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Nine Centuries of Chivalry

From February 9-15, 2013 the Sovereign Military Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta will be celebrating its 900th anniversary.  

The Order of Malta, as it is generally known, is the oldest Order of Chivalry in the world and the fourth oldest religious Order in the Church.

The anniversary marks the date when Pope Paschal II issued the papal bull Pie postulatio voluntatis giving his approval for the foundation of the hospital of St. John in Jerusalem. The effect of the bull was that those who ran the hospital became members of a lay religious order.

Today, the Order of Malta functions as a religious order, an order of chivalry, and as a sovereign subject of international law. It has two general missions: the service of the sick and the poor and the defence of the faith.

At times in its history, the defence of the faith took a military form. In 1565, the Orders Knights defeated a much larger Saracen invading force in the Great Siege of Malta. Their victory removed the immediate risk of an invasion of Sicily and perhaps, even more seriously, of the eternal city herself. 

Six years later in the Battle of Lepanto, members of the Order contributed three galleys to the coalition forces, which sailed under the name of the Holy League. Although they were badly outnumbered by the Turkish forces, which sailed in a menacing crescent-shaped configuration, a change in the direction of the wind at the outset of the naval battle greatly assisted the victory of the Christian forces. 

Pius V, the reigning pontiff, attributed the victory to the intercession of Our Lady, to whom whole kingdoms of Christians were then offering rosaries, pleading for her maternal protection. It is because of this event that we now have the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary and the title Our Lady of Victories.

The Order has diplomatic relations today with 104 countries and representation at the United Nations and the Parliament of the European Union.  It also has 13,500 members and 80,000 permanent volunteers. It is especially active in helping the victims of armed conflicts and natural disasters by the provision of medical aid. 

It runs general hospitals in Germany, France, England, and Italy, and a maternity hospital in Bethlehem. It also funds medical centers in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Madagascar, Togo, and Lebanon. In Senegal and Cambodia the Order has established centers for leprosy sufferers and AIDS-relief programs are underway in Africa and Central America, with special institutions caring for afflicted mothers and their infants in South Africa and the Philippines.

In the more highly developed countries, palliative care is becoming a key concern for the Order. Catholic patients, understandably, do not want to die in hospitals run on utilitarian principles. They want chapels, not prayer-rooms, crucifixes not lavender candles, priests with the power to administer sacraments, not social workers with degrees in grief counselling.

Lawyers and medical practitioners who are members of the Order are now on the front lines, defending the Christian ethos of medical institutions from the ideologies of the culture of death. 

The Order has also founded a Global Fund for Forgotten People. These include people with neglected diseases, children with parents in prison, children born with disabilities, and mothers and new-borns without healthcare.

In Madrid and St. Petersburg, the Order operates soup kitchens for the poor and homeless and in Paris the Order has moored two barges on the Seine River to provide overnight accommodation for homeless men – and their dogs. For many of the homeless men a dog literally is their best friend and not someone from whom they want to be parted at night. The French members of the Order are rather proud of the fact that they have made provision for the dogs. 

In this week, therefore, when members of the Order of Malta celebrate 900 years of service to the world, it is worth reflecting on how much we need such chivalry. 

In popular parlance, chivalry is often associated with the practice of a gentleman offering a lady a seat on a peak-hour train or allowing someone older and frailer a safe passage through some other peak-hour scrum. But fundamentally, chivalry is about people with strength and power using whatever gifts they have acquired from nature or education to help those weaker than themselves. It is the complete antithesis of the survival of the fittest principles which govern life among the lower primates.

Feminists tend to be anti-chivalry because they dont like women to be considered the weaker sex, even if weaker in this context means something like “physically less able to move fallen trees and change flat tyres” – not intellectually slower. Similarly, liberal ideologues dont like chivalry because it suggests that there are actually some people in society who are stronger and more capable than others. The mere existence of such types means that a century of social engineering has failed to bring about the classless utopia.

In contrast, the Christian idea of chivalry simultaneously affirms talent and ability while holding that such talents are best put to use in the one-to-one service of those less able. 

Perhaps a stronger affirmation of chivalry in our school curricula might help overcome a number of social pathologies, including feminism, male chauvinism, mindless egalitarianism, and the idea that the service of the sick and the poor and the defence of the faith is something to be achieved by a bureaucracy rather than by real people.

Somewhat paradoxically, the defence of the faith in the twenty-first century will also entail a defence of the age-old value of chivalry. 


Tracey Rowland, a new contributor to The Catholic Thing, is dean and permanent fellow of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family (Melbourne, Australia). She is the author of Culture and the Thomist Tradition after Vatican II (2003) and Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010), among other works.