By Cathi Douglas     5/23/2016

The Order of Malta is a worldwide, lay religious order of the Roman Catholic Church, which seeks to glorify God by promoting the sanctification of each member through his or her work with the sick and the poor, and in defense of the Catholic faith.

Micah Navarro is just 15 years old but already he has made several holy pilgrimages to the sacred shrine of Lourdes.

In fact, the Lake Forest teen just returned with an OC team of Order of Malta Knights and Dames from the group’s annual trek to France, where they assisted a group of terminally ill patients throughout the journey. As part of the 2016 Orange County contingent, Micah carries on a family tradition ¬– his grandparents Jill and Pat Ortiz were invited to join the 80-member Orange County chapter of the Order of Malta in 1996 and started making Lourdes pilgrimages shortly thereafter.

“I enjoy getting there before anyone else and seeing what happens behind the scenes,” Micah says. “It’s a unique place. In Lourdes everyone is nice and they come from all over, so there are always different people to meet.”

During his recent trip, he rarely saw his mother, Michelle Navarro, who plans the pilgrimage for the Order of Malta’s Orange County members, the young Auxiliary volunteers, and their chosen “malades” – the French term for the sick who join them for the journey.

Michelle sees her family’s devotion to the Order of Malta and its pilgrimage as a logical extension of their dedication to serving others. “It’s something I grew up with,” she says. “My parents were always working at a church and volunteering and as a family we worked in soup kitchens, so we showed our kids as they grew up that it’s good to help others – to be a good citizen and member of society who looks out for others.”

Although the pilgrimage requires a multitude of logistics and hundreds of details, she says she is pleased to carry on what has become a family tradition.

“Our beloved malades sometimes need a break from the reality of being ill,” Michelle notes. “One of them told me ‘this is the first time that I’ve been seen as a person instead of an ailment.’ It’s good for us, especially the young people, to serve others and not be thinking about ourselves.”

Jill Ortiz says the Order’s mission – to help the poor and sick – resonated with her. “Once you’ve been you are drawn to go again,” she says. “Some people describe it as what God wants a perfect society to be like. You are off in a small village in prayer. No one wants to leave that peaceful, loving environment.

“When you make the journey, you see the Catholic Church at its finest.”

Some of the malades are seeking a miracle while others just want to find peace. “We learn so much from our interactions with them, because we see such grace and faith in how they deal with their illness.”

OC team captain Geoff Lee welcomed three young men on the most recent trip: His son Chris, a Servite sophomore who was making his fifth pilgrimage; Micah Navarro, a freshman at Servite; and fellow Servite freshman Michael Marrujo. Lee said the trek was challenging this year because many of the team’s malades were paralyzed and in wheelchairs, making the 4,000-foot elevation and the village cobblestone streets especially difficult.

“Our pullers – which include the three young men – walked 8 to 10 miles a day, each pulling a malade with all their gear,” Lee notes. “They truly went above and beyond. We were almost in tears at the end, seeing how these three young men stepped up and never wavered.”

Lee said he was intrigued by the Order of Malta after a chance meeting with a St. Joseph Hospital volunteer who prayed with his late mother when she was a patient. “He invited me to lunch and I was hooked.”

The idea of serving the sick and poor called to him, Lee said, “because in truth I haven’t really been that generous with my time in the past. Once I realized that this is a hands-on group that gets in the trenches, I took to it.”

Lee, who has taken both Chris and his older son Alex on the Lourdes pilgrimages, said that the younger volunteers welcome membership in the OC’s Auxiliary. They must wait to join the Order of Malta, which only accepts Catholics who are 35 years or older as Knights and Dames.

Known formally as the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, the Order of Malta is one of the oldest institutions in Western civilization. It was noted in Palestine in 1050 that the lay religious order “traditionally of military, chivalrous, noble nature” included Knights and Dames devoted to the exercise of Christian virtue and charity. Applicants to the Order must be approved by its members.

Other OC young people who have served on the Order of Malta’s recent pilgrimages include: Sean Byrne, a student at Santa Margarita Catholic High School; Chase Mattius from Servite; and Elena Navarro, a St. Norbert’s student and Micah’s sister. In some cases, three generations in different families serve alongside one another.

“These trips change everybody,” Lee declares. “We never come back the same.”