An Essay on the Order of St. John



Chevalier PAUL (1)



The stories of the authentic military religious orders offer a rich spectacle that is of great interest in itself but also serves to show up the shallowness and falsity of the various present day imitations of these institutions. Thus it is worthwhile to take a closer look at them, beginning with the those first known as the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem, then the knights of St. John of Jerusalem, later as the knights of Rhodes, then as the knights of Malta. This order is today commonly known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

A decade or more before the arrival in the Holy Land of the First Crusade in 1099, fifty merchants from Amalfi established the monastery of St. Mary of the Latins, south of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. They had obtained a concession from the caliphs of Egypt for the care of Christian pilgrims and the sick regardless of race. This was provided by Italian Benedictine monks from the monastery.

The Amalfitans next created two independent foundations, the convent of St. Mary Magdalene, later known as St. Mary the Great, and a hospice or hospital dedicated to one or the other of the Saints named John. The convent had probably been founded by 1080. The Hospital of St. John, if not already in existence, must have been established very soon after as it was certainly before the arrival of the First Crusade.

Known as that of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, it was headed by the Blessed Gerard, a pilgrim from Provence who had decided to remain in the Holy Land. Jonathan Riley-Smith says of Gerard:(2)

"His humility and sanctity have been so emphasized by generations of historians that his ability has been somewhat understated. He took advantage of his position as administrator of a hospital for pilgrims to found the first truly international religious order, one, moreover, with an original and attractive ideal. He was regarded by Pope Paschal II as its creator, and his ability and sanctity were underscored in his epitaph, the authenticity of which has not been certified, but which receives some corroboration in documentary evidence.(3)

"Here lies Gerard, the humblest man in the east, the servant of the poor, hospitable to strangers, meek of countenance but with a noble heart, one can see in these walls how good he was. He was provident and active. Exerting himself in all sorts of ways, he stretched forth his arms into many lands to obtain what he needed to feed his own. On the seventeenth day of the passage of the sun under the sign of Virgo, he was carried into Heaven in the hands of Angels."

A few years later the Hospitaller monks took up arms in order to defend themselves and protect the pilgrims' route. Among them were some of the companions of the hero of the first Crusade, Godfrey de Bouillon, first Christian ruler of Jerusalem. They were first and foremost religious men who lived under a monastic rule, but they reverted to their knightly status whilst fighting the Muslims.

Under Raymond Dupuy, the second Master of the Hospital, membership of the Order was divided into three classes. One consisted of those who by birth and military training took up arms as knights. Another class consisted of chaplains who administered spiritual care to the sick. The third were serving brothers, neither noblemen nor chaplains but who fought alongside the knights and tended to the sick. The badge of this Order of St John of Jerusalem was the famous eight-pointed white cross, the earliest surviving example of which is on a wax seal of 1207.

After the fall of Acre to Saladin in 1291, the Order left the Holy Land and set up on Cyprus, remaining on that island for eighteen years. Chafing under the authority exercised by the Cypriot government, the Order decided, in 1310 to take the island of Rhodes, which belonged to Byzantium, but was under constant threat from the Turks. It succeeded in establishing territorial sovereignty over the island, remaining there for two centuries.

Unlike other military religious orders forced out of the Holy Land, the Order of St. John continued to be active in the eastern Mediterranean. Not only did it maintain an hospital but its fleet challenged the domination of the formidable Turkish navy. As its armada grew in importance, the Order became a regional power, providing a degree of protection to Christian interests in the Middle Sea.

During the two centuries on Rhodes, the knights successfully resisted two Turkish sieges, the first in 1310 and the second in 1440. But in 1522, after having inflicted severe losses on the forces of Sultan Suleiman II, the knights were forced to capitulate. They were allowed to leave the island with honor, taking with them their arms, standards, artillery and those Cypriots who wished to accompany them.

The Order spent the next ten years moving from place to place until in 1530, the Emperor Charles V, as King of Sicily, granted the Order the town of Tripoli on the African coast and the islands of Malta and Gozo. The Order received these as a noble, free and perpetual fief on condition that the Order occupy these places and pay a token annual fee of one falcon to the viceroy of Sicily.(4) Thus the Order became a vassal for these territories of the Kingdom of Sicily. It was unable to keep Tripoli but did keep Malta and Gozo for more than two hundred and sixty years. Its Grand Master was recognized as the Prince of Malta and the Order as a sovereign government, despite the terms of the feudal grant from Charles V.

