Church with Room for These Knights Must Have Room for Nearly Everyone

National Catholic Reporter, November 14, 1997 | Go to article overview

Church with Room for These Knights Must Have Room for Nearly Everyone


Knights may seem unlikely movers and shakers in a church whose founder advised his followers to put the sword aside. In a pontificate marked by a wide-ranging debate about multiculturalism, this week's cover story raises questions about the curious culture of the Knights of Malta. And in a defiantly monolithic institution, which rigorously insists on naming who is and isn't Catholic, the knights, to say the least, deserve the same scrutiny as, for example, liberation theologians and the idea of women priests.

In light of the knights' cozy relationship with the Holy See, it might be useful to make this a teaching moment.

No longer bloody warriors as in days of old, the Knights of Malta, who keep a notoriously low profile, are now best known for their individual wealth, works of charity and perhaps for their elaborate garb. But their history, though shrouded in myth, casts in bold relief the muscular Christianity that assumed worldly rather than spiritual ascendancy after the church emerged from the Dark Ages.

When the Turks, late in the 11th century, captured the Holy Land, Pope Urban II instigated what became the First Crusade. Faith was at that time a lively force in society, so Europe answered with fierce enthusiasm. But it soon became clear that the most effective fighters against the so-called Moslem hordes would be the knights, those who could afford a good horse, a coat of mail and a stout sword. Fighters in need of a cause, Urban supplied them with a religious mission and the ideal of chivalry was born.

The crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099. They found there the Hospital of St. John, run by one Br. Gerard, whose work impressed them greatly. So, in addition to fighting and praying, many knights decided they would look after the sick and the pilgrim. Everyone concerned seized the moment.

Writes H.J.A. Sire in The Knights of Malta (Yale University Press, 1994), "The resourceful Gerard was busy with vast schemes, not merely sheltering the pilgrim ... but setting up a great network of spiritual travel." He became a glorified travel agent. Soon he had seven hospices around Europe. Out of this venture the Hospitallers, forebears of the Knights of Malta, were born.

Dipping into history at this point merely shows how one thing leads to another. War as a religious service had now been established amid the vast euphoria of knights returning from the crusades with mixed tales of devotion and heroism. This led to the founding of religious orders devoted to fighting.

The three greatest military orders were the Templars, the Hospitallers and the Teutonic Knights. But the ideal of holy soldiers quickly swept across the Christian World. Archbishop H.E. Cardinale's Orders of Knighthood, Awards and the Holy See (Van Duren, 1983) lists dozens of such religious orders, including five that were "pontifical," an indication the church at the highest level once strongly recommended violence so long as it was for a good cause.

Perhaps the fiercest champion of chivalry was the Cistercian St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote: "Rejoice, brave warrior, if you live and conquer in the Lord, but rejoice still more and give thanks if you die and go to join the Lord."

By today's standards this fighting and praying were an odd combination and a hint that even in such timeless institutions as the church, the culture does change. Earlier popes had declared that warriors pure in heart who died fighting for the church would go to heaven: a sentiment similar to today's Islamic suicide bombers whose leaders promise them paradise.

Thousands freely gave their lives. And the old soldiers who didn't die didn't fade away either. Writes Sire: "Only when a knight's soldierly vigor was declining would he be sent to a priory or Grand Commandery in Europe where his task was to gather and pass on the revenues that kept his brethren in the field."

One crusade followed another, amid great slaughter. …

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