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 CNS Story:

VATICAN LETTER April 15, 1988 (870 words) Backgrounder from ROME


By Greg Erlandson
National Catholic News Service

ROME (NC) -- When Andrew Willoughby Ninian Bertie, a 58-year-old blue-blooded celibate judo expert, became the 78th grand master of the Knights of Malta April 8, he inherited a kingdom of superlatives.

The new grand master assumed command of the world's most ancient chivalric order and the world's smallest sovereign state.

His knights, including some of Europe's oldest Catholic nobility and America's newest captains of commerce, dedicate themselves to a worldwide charitable organization tackling leprosy and other dread afflictions. But at one time the order was the first pan-European fighting force, serving on the front lines of Christendom's war with Islam.

The Knights of Malta were founded during the First Crusade by Blessed Gerard, a monk who ran a hospital for pilgrims in 11th-century Jerusalem. Little is known of Brother Gerard's background.

At first the order was solely religious in character.

Recognizing the need to protect pilgrims and to defend the newly conquered Holy Land from Moslem counterattacks, Blessed Gerard's successors became a military order in the 12th century.

Recruiting members, usually noblemen, from throughout Christian Europe, the knights provided hospices and infirmaries for pilgrims and manned military fortifications in the southern Mediterranean against Islam's armies. Over the course of centuries, the order was driven first from Jerusalem, then Rhodes, Greece, by Moslem armies, and finally from Malta by Napoleon.

Today the order's official title is the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, and its symbol is the eight-pointed Maltese cross.

A sovereign state having diplomatic relations with 50 countries, the order mints its own coins and issues its own license plates and passports.

Its property, which enjoys extraterritorial status similar to the Vatican, consists of a palace on Rome's chic Via Condotti, just down the street from Gucci's, and a villa on the Aventine Hill a few miles to the south.

The villa's front gate is a popular stop for tourists, who can spy the dome of St. Peter's Basilica across town by peering through its keyhole.

It was at the villa April 14 that Grand Master Bertie, standing on an Oriental carpet spread out upon a pebbled terrace ringed by orange trees and date palms overlooking the Tiber River, received the congratulations of ambassadors and diplomats as chief of state.

But the Knights are also a religious order, and the scholarly grand master, known for his linguistic skills and a royal lineage traced back to the 14th-century Scottish King Robert II, is a vowed celibate. In the order's parlance, he is a Knight of Justice and bore the title "fra"' (brother) before his election. Bertie is also related to the family of Sir Winston Churchill through an aunt who married into that family.

There are only 44 Knights of Justice, all of whom must be able to prove their noble bloodlines and are bound by vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Only these ranks can produce a grand master.

A second class within the order consists of the Knights of Obedience, who also must be of noble lineage and who are the equivalent of a religious third order.

The third class consists of lay members and honorary chaplains divided into various grades, including Knights and Dames of Honor and Devotion, Knights and Dames of Grace and Devotion, and Knights and Dames of Magistral Grace, known in the United States as master knights. There are 12,000 members worldwide.

Three organizations for the Knights and Dames of Malta exist in the United States, one of them headed by businessman Peter Grace. William Simon, former treasury secretary, and Lee Iacocca are also Knights of Malta, according to the Knights' Rome information office.

As a religious order, the Knights of Malta are historically tied to the Holy See, and the pope is technically the order's superior. His appointed representative to the order is Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio.

Elected for life and subject to the approval of the pope, the grand master was invested with the title of prince in 1607 and has a rank equal to that of cardinal thanks to a decree by Pope Urban VIII in 1630. Today, that means little more than that he can be addressed as "eminence."

A major concern of Grand Master Bertie is vocations, which he called a matter of "primary importance" for the order during his first official speech.

But if the honorific titles and the red tunics, golden swords and spurs of the Knights' dress uniforms strike some as hopelessly antiquated, the order's charitable goals are demanding and contemporary.

Reflecting roots as a hospital order and aid society, today the Knights run leprosariums throughout Africa and Asia, hospitals, nursing schools, centers for the elderly and handicapped around the world.

The order operates in about 90 countries, including some of the world's poorest or most violent. It is particularly proud of its medical teams in war-torn Lebanon and El Salvador.

The Knights see their modern aid effort as a logical expression of their chivalric code to serve Christ and the less fortunate.

Even updated for the 1980s, this noblesse oblige is a tall order for the world's smallest state, but for Grand Master Bertie and his kingdom of noble knights, it comes with the territory.


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