The Turks besieged the island on three occasions. Twice, in 1551 and 1641 the danger to Malta was not great. However, the second siege in 1565 was a different matter. The Great Siege, as it is known, lasted for five months the Turkish forces came close to overcoming Malta's resistance. The extraordinary resistance put up by the knights under the leadership of Grand Master Jean Parisot de La Vallette made them the heroes of Europe and greatly enhanced the prestige of the Order.(5)

During the years in Malta, between 1530 and 1798, the Order's principal activity continued to be naval warfare against the Turkish fleet and Muslim pirates and corsairs. The Order trained many future officers of the French navy of whom perhaps the best known was the Bailiff Suffren of St Tropez, the great eighteenth century admiral whose statue is well-known to the yacht-owners whose craft nowadays fill that port. Cadets of noble families were registered at birth to have the opportunity of training with the Order. As youngsters, they went to Malta to serve their novitiate in the Order's galleys. This was known as performing their "caravan". After three years of caravan duty , the knight remained at least two years in the Convent on the island, before being able to aspire to more senior responsibilities.

In addition to its naval exploits, the Order was renowned for its medical traditions and for the efficient operation of its hospital, which was by far and away the best run in Europe. True to its founders' commitments, the Order considered itself the servant of the sick and the phrase "Our Lords the Sick" appeared in the rules governing its hospital. The Great Infirmary maintained a medical school for the study of anatomy, medicine and surgery unmatched anywhere in Europe.

From its first century of existence onwards the Order had accumulated great wealth through pious donations of property and the favor of rulers throughout Catholic Europe. It acquired properties of the Knights Templar when that order was suppressed and in later centuries acquired booty from successful raids on Ottoman shipping. But with the Reformation, it lost its holdings in northern Europe with the seizure of its considerable estates in the British isles, Scandinavia and Protestant Germany. The most debilitating blow, however, was to come from France, with which it had the most numerous and valuable links.

It was the French revolutionaries, not the Muslim Turks, who were the undoing of the knights. The political upheavals which followed the Revolution deprived the Order of its properties in France and everywhere where French revolutionary arms triumphed. As a consequence of the French conquests in Italy, the Order was stripped of an important part of its estates in the peninsula.

With the rise of hostile regimes and revolutionary fervor in lands that had once been benefactors, the Grand Master, Fra Ferdinand von Hompesch, sought the protection of Russia, the one power that appeared able to resist the advance of the revolutionary French and their allies. Hompesch placed the Order under the protection of Tsar Paul I. Instead, however, of ensuring the maintenance of the Order's independence, Hompesch's manoeuver resulted in its ruination.(6) Knowing that Russia, and more important Russia's ally, Britain, coveted the island, the revolutionary regime in Paris instructed General Bonaparte to take it on his way to conquer Egypt. He did so, thus denying Malta to the British and the Russian while protecting French lines of communication across the Mediterranean.(7)

Bonaparte obtained the Grand Master's capitulation on 12 June 1798. Hompesch, accompanied by some twenty people, knights, serving brethren, pages, and servants, left the following night for Trieste. Fifty-three young knights joined Bonaparte's army and accompanied him to Egypt. Very few remained on the island, most of them no longer fit for military service. The majority returned to France .

The expulsion of the Order from Malta cast it into a disarray which provided opportunities for intrigue, not the least at the Court of St Petersburg. Emperor Paul had allowed the creation of a Roman Catholic Grand Priory in Russia whose Italian knights were only too happy to make themselves agreeable to the Emperor by begging him to assume, quite improperly, the position of Grand Master. He was delighted to do so, despite the feeble protests of Pope Pius VI, himself kept a prisoner by Bonaparte in a convent near Florence. (8)

This Russian phase of the history of the Order became the basis for claims to legitimacy by over a dozen so-called orders of St. John of Jerusalem operating at present. As such, the extraordinary story of Tsar Paul and subsequent Russian involvement with the Order will be discussed in detail in another paper covering these "orders."

The nineteenth century was a particularly trying one for the Order. For seventy-four years it virtually lost its sovereignty and was under the protection of a much weakened Holy See, which appointed Italians of little consequence as "Lieutenants of the Magistracy" rather than as Grand Masters.(9) In the early years of the century, Napoleon was the Order's principal foe. Everywhere Bonaparte advanced, the Order was eradicated. Having lost its properties and the income they generated in France and then Malta, its home, it next lost the Spanish commanderies which seceded from the Order in 1802. In 1803 a Papal brief abolished the French jurisdictions; in 1805 the Russian priories seceded; in 1806 the Order lost the commanderies of Northern Italy and the Grand Priory of Germany; in 1807 it lost the Portuguese Priory, in 1808 it lost the commanderies of the Pontifical States in the Kingdom of Naples. In 1813 the Bohemian Priory was threatened with suppression and its properties transferred to the Austrian Order of Maria-Theresa. By 6 April 1814 the Order was reduced to a few commanderies in Sicily and Bohemia and a few knights scattered elsewhere. It became an "errant" Order with headquarters in Messina, then Catania. In 1826, Antonio Busca, Lieutenant of the Magistracy, moved them to Ferrara, and Carlo Candida, his successor, to Rome in 1834. There the Order found a durable home where it has remained.

