Soldiers for Our Lords, the Sick: The Knights of Saint John

Few institutions in the world today are as old as The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. From its founding in the Holy Land before the arrival of the first Crusaders through its various periods, locations, and works, the Order has remained remarkably true to its original purpose. In part that faithfulness is due to its religious mission as a papally-approved Order of the Catholic Church as well as the recognition of its sovereign status by international law. Because of its dual nature the Order is a persona mista, being both religious and sovereign, a characteristic which makes it unique among the multitude of religious orders. This mission has remained the same for over 900 years.

Each order or secular institute of the Catholic Church has its own charism, that identifying aspect which provides it purpose and spirit. We think of the Dominicans as the Order of Preachers, the Franciscans for their poverty, the Jesuits as missionaries and educators, the Benedictines by their motto, ora et labora, prayer and work. The Order of Saint John, more commonly called the Order of Malta, lives by its credo, “Our Lords, the Sick and the Poor.” The members of the Order make a promise upon investiture to serve, to the best of their ability, the sick and the poor, seeing in that goal the fulfillment in their time of the vision of their founder, Blessed Gerard. He established a hospice for the care of pilgrims to the Holy Land before Pope Urban II issued his call in 1095 at the Council of Clermont in France for a movement to take back for Christianity those territories in the Levant sanctified by the life of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the early disciples.

In the latter half of the eleventh century a confluence of events led to a revival of the early Christian practice of pilgrimage. From Easter morning onward Christians found spiritual solace in visiting the Holy Places. The mentality behind such practices found articulation in the early fifth century when Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote The City of God which contained the concept of earthly pilgrimage as being a means to heavenly life. His message was for those unable to undertake physical travel to the Holy Land, who could view their time on this earth as a spiritual journey to the next, and to accomplish that end he urged them to live as if on the actual pilgrimage itself.

Saint Augustine’s philosophy and theology dominated the medieval period, but, in part due to the rise of Islam, pan-Mediterranean travel became an impossibility during the Middle Ages. After the year 1000 the political, economic, and social characteristics of the Middle Ages underwent a significant change. Old Roman towns revived and new ones came into being at sites conducive to the commerce which emerged in the new Europe. With these changes came a religious restructuring in 1054 when Pope Leo IX and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, mutually excommunicated each other and all of their followers, thereby setting in place the Great Schism between the Latin Catholic West and the Greek Orthodox East.

The religious division of 1054 set in course a chain of events which, by century’s end, produced the First Crusade. The earliest sign of the impending new order occurred in 1071 at Manzikert in Asia Minor when an army of Moslem Turks defeated the Byzantine army on the field of battle. Manzikert sent shock waves across Europe, bringing about an early version of the “domino theory” familiar in this century to veterans of the Cold War. European countries thought that they no longer could rely on the Byzantine army to keep them from Islamic conquest, and viewed Manzikert as merely a prelude to the fall of Constantinople and then Western Europe itself.

Shortly after Manzikert a new religious chasm developed in Europe with the lay investiture controversy which crystallized in 1077 at Canossa in Tuscany when the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, meeting with Pope Gregory VII, promised obedience, but then returned to his former practices. Eight years later Pope Gregory died a captive of the Normans, leaving the papacy unbowed in the face of the imperial demands for temporal control of the spiritual realm.

Because of these events — the Great Schism, Manzikert, and the Lay Investiture Controversy — and because of the news in Europe that pilgrims to Palestine were being denied access to the Holy Places, in 1095 Pope Urban II issued his call for the Christian retaking of the Holy Land. The Pope hoped that the new movement would reunite the churches divided by schism, support the political struggle with the Holy Roman Emperor, calm the fears generated by Manzikert, and rekindle the pilgrimage concept in European thinking.

