick person arrives, receive him thus: first having confessed his sins to a priest of the Religion, give him Holy Communion; then let him be taken to a bed, and there let him be received just as if he were the Lord, and every day, charitably, give him the best that the house can furnish before the brothers have broken fast.

One who travels with the Order to Lourdes can see a thousand examples of sick and disabled persons being treated this way.

We can inspect the texts of the thirteenth-century rites of investiture. At that time, the new member took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and then was asked to take a fourth vow:

Also, we make another promise, which no other people make, for you promise to be the serf and slave of our Lords, the sick.

A similar pledge is taken by new members in the investiture ceremonies of most national associations of the Order today.

The word “hospitaller” is prominent in the name of the Order, and so it should be. Hospitals and hospices have been important hubs of activity for the Order throughout the centuries. In fact, if you look up the word hospital in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, you will find as the first meaning:

a house for the reception and entertainment of pilgrims, travellers or strangers; any of the establishments of the Knights Hospitallers.

That said, it hasn’t been solely a matter of funding hospitals and serving on their boards of directors. The Spiritual Guidelines for All Members of the Order state this quite clearly:

Material assistance is not sufficient if it is not integrated and completed by personal participation, which raises the material value of the help and transforms it in charity and love . . . to serve “our Lords, the Sick.”

This focus on “hands-on” participation has received new emphasis in recent years. Many Knights and Dames now work personally in service projects organized by the Order. In the United States, each of the three Associations has at least one AIDS hospice where its members work. Hospital visitation teams, the rehabilitation of inner-city housing, projects for the elderly — all provide scope for the spirituality of the Order to be put into action.

As the man who directs the world-wide charitable and relief efforts of the Order, Grand Hospitaller Albrecht von Boeselager, recently commented:

The Order is only secondarily a charitable organization that distributes aid to the needy. The aim of obsequium pauperum is the individual’s active and personal commitment to the good works of the Order.

As the Chaplain of the British Association has described it, Brother Gerard decided very early to turn things upside down — a true inversion of values.

Most of the members of the Order in its early centuries came from the nobility — the people at the top of society. The message of the New Testament was that the last should be first, and the first last. So the idea was that the nobility (the powerful) were to become the vassals of the poor and the weak. Today, too, all members of the Order — from whatever economic or social situation — are called to serve the poor and the sick.

This idea of becoming the vassals has another important aspect. Many Knights and Dames have achieved notable success in business, the professions, and government. Perhaps they are used to being in command, to having others responsive to their wishes. They often are not accustomed to waiting or to taking orders. The Order calls them to personal service, often at a “lower level” than in their professional or business life. This kind of service can help greatly in the struggle towards poverty of spirit — one of the eight Beatitudes symbolized by the eight-sided Maltese cross.

A Heritage of Prayer

Prayer, and especially communal prayer, has been an integral part of the Order of Malta from its earliest days. It was, of course, easier when professed Knights, who had taken vows, lived in community. One of the special challenges in the United States today, particularly with members spread throughout the country, is to continue that sense of community.

The Order has its own calendar of saints and beatified members (starting with Blessed Gerard himself). It has a devotion, dating to the time of its occupation of Rhodes, to the Blessed Mother under the title of Our Lady of Philermos; her feast day is today a major feast of the Order. Its patron saint is John the Baptist, and his feast day is the primary celebration of the calendar. Retreats and days and evenings of recollection are offered in many locales. These occasions are crucial for the Order; as a Vatican document on religious orders released in February said, members of religious orders, no matter what their specific ministry, are first called to “become brothers and sisters in a given community where all are called to live together.” Members of the Order of Malta live together only in rare situations; that makes it all the more necessary to use these liturgies as opportunities to forge religious community.

The individual prayer life of Dames and Knights must vary tremendously. Many members around the world say part or all of that adaptation of the breviary known as the Little Office of Our Lady, either with other members or alone. Many also take advantage of the English-language prayer book available through the British Association. Probably most members recite daily the prayer reproduced at the end of this article.

A Heritage of Pilgrimage

Since the origins of the Order are intimately entwined with the idea of pilgrimage, it is no surprise that many members today make group pilgrimages to shrines of Our Lady and to the Holy Land. But the primary pilgrimage of the Order for the past two decades has been the annual pilgrimage to Lourdes. This pilgrimage ties together all the key aspects of the Order.

Giving tangible evidence of the Order as an international religious community, literally thousands of Knights and Dames from around the world converge on Lourdes each May. The pilgrimage affords a unique opportunity for communal prayer, as the Order demonstrates its special devotion to Our Lady. And it offers all who participate the chance to give a week of direct and continuous service to the sick — to eat with them, pray with them, minister to their needs, and literally haul them in carts through the streets of Lourdes. The effect of this on the sick and disabled persons who are the guests of the Order is striking; the effect on the members is even more so. Many of them are accustomed to setting their own schedules and controlling their own days, but they willingly set aside a week in which they dress in work uniforms, obey the orders of team leaders, follow strict schedules set by others, and have no goal other than to make the pilgrimage fruitful for their lords, the sick. And almost without exception, the members come away with a deepened and recharged spirituality. It is no wonder the Order strongly encourages all members to make the Lourdes pilgrimage at least once.

The heritage of the Order of Malta, for all its splendid military and chivalric history, is primarily spiritual. It is perhaps best summed up by the Daily Prayer of the Order:

Lord Jesus, you have seen fit to enlist me for your service among the Knights and Dames of Saint John of Jerusalem. I humbly entreat you, through the intercession of the most holy Virgin of Philermos, of Saint John the Baptist, Blessed Gerard, and all the saints, to keep me faithful to the traditions of our Order. Be it mine to practice and defend the Catholic, the Apostolic, the Roman faith against the enemies of religion; be it mine to practice charity towards my neighbor, especially the poor and sick. Give me the strength I need to carry out this my resolve, forgetful of myself, learning ever from your most holy Gospel a spirit of deep and generous Christian devotion, striving ever to promote God’s glory, the world’s peace, and all that may benefit the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem.


  • W. Shepherdson Abell

    W. Shepherdson Abell was an attorney and former president of the Federal Association of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. He passed away in 2001.

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