In 1839 Candida was able to recuperate all of the Order's Italian Priories. This encouraged the Order to redefine itself in a realistic manner. It adopted three principles by which it would govern itself. One was to give up all forms of sovereignty implying onerous political and military responsibilities or compromising ties. Another was to widen international interest in the Order so as to recover minor forms of sovereignty and defend them from pontifical control. Lastly it undertook to intensify its charitable activity, based on current needs.

In keeping with the first of these principles, the Order turned down suggestions for its remilitarization as well as offers of autonomous territories. In 1845, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies proposed giving the Order the island of Ponza on condition that the Austrian Archduke Frederick became Grand Master and that the Order's fleet, yet to be reconstituted, engage in pursuing slave ships. In 1850, with Rome threatened by the supporters of Italian unification, it was suggested that the Papal city's protection be placed into the hands of a re-militarized Order. Acceptance of these offers would have carried serious political and financial consequences which the Order thought it wisest to avoid.

These nineteenth century proposals were not divorced from the realities of contemporary politics unlike some made in the twentieth century which were less credible. Mussolini allegedly proposed to return the island of Rhodes, then an Italian colony, to the Order. As a head of government, Il Duce had received its Grand Cross, but this did not persuade him to extend diplomatic recognition to the Order, which he pointed out was not provided for under the Lateran Treaty between his government and the Holy See. In 1945, Stalin is said to have conjured up the memory of Tsar Paul I and to have had Soviet emissaries ask Count Michel de Pierredon, representative of the Order in Paris, whether it might not wish to open a legation in Moscow. Stalin, the story goes, went so far as to suggest the restitution of the former Russian and Polish commanderies. The Russian motives were subject to much speculation but here too, the Grand Magistracy turned down the offer.

In 1879, Pope Leo XIII re-established the dignity of Grand Master, and Fra Gianbattista Ceschi a Santa Croce, who had been serving as Lieutenant General of the Grand Magistracy, was elected.

At this point, so that the Order might expand and increase its influence, Ceschi initiated the creation of national lay associations of the Order. The Order would thereafter have two parallel structures. One was made up of the five traditional Grand Priories, Rome, Lombardy, Venice, Naples and Sicily, Bohemia and Austria. These were kept alive only by the survival of a rare few professed knights. In the twentieth century their number varied from twenty-two to twenty-seven, of whom half were chaplains. They constituted approximately 0.5 percent of the Order. The vow of poverty was modified to enable professed knights to administer their family estates. Dispensations accorded by the Vatican to allow access to the "Profession" were rare and took a long time to obtain so that it happened that candidates married before the Vatican reached a decision.

In order to give the phantom priories some substance, a second category, of Knight of Obedience and Donat of Justice, was created during the period between the World Wars. Instead of pronouncing solemn vows candidates to this category promised to live a "perfect Christian life" in keeping with their national obligations. In countries where no priories existed, members of the professed and second categories were received in gremio religionis, that is, in the bosom of the religion under the direct authority of the Grand Master.

National Associations under the authority of a President could be created anywhere, regardless of the existence or absence of a priory. They would be governed by statutes complying to national legislation for associations. Their membership was and is largely made up made up of individuals of a third category who pronounce neither vows nor promises. These are Knights and Dames of Honor and Devotion; of Magistral Grace; and Donats of Devotion. In present day Catholic realms the sovereigns accept the title of Protector as in Belgium. When there is neither a Priory nor a National Association the members of the third category are attached to a local hospitaller charitable activity. Members of the third category take on the obligation to lead exemplary lives in keeping with the teachings and laws of the Catholic Church and are required to dedicate a part of their activities to the Order.

National Associations grew very rapidly after the creation of the French Association in 1891. Those of Spain and Portugal took the place of the dissolved or dissident Priories. In Germany, associations were created in Westphalia and Silesia; associations sprang up in England, Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria-Hungary and Poland. Between the two World Wars an association was created in the United States, and after the Second World War in Canada, The Philippines and five countries in Latin America. There were twelve associations in 1948 and nineteen in 1955. The imposition of Soviet dominated governments in Eastern and Central Europe in the wake of World War II effectively ended operations by the national associations in these countries. The Priories of Bohemia, the Associations of Silesia, of Hungary and of Poland continued however to exist in exile. That of Bohemia now has returned to Prague and occupies the Palace of Malta, that of Silesia has been absorbed by the German Association and that of Hungary has returned to Budapest.

The American Association, founded in 1926, became embroiled in a conspicuous altercation between the Order’s headquarters in Rome and Cardinal Francis Spellman, the powerful Archbishop of New York, as the French novelist Roger Peyrefitte (10) has related. His Eminence was a personal friend of Cardinal Canali, an important figure in the Roman curia, and the two shared common interests. Canali was Grand Master of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher and Grand Prior of Rome in the Order of Malta. Spellman was a Bailiff Grand Cross in the American Association and President of the Knights of Columbus. While the Grand Magistracy was little interested in the latter organization, it was most interested in the former which brought in $1000 in "passage money," that is a joining fee, from each new knight.