His message proved eminently successful: an army formed quickly and Europe rallied behind it. Off they went, first to Constantinople, and then to Palestine. By 1099 they were at the gates of Jerusalem, and upon taking the city, there they found Brother Gerard and his aides in their hospital, caring for the sick in a spirit of Christian duty and acceptance, the news of which spread back to Europe quite quickly. Less than fourteen years later, on February 15, 1113, Pope Paschal II granted papal approval of the Hospital, which he placed under the protection of the Holy See, and permitted it to elect Brother Gerard’s successors free from ecclesiastical or lay interference.

Brother Gerard used only the title of Rector, but his successors came to be called Master, and ultimately Grand Master. The foundation of the Order was its religious and hospitaller mission then as it is now, but with the expansion of its activity in the Holy Land it also assumed a military and chivalric purpose. As such, the Knights of Saint John joined with the other Crusading orders to defend the Christian bastion in the Levant, but as Moslem forces regrouped, and as the spirit of the Crusades waned in Europe, their beachhead gradually eroded. By 1291 only the fortress city of Acre was left in Christian hands, and upon its fall the Order of Saint John moved briefly to Cyprus, and then in 1308 to Rhodes where it has remained for over two centuries.

At Rhodes the political situation was sufficiently stable for the Order to undertake extensive building projects in the form of hospitals for the sick and convents for the members. In the hospitals, the members of the Order introduced new scientific methods for treating illnesses, and continued the tradition of service to the sick and poor who remained their “Lords” in the manner followed by Blessed Gerard. The Order’s presence on Rhodes produced a golden age which rivalled that of the island’s classical past, but by the beginning of the 16th century it too had become vulnerable to the advancing Moslem forces from the East.

In 1522 as the Lutheran wars were beginning in the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg-Valois wars were starting between Spain and France, a new Moslem advance arose from the Levant. This time the military and naval arms of the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to Rhodes. Despite valiant efforts on the part of the defending Knights of Saint John, in the end they surrendered. Suleiman provided the survivors safe passage from the island, complimenting them on the bravery with which they had defended the territory. Again, the Order was left without terra firma, but that interlude was short-lived.

At the age of 19, in 1519, King Charles I of Spain became the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V with his election to succeed his grandfather, Maximillian Habsburg, who had died in 1516. Immediately the young Emperor became immersed in the Lutheran struggles and in the long series of wars with his nemesis, Francis I of France, events which delayed his coronation for eleven years. In 1529 he was advancing in the French struggle and that year the Second Diet of Spires in the Empire gave him a stronger position in dealing with the Lutheran movement. Due in part to these factors, in 1530 he travelled to Bologna where he met Pope Clement VII who crowned him in the basilica. That same year in his role as King of Spain, still in the form of a dynastic union of the several realms of his grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella, he drew upon his Aragonese inheritance of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies to take the archipelago of Malta and give it to the Order of Saint John as its permanent home.

The donation consisted of the three islands of Malta, Gozo, and Comino, and in addition to the religious nature of his gift, his motivation included having the armed Knights there to defend against further Moslem advances from the Eastern Mediterranean. When the members of the Order arrived on Malta they found the islands unfortified, and they began at once their twofold mission of hospitaller service to the sick and the poor, which always came first, and their military mission of defending their territory from Islamic attack. The latter effort faced its greatest challenge in 1565 with the Great Siege. A force of 100,000 Turks with 190 vessels laid siege on May 18 and continued their assault until the Feast of the Blessed Mother’s Nativity on September 8. Grand Master Jean de la Valette commanded the defense consisting of some 400 Knights and 6,000 soldiers. The Turks abandoned the siege after a force of 12,000 Spanish and Italian troops arrived after Pope Saint Pius V implored Catholic sovereigns to come to the aid of the Order. Once again free, the Grand Master set out to construct the new fortress capital of the islands, the city which still bears his name, Valetta.

