Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

The Order of Malta: Modern by Tradition

Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

The Order of Malta: Modern by Tradition

Article excerpt

On receiving the invitation to address the Australian Catholic Historical Society on the history of the Order of Malta, I was both honoured and daunted. Why?

The Society within the cultural life of the Church is a very august organisation with a proud heritage--now more than 70 years old and under the patronage of the Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney. It is also a respected and revered custodian of Australian Catholic tradition. Having accepted the invitation, an early challenge was that of limiting the length of my paper. How does one condense the history of a church/ state institution, which has enjoyed a distinguished lineage for almost ten centuries, into a thirty minute address?

A Unique Institution

Let me start with some brief background on the Order, before I embark on this history odyssey.

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta (or the Order of Malta as it is more usually known) has a unique status within the Catholic Church. It is of hybrid nature a religious body but with its members--lay persons, men and women or Knights and Dames--being non-religious.

Established in mediaeval Jerusalem by a Benedictine--the saintly Fra Gerard--around 1048 to run a hospice for pilgrims to the Holy Land, it is a religious entity with its international membership today made up of eminent practising Catholics who have made a contribution to church and state.

True--it does have official chaplains as religious advisers and they too are embraced within the Order, but their status is different to that of the Knights and Dames. In Australia the Order, as elsewhere, has an active relationship with the Church and with those cardinals, archbishops, bishops and priests who are chaplains to the Association.

Over its long history, its members have pursued two goals: Tuitio Fidei, (the protection of the faith) and Obsequium Pauperum (aid to those in need). Of course these two aims merge together in practice. While this history of the Order will have a focus on Obsequium Pauperum, such must be viewed through the ever-present prism of Tuitio Fidei.

That the Order is an integral part of the Catholic Church is reinforced by its links with the Holy See, from its early days through to the present. The 12th century Papal Bull--see more below--conferring sovereignty on the Order underlines the support from Rome from early times. Over the centuries, there have been many popes who were Knights of Malta. These included in more recent times John XXIII and Benedict XVI. There have also been a number of other important institutional links enduring still today with the Holy See and the Papacy.

The Order's 11th century establishment has meant that it enjoys a seniority in time to other western rite Catholic religious orders, with the exception of the Benedictines and the Augustinians. Bodies established after the Order of Malta include the Franciscans--founded in 1209--and the Society of Jesus--the Jesuits--established in 1540.

An Acknowledgement

I wish to gratefully acknowledge an indebtedness to the erudition of my Confrere Sir James Gobbo for making available to me his earlier scholarship. Any errors however in my text are completely of my doing.


In 1048 although Jerusalem was under Muslim control it was still possible for Christian pilgrims, with difficulty, to visit the Holy Land. Some merchants from Amalfi who had trading interests in Palestine and Asia Minor paid for the building of a hospice there for pilgrims. Amalfi, along with other city states Venice and Genoa then controlled much of the trade between the East and Europe.

At that time, at least so far as Europe was concerned, there were few hospitals providing medical treatment as we know it today. There were hospices certainly which were essentially places where food and shelter were provided. The limited role of a hospital was to change under the Order in Jerusalem, partly due to the influence of Greek doctors and the more advanced Byzantine tradition of organised hospital care. …

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