Spellman nominated as President of the Association a Mr. MacDonald, for whom he had obtained the papal title of marquis. At the time such titles were still being conferred and were internationally accepted. The propriety of an American citizen obtaining one for another American is another matter. To distinguish himself from the other Bailiffs Grand Cross, Cardinal Spellman gave himself a title, that of "Protector and Spiritual Advisor of the American Association of the Knights of Malta". The office of protector of a chivalric order historically is reserved for a ruling prince, as in the case of the King of the Belgians who is Protector of the Belgian Association of the Order. The Cardinal did not stop there but to distinguish himself from ruling monarchs, went on to call himself "Grand Protector." In addition, he named the association the "American Chapter of the Knights of Malta", giving an institutional religious character to the appearance of a lay association which lacked even a single professed knight. At the same time the President of the Association was transformed into the Master of the Chapter.

The astonished Grand Master of the Order, Fra Ludovico Chigi, was told by the Cardinal that he should not regard these actions as an affront, but rather as a way to make the American knights realize that they depended from a Grand Master. He also requested that Chigi give him sole authority over nominations to the Order in America. Spellman proposed about fifty candidates a year who were routinely approved by the Grand Master, although Chigi thought it strange that no American knight visiting Rome ever paid his respects at the Magistral Palace.

The Association informed the Grand Magistracy that in order for the donations it received to be exempted from American taxes, its statutes must name the charitable institution to which the funds would be directed. Archbishop Pizzardo, Apostolic Delegate to the United States, obtained the Grand Master's agreement that the only charity mentioned in the statutes would be, not as one might have expected, a medical or educational activity of the Order, but a work of the Holy See. This was the Hospital of the Child Jesus in Rome of which Mgr. Pizzardo was administrator.

The Order's administration at headquarters in Rome did not know how much money was going from the American Association to the Hospital of the Child Jesus but formed the impression it was a negligible amount.

Towards the end of 1950, Professor Rossi, Administrator General of the Order's properties, realized that it was in the interest of the Order to obtain recognition in the United States as a charitable institution. A well-known American lawyer confirmed the feasibility of the idea and the fiscal advantages it would bring and offered to handle the matter. For courtesy's sake, the Grand Master had the Marquis MacDonald informed and the latter informed Cardinal Spellman. The Master did not reply to the Rome headquarters but the Grand Protector and Spiritual Advisor did, declaring that "the project was senseless and most dangerous for the Association." Prince Chigi was taken aback not only by the tone of the Cardinal's letter and its lack of courtesy. The Grand Master had always written to the Cardinal using the customary opening, "My Lord Cardinal" and concluding with, "I have the honor to be Your Eminence's devoted and obedient child". Spellman preferred a no-frills business style, starting off "Dear Grand Master" and closing with "Sincerely". More than mere dissonance between different ideas of civility was involved as the gentlemen in Rome were to learn the following year.

In 1951, a French knight returning from a trip to the United States, visited Fra Hercolani, the Lieutenant General of the Order in Rome. The traveler described the millions of dollars given annually to the American Association. Hercolani, not believing his ears, insisted the total must be more in the neighborhood of $50,000. The Frenchman then gave Hercolani the name of an American knight who on the day he was received into the Order, handed Cardinal Spellman a cheque for $200,000. Hercolani's reaction was that, if true, the beds in the Hospital of the Child Jesus must be made out of 24 carat gold.

Anxious to know all the details, the Grand Magistracy decided to run its own investigation and eventually learned that upon joining the Order, American knights gave Spellman a minimum of $50,000, most gave $100,000, and many gave $200,000. Once in the order, some of the more affluent members made large donations, which like the other moneys, should have gone to the Hospital of the Child Jesus. Every year at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, Cardinal Spellman gave a banquet for the American Association. When dessert was served, he got up and passed a plate into which no one would have thought of putting anything less than $1000. The Magistracy also learned that Spellman's Association did not support any work of charity in the name of the Order in the United States. The Cardinal Grand Protector appeared, in the eyes of his members, as the head of the Order and often behaved as such.

The Cardinal had issued standing orders to his knights that when they traveled to Europe they were under no circumstances to visit the Grand Magistracy in Rome or to bother the Grand Master, who was an old man and spoke no English. The Magistracy learned that the Cardinal had persuaded the clerk responsible for mailing the Order's publication abroad not to send it to the United States. The Magistracy also discovered that the Cardinal feared that were the American Association to be accredited as a non-profit humanitarian association, the Grand Magistracy might start to claim sums intended for the Hospital of the Child Jesus.