The ever-present fear of further Islamic thrust into Europe led Saint Pius V to call for a new counter-assault to stem the rising Turkish tide. That request produced the great armada of ships which sailed under the command of Don Juan of Austria, the son of Charles V, into the waters near Lepanto off the coast of Greece. There on October 7, the Christian forces, which included galleys from the Order of Saint John, decisively ended the Turkish naval threat to the Western Mediterranean. To commemorate the event, Saint Pius, who had directed the recitation of the Rosary in supplication of the victory, established October 7 as the Feast of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary.

There were additional lesser forays by the Moslems, but after the Great Siege and Lepanto, the Order was able to emphasize once again its mission of caring for the sick and the poor. Those efforts, along with the Order’s illustrious military past, were factors in the decision of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II to create The Grand Master as a Prince of the H.R.E. in 1619. Thereafter each Grand Master has born the title of Prince and Grand Master, and the address of “your most eminent highness,” signifying his sovereign and religious authority.

The Order’s presence on Malta continued through the 17th and 18th centuries until revolutionary events in France brought a change. From 1795 until 1799 the government of France, the Directory, consisted of five Directors who comprised an oligarchy. It was a period of relative domestic peace after the Reign of Terror, but one in which political stability was a mere illusion. In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte received the Directors’ approval to set forth on his mission to conquer Egypt. On the way he seized the independent states of Genoa and Venice and then set out to do the same to Malta. Unlike their predecessors’ defense at Rhodes and during the Great Siege, this time the Knights agreed to leave on their own. It made for a sad irony that those who had fought so bravely against the enemies of Christianity would capitulate before a fellow Christian power, not to mention the greater irony that an ambitious Christian militarist would assault an Order of the Church. The Order foundered at this point, homeless with Europe in the midst of continent-wide wars, and its future seemingly quite bleak.

In 1801 in the Peace of Amiens, between France and Britain, the British promised to see Malta returned to the Order of Saint John, but 14 years later at The Congress of Vienna, Malta became a British colony. One of the most bizarre aspects in the history of the Order came in this period when the Russian Emperor, Paul I, the son of Catherine the Great who had presided over the Partitions of Poland, proclaimed himself Grand Master of the Order. He based his claim on the passage to Russia of those parts of Poland which had contained the properties of the Polish Grand Priory of the Order. In the contemporary world the Order faces insidious assaults from a number of “false orders,” groups claiming to be the Order, but with no historical or juridical basis to support their claims. Most of these groups lay pseudo- historical claims on their alleged descent from Paul I’s escapade.

After a brief passage in the Italian city of Ferrara, the Grand Magistry of the Order moved to the Palazzo Malta in Rome, its former embassy to The Holy See, where in 1834 its sovereign status gained recognition from Pope Gregory XVI. The last monastic pope, all succeeding popes having come from the secular clergy, Gregory XVI had a particular interest in seeing a religious order rightfully established on its own. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, free of military concerns, the Order of Saint John has been able from its base in Rome to devote itself exclusively to its original purpose of defending the Faith and serving the sick and the poor. In 1961 Pope John XXIII promulgated a new Constitution for the Order, and after an interregnum on May 8, 1962, Fra Angelo de Mojana di Cologna became the Grand Master with his election by The Council Complete of State.

The new Grand Master wished to continue the restoration of the ideals and practices of Blessed Gerard. To that end he designated an annual pilgrimage to Lourdes, the principal Marian shrine in France, to be the Order’s official place in spiritual journey with its lords, the sick and the poor. His successor, Fra Andrew Bertie, elected on April 8, 1988, has continued to emphasize the same religious motivation in all of the hospitaller and spiritual works of the Order, which come together in common purpose at Lourdes. There, where St. Bernadette encountered the Immaculate Conception, each year Knights and Dames of the Order reaffirm for their time the spiritual mission first conceived and put into practice by Blessed Gerard over 900 years ago in Jerusalem.


  • Henry Lane Hull

    At the time this article was published, Henry Lane Hull was the historian of the Federal Association of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta.

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