Friday, 23 June 2006

Investiture of a Knight

This morning I attended a magnificent Pontifical High Mass at the London Oratory, at which a friend of mine was invested as a Knight of Magistral Grace in the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta (better known as the Order of Malta).

The Mass was celebrated by Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow and Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor preached. The entrance procession was partricularly impressive - the main doors swung open as the choir sang Elgar's Ecce Sacredos Magnus and a long procession of robed Knights and Dames ambled up the nave, their differing grades signified by colourful banners, and, in the case of the Grand Prior, a huge sword. A pleasant luncheon followed in the Oratory garden, the guests sitting under the shade of a large marquee. I didn't dare take photos during the Mass for fear of being escorted out by a knight on either side!

The Order of Malta is a hidden gem in the life of the Church, noted today for its great (and largely unnoticed) charitable work. Originating as the Knights Hospitaller of St John in the aftermath of the First Crusade, the Order was set up for the defence of the Holy Land and the assistance of pilgrims. Its motto is Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum ('Defence of the faith and assistance to the poor'). It was one of the most prominent medieval Military Orders, which combined religious vows with military service (as Desmond Seward's book puts it, they were 'monks of war'). Knighthood was seen as a path of sanctification - Our Lord told St Bridget of Sweden: 'a knight who keeps the laws of his order is exceedingly dear to me. For if it is hard for a monk to wear his heavy habit, it is harder still for a knight to wear his heavy armour.' Indeed, the Order boasts 18 saints and beati, including (most recently) Blessed Karl, the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor.

The Order of Malta is both a religious order and a Sovereign entity, with observer status at the United Nations and ambassadors to some 92 countries. Their HQ at the Palazzo Malta on the Via dei Condotti in Rome is extra-territorial and seen by some as the smallest 'country' in the world (about half the size of a football pitch). The Orders issues its own stamps, car plates, passports (to a handful of senior officials) and currency (officially the scudo).

The current Grand Master (the 78th since the Blessed Gerard in the twelfth century) is an Englishman, His Most Eminent Highness Fra' Andrew Bertie, 'Prince and Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, Most Humble Guardian of the Poor of Jesus Christ.' He was elected in 1988, holds the rank of a Cardinal Deacon in the Church (with the diplomatic honours due to a Head of State) and is distantly related to the Queen. Pope Benedict received Fra' Bertie in audience today, on the vigil of the Order's Patronal Feast.

The Grand Priory of England was only restored in 1993, after a gap of 450 years caused by the Reformation, but dates back to 1144. The Order runs the St John and St Elizabeth's Hospital in London (where Cardinal Hume was cared for in his final weeks) and 76 residential care homes in the UK.

Christian chivalry is thus truly alive and well in the twenty-first century!


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