The Order's officials in Rome found that millions of dollars were, in fact, being sent to Cardinal Pizzardo, as he now was, for the hospital. Despite this, the condition of the hospital continued to be markedly less than ideal. If the Americans' money was not being spent on the hospital, the members of the Grand Magistracy asked themselves, for what was it being used? Only Spellman, Pizzardo and Canali knew the answer and they never revealed it.

If the Grand Magistracy could not find out what had become of the millions of dollars contributed by American knights, it could bring the American Association into line with the customary conduct of such bodies. First, the Grand Master wrote to New York that the American Chapter should henceforth call itself the American Association. Rather than Master, Marquis MacDonald should henceforth be known as President. Fra Chigi added that the Order in the United States would become a registered charitable institution, an undertaking that far from being dangerous and absurd, was vouched for by a noted jurist who was currently handling the matter. The Grand Protector and Spiritual Advisor never replied.

Shortly thereafter, the lawyer informed the Grand Master that some unspecified political problems had arisen which would have to be resolved. Chigi, suspecting that Spellman had instigated the problems, wrote to him again. Fra Chigi referred to his last letter and, to jar the Cardinal a little, asked him to furnish the Grand Magistracy with a list of the charitable activities of the American Association, activities which the Grand Master said he had no doubt were of great worth and magnitude judging by the considerable sums that the American knights of the Order reserved for charity. Again, the Grand Protector and Spiritual Adviser kept silent. The Grand Master wrote a third time, referring to the two unanswered letters. This time he asked Cardinal Spellman, as required by the Order's rules, to submit the annual budget of his association. Since this had never been done in the past, Fra Chigi also asked that all of the budgets since the association was created be included. Needless to say the Grand Protector and Spiritual Adviser kept silent. The Grand Magistracy, having exhausted the means at its disposal and powerless to do anything about the situation, concluded that the American Association had become for most practical purposes autonomous and that lacking any spiritual or chivalric traditions, its principal merit was its wealth.

The renewal of the Order's hospitaller activity in the nineteenth century had gone hand in hand with a struggle to re-assert its sovereignty and to obtain recognition by as many governments as might prove sympathetic to it. Eventually, this was to result in a serious crisis in relations between the Order and the Vatican.

The program of expansion began under the magistracy of Santa Croce (1871-1905) who, in 1872 established a large hospital in Jerusalem. Shortly thereafter the Order began to provide mobile first-aid services and by 1875 was capable of dispensing aid in wars in Europe. During the First World War, its ambulance corps served in Italy and France and on the other side in Bulgaria and Austria. The Order cared for more than one million wounded and its ambulance trains rolled as far as Russia.

These humanitarian achievements in the First World War were accompanied, unfortunately, by follies committed by Grand Master Galeazzo von Thun-Hohenstein (1905-1931). As a loyal Austrian, the Grand Master spent most of the War in Vienna, which, under the circumstances, was quite understandable. Less understandable was his initiative, taken without consulting the Council of the Order, to liquidate the Order's assets in Austria in order to invest the proceeds in Austrian War Bonds. Following the defeat of Austria, the bonds were worthless. The Council, apprized of the losses which were very considerable, asked Thun-Hohenstein not to return to Rome but remain in Vienna and designate a Lieutenant of the Magistracy to replace him at headquarters in the via Condotti. During the following magistracy, that of Prince Lodovico Chigi della Rovere Albani (1931-1951), another Thun-Hohenstein, a nephew of the Austrian patriot who was a Secretary of State at the headquarters would also cause the Order to be humiliated.

Hostility of the Fascist and Nazi regimes towards the Order prevented it from taking a significant role in the Second World War.

Rebuilding and enlarging its humanitarian activities was one thing, re-confirming its status as a sovereign entity quite another. The last official mention of its sovereignty had been by the Congress of Vienna in 1814 which referred to it as being "sovereign in exile". At the end of the nineteenth century, the last vestige of sovereignty held by the Order was in countries where it maintained Priories, that is in Italy and Austria, which then included Bohemia, and with which it had maintained diplomatic relations. Everywhere else, there was no possibility of the Order asserting its sovereignty and the question was never raised. The expansion of its hospitaller undertakings could have continued without the question of sovereignty ever arising; but it was inherent to the Order's nature to raise it.

The Vatican was not opposed in principle. Indeed, in 1921 the Pontifical Secretariat of State confirmed the Order's sovereignty to the Czechoslovak government, describing the Order's ties to the Vatican as bonds of friendship and protection. The sympathetic position taken by the Vatican was reconfirmed In 1940 by Pope Pius XII who encouraged the Order to become something other than "the curator of a glorious past". In the France of the Third Republic, the Order achieved in time a real if not formal recognition. From 1924 onwards the Grand Chancellery of the Legion of Honor allowed French citizens to wear the insignia of the Order. The mini-states of Monaco and Liechstenstein allowed it similar privileges.

In 1931 the Grand Master began a program of visits to countries where it was agreed he would be received with the honors due a chief of state. These were France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Poland, the Lebanon, and the Italian colonies of Tripoli and Rhodes. Germany and Britain declined to follow suit. Elsewhere the Grand Master's ambiguous situation in relation to the Holy See gave rise to problems of protocol. The Order's relationship with the Vatican remained unaffected by this diplomatic offensive and the Holy See did not even consider it necessary to issue a Papal Brief when the Order drew up a new constitution with a view to making its statutes compatible with the recently revised code of canon law.

Following the Second World War the Order's fortunes improved. Between 1949 and 1951 France, Portugal, Spain and Italy recognized it as a "quasi" sovereignty. Its relations with the governments differed from that enjoyed by other states, in that recognition was granted to an "honorable, historical and charitable entity". What this meant was that the heads of states would exchange decorations with the Grand Master and would recognize the validity of the Order's insignia which they received, not as a sign indicating membership in the Order but as an official distinction. Thus when the Order wished to honor a chief of state, a prince consort or the head of a former ruling house, even if the recipient were not a Catholic, it conferred the insignia of the highest grade of the lay branch of the order, the Grand Cross of Honor and Devotion. Those receiving this distinction included the Lutheran German Emperor William II, President Gaston Doumergue of France, a Calvinist, and such Orthodox princes as Tsar Nicholas II and the late head of the House of Romanov, Grand Duke Wladimir Kyrillovich, King Carol II of Rumania and his brother, Prince Nicholas, and Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia. (11) So the insignia of the Order of Malta may indicate not only membership in the Order but also serve as a state decoration of this sovereign entity. At present, that sovereignty is recognized by seventy eight governments

The situation with the Holy See came to a head in this season of optimism and expansion between 1950 and 1955. According to Roger Peyrefitte, the pretext given by the Vatican for strained relations and all that followed was the administrative incompetence of the Order's Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Bailiff von Thun-Hohenstein. The Bailiff, whose good intentions were never doubted, seemed to have a knack for involving the Order in all sorts of financial operations each of which was more catastrophic than the last. In reality, Peyrefitte says, the problems arose from the attempt of the powerful Nicolo Cardinal Canali to amalgamate the Order with the Order of the Holy Sepulcher, of which, let it be remembered, he was Grand Master. One might well ask if the crisis did not stem from a sense in the corridors of the Vatican that the Order was slipping away from Papal control.

Peyrefitte, who had as a source one of the main protagonists, wrote .(12) a vivid and often very funny account of the ruthless attempt by Canali to bring the Order under his control which by shrewdness and patience the knights defeated, but not without paying a price. One of the consequences of the struggle was the demise from cardiac arrest of the eighty-two year old Prince Grand Master Chigi after being informed, on Canali's orders, that he was about to be excommunicated for wishing to maintain the Order's traditional independence from the Vatican.

During the struggle, a number of commissions made up of Cardinals were set up to debate the controversy, which resulted in a compromise. After several years an Apostolic Brief, signed by Pope John XXIII, approved the Order's new constitution. Article 4 of the Brief stated that the Order's position vis-a-vis the Holy See was that of a "relative sovereignty", but a functional one with relations with foreign states. Article 3 stated that the "intimate" link which exists between the two qualities of an order, the religious and the sovereign, is not in opposition to its autonomy, the exercise of its sovereignty, and the prerogatives inherent to a subject of international law in its relations with other states. It was no less true, however, that the Grand Master, who was elected by the full Council of State of the Order, could neither exercise his power nor relinquish his office without pontifical approval. Henceforth, there would sit within the Order's government a "Cardinal Patron." He would be responsible for the "spiritual interests" of the Order and its members and would watch over relations between the Holy See and the Order.

Our learned Mr. Sainty’s opinion notwithstanding, if autonomy is defined as "the ability to govern one's self by means of one's own laws", then the Order was not autonomous, since its laws were imposed on it by the Holy See, its sovereign master. Carrying the argument a bit further, it is difficult to see how it could be said to be sovereign since its religious character places it under the direct and exclusive authority of the Holy See. It was on this basis, however, that the Holy Father, in 1962, authorized the election of a Grand Master in the person of Fra Angelo de Mojana di Cologna, a Professed Knight since 1950. Until his death in 1988, Fra de Mojana, like his predecessor, Prince Chigi, made frequent visits abroad to countries with which the Order had relations and to others sympathetic to the order if not prepared to grant it diplomatic recognition.

The process of adaptation to new times and circumstances that began with Grand Master Ceschi in the middle years of the nineteenth century has resulted in changes to the statutes of the Order. The monastic vows of chastity, obedience and poverty were modified as no longer reconcilable with the modern and secular life of most of its members. The Order has recruited widely in the United States and Latin America, which necessitated a change in the requirements for admission. . The ancient nobiliary requirements established in the middle ages while maintained for admission to certain categories of knighthood within the Order have been largely bypassed by the increase in the number of knight of Magistral Grace from whom no nobiliary requirement is demanded. This category now makes up a majority of world-wide total of some ten thousand knights of Malta.

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is a unique Catholic institution in its combination of various characteristics. Some of these such as the quasi-military organization of its medical work and its recruitment of men and women it shares with other bodies such as the Red Cross. As an international religious body open to lay people of both sexes but governed by male religious, it has been followed by Opus Dei. But two key characteristics set it apart. One is that it is almost sovereign. The other is that it is not merely international in its membership and area of operations, but enjoys the recognition of governments in Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America as well as intergovernmental organizations, including the European Union Commission and various United Nations' bodies. Still, the capacity of the Order to exercise to enter into diplomatic relations depends on the consent of the Holy See and the Order's sovereignty is consequently in that way circumscribed.

Miniscule as it is, the Order does also possess sovereign territory. This consists of the land in Rome on which stands the Grand Magistracy in the via Condotti and the Villa Malta on the Palatine Hill, together with its embassies abroad which enjoy the usual extra-territorial status accorded diplomatic missions.

The Order's basic international character, apart from its association with intergovernmental activities, consists in the bodies around the world in which its membership is organized locally. These currently consists of five Grand Priories, three Priories and national associations in thirty-four countries. The jurisdictions with the largest memberships are Italy, 3,500 members; the United States with 3,000 members, virtually all of whom are in the category of Magistral Grace; Germany, 600 members; France, 480 members, Austria, 300 members; Ireland, England, Canada and Brazil 200 members each; Belgium, Argentina, Holland, Poland and Portugal, 100 members each. (These figures are not up-to-date.)

The Order's constitution provides for several categories of membership each having varying privileges and obligations. The senior responsibilities in the government of the Order are assigned to members of the first category, professed knights who have taken vows of obedience, poverty and chastity.

The Order of Malta makes an effort to maintain the military and religious traditions of yore. Its galleys have been replaced by ambulances and sea-rescue helicopters and it maintains a number of ships and planes marked with its white eight-pointed cross. It impresses upon its members the ideals of Christian knighthood characterized by aid to the poor and sick, and by the defense of the Catholic faith. Its knights, by their oath, are expected to lead an exemplary life in keeping with the teachings and laws of the Church.

The Sovereign Order was and is still an hospitaller one. Since its foundation late in the eleventh century it continuously set up and maintained hospitals, dispensaries, first aid stations and leprosaria. Today they can be found in sixty countries on the five continents. Its two mottoes are Pro Fide and Pro Utilitate Hominum.

The Grand Master is the Head of the Order. He enjoys special prerogatives as well as the rank of Cardinal of the Church and as such is addressed as His Most Eminent Highness. Though he does not sit at meetings of the Sacred College of Cardinals, he is received at the Vatican as a quasi Chief of State. He is elected for life by the Order's full Council of State, and by the professed knights (13) but subject to approval of the Supreme Pontiff. He can only relinquish his charge with the consent of the Holy See.

The Order is traditionally a nobiliary one, and the Grand Master must possess the nobiliary proofs required of Knights of Honor and Devotion. He exercises his authority over the Order with the assistance of a Sovereign Council. A Grand Commander acts as a kind of prime minister of the Grand Master. Those holding this and other posts, the Grand Chancellor, the Hospitaller and the Treasurer, are elected by Chapter General for a period of five years. The Chapter General is the supreme body of the Order. Made up of representatives of the various categories of knights, it is convened regularly every five years but may be summoned at other times by the Grand Master or at the request of a majority of the Grand Priories and Priories.

The grades of knights is complex and they are classified in four categories. The first three are Knights of Justice (and Conventual Chaplains), Knights of Obedience, and Donats of Justice. The last two take on religious obligations. The fourth category is broken down into six branches: 1) Knights and Dames of Honor and Devotion, 2) ad honorem Conventual Chaplains, 3) Knights and Dames of Grace and Devotion, 4) Magistral Chaplains, 5) Knights and Dames of Magistral Grace and 6) Donats of Devotion. All but the last three are required to furnish nobiliary qualifications in varying degrees. While the governing core of the Order is still aristocratic, sixty per cent of its membership is made up of Knights and Dames of Magistral Grace, some of whom come from noble families but would not have been required to show proofs of nobility.

Grand Chancellor of the Order Count Carlo Marullo di Condojanni recently addressed world press representatives in Rome and stated that the Order would celebrate its 900th anniversary next year. The anniversary celebrations open in December with a meeting in Malta of dames and knights from every nation to present new rules which according to a statement issued by the Order "will help them, guided by the Order’s essential principles, to become increasingly active in the great expectations for the third Christian millennium." The statement continues, " By these new rules which reform many elements of the Order’s constitution, the Order will be able to achieve an even closer cooperation with he Holy See, both on a spiritual level, in the fight against religious sects, and on the supranational level thanks to a broader and more autonomous recognition of the sphere of action and its diplomacy.

"It will also be able to restructure membership regulations for knights and dames enabling the laity and women, hitherto totally excluded, to be elected to its governing bodies."

From now on the Order’s government, under the leadership of the Prince and Grand Master will have three structures: a "line structure", for command and control, a "staff structure" for programming and analyses and a "resource structure", for personnel, means and finances.

Count Marullo added that in this new global strategic balance, the Order’s diplomacy will seek to reach new horizons through a "preventive" diplomacy, a diplomacy of "mediation", implementing health and hospital programs and planning international aid. Count Marullo is the head of the Order’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations.

The Sovereign Military Order, as a fons honorum, awards its own decoration of merit, the Order Pro Merito Melitense, in recognition of efforts by individuals, regardless of their religion, that have assisted the Order. The decoration has a civil and a military class and is awarded in five grades: Grand Cross, Grand Officer, Commander, Officer and Knight. A collar reserved for heads of state has recently been added which was awarded to former President Reagan.



(1) Chevalier PAUL is the pseudonym taken by the author of this paper, a French knight of the SMOM. Chevalier PAUL was a French naval hero. He was born just plain Paul at sea one day in 1598 to the laundress who was delivering the laundry of the marquis Paul de Fortia de Piles, governor of the chateau d’If, the prison-fortress in the middle of the harbor of Marseilles. The governor became the boy’s godfather. There was some speculation that there might have been a deeper relationship between the marquis and the laundress. As a very young boy Paul was drawn to the sea and he embarked on various vessels to learn his trade. Eventually he wound up on Malta as a soldier. Intelligent and full of charm and wit he made as many friends as enemies. Being a hot-blooded young man he got into fights and once, provoked by a superior he fought a duel and killed him. The consequences for such conduct among knights were very serious and much more so for one in the ranks. The knights from Provence, however supported their young compatriot and intervened with the Grand master to spare him. He then embarked on one of the Order’s galleys and distinguished himself by replacing the captain who had been killed in an encounter with a Turkish vessel. Once back in Malta he was confirmed in his rank by the new Grand Master Antonio de Paula and was received into the Order as a serving brother and then as a knight of magistral grace, neither grade requiring noble quarterings. Later he served in the French Royal Navy at Cardinal Richelieu’s express request and joined Admiral de Sourdis squadron as a ship’s captain and later that of Admiral de Mailly Brézé. When Grand Master Lascaris sent out a call for all the knights serving abroad to rejoin the Convent, the King requested that Paul be exempted from duty. Cardinal Mazarin held Paul in the same high esteem as did Richelieu and named him lieutenant of the Grand Admiral of France, at the same time asking the Grand Master to raise him to the grade of commander. The Grand Master tried to delay the process because it was highly irregular, but acceded when he realized he could hardly refuse a request from a minister of the King of France. Meanwhile, Paul almost left the Order having fallen in love at age 53 with Angèle de La Vieuville, a young lady he had rescued during a naval operation against the Turk, but she died giving birth to their son. Paul continued his career and died in Toulon in 1667. (jbc)

(2) Jonathan Riley-Smith, "The Knights of St.John in Jerusalem and Cyprus 1050-1310", MacMillan, London 1967. Pages 41-42.

(3) Fulcher of Chartres, Page 46

(4) This is the origin of Dashiell Hammet’s mystery novel "The Maltese Falcon", immortalized ont he screen by Humphrey Bogar, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.

(5) Ernle Branford, "The Great Siege of Malta 1565" London, 1961.

(6) The Tsar was merely following one of his predecessors Peter the Great’s major objectives: i.e. to obtain a Russian base in the Mediterranean.

(7) The British were to wrest the island from the French in November 1800.

(8) The statutes of the Order required a: that a Grand Master must be a Roman Catholic, b: a professed knight, i.e. unmarried and having taken vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. The Tsar was of the Orthodox faith, was married and was not a knight of the Order.

(9) During this period the Order was governed by Lieutenants of the Grand Magistracy proposed by its Council of Statebut appointed by the Holy Father.

(10) Roger Peyrefitte, "Les Chevalier de Malte", Paris, 1957.

(11) The creation of the Order’s distinction Pro Merito Melitensis has allowed more non-Catholics to be honored by the Order.

(12) It is interesting to note that the SMOM has never denied the authenticity of Peyrefitte’s facts.

(13) Up until the promulgation of the last statutes in 1961, only professed knights, about a dozen, had voting rights in ther elections for the Grand Master.