Living in Orange County today are more than 80 members of the world’s oldest surviving order of chivalry, a religious group that evolved from a charitable organization into a military machine and back again, earning a reputation for both battlefield bravery and deeply held compassion. Complex at its founding nearly a millennium ago and organizationally unique today, the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta soldiers on as champions of the sick and the destitute and as modern-day defenders of the faith.
These men and women today are known more simply as members of the Order of Malta or, more commonly, the Knights of Malta, a lay Catholic religious order descended from a long line of European warrior nobles.
Members of the modern order typically are men and women of both influence and means who have a particular affinity for service and who make the time to provide it. Throughout the world, and in local divisions, members of the order carry on the tradition of assisting the elderly, the handicapped, refugees, children, the homeless, those with terminal illnesses and others in need, through participation in various local organizations such as Catholic Charities or more grassroots endeavors. And members regularly accompany gravely ill patients on pilgrimages to Lourdes, France.
Founded in the 11th century during the Crusades by Brother Gerard, a Benedictine monk who opened a hospital for the sick and poor pilgrims in Jerusalem, the order is still strong today with an estimated 13,500 men and women members worldwide. During the Middle Ages the members of the order acted as warriors more than charitable helpers, but today the order sponsors medical missions in more than 120 countries.
The order came to California more than 50 years ago when its Western Association was formed. More than 700 knights and dames now live primarily in the states of California, Arizona and Washington. There are various divisions within the Western Association, including one in Orange County now headed by Abbot Eugene Hayes of St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado.
To become a member of the Order of Malta (male and female members respectively, are known as Knights and Dames of Malta), you must be sponsored by an active member and are obliged to serve a period of probation. In addition, you must be able not only to carry out of the charitable missions of the order but to help support it financially.
Patrick Ortiz of Trabuco Canyon, currently a parishioner at San Francisco Solano Church in Rancho Santa Margarita, was invited to become a Knight of Malta in 1996; his wife Jill became a Dame of Malta five years later, and the couple’s daughters currently serve in the order’s auxiliary. At the time of Patrick Ortiz’ investiture, there was no division of the order in Orange County and he and the half dozen knights from the county had to travel to Los Angeles for meetings. In the process of finding local charities to support, the Orange County membership grew to more than 80 members serving 10 Orange County charities with both personal service and financial assistance.
Both Patrick and Jill Ortiz had been involved in charitable ministries before joining the order, Patrick particularly with food banks that served with the homeless and the underserved people of the diocese, and Jill with Catholic Charities and particularly Mary’s Kitchen, a long-standing ministry in Orange to feed the homeless and indigent.
“The mission [of the order] is to help the poor and sick,” says Jill. “That was something that appealed to us. And we liked the hands-on work. It’s not just writing a check; we’re actually working.”
While much of the members’ work is done quietly and without fanfare, one of the most visible ministries of the order takes place every spring around the beginning of May: the Lourdes pilgrimage.
Each year members of the order from Orange County “take 50 or so malades with us—that’s our affectionate term for those who are sick—and we take them as our guests,” says Jill. “And each pilgrimage is different. We learn so much from them. It’s an honor to pray with them and for them. We learn so much from their courage.”
The malades (a French word that refers to a person who is ill) are people from the Western United States who are suffering from serious illnesses who have expressed a deep desire to travel to Lourdes to pray for healing. On the most recent pilgrimage, order members accompanied the malades on the journey to France and throughout each day at the shrine for a week, often pushing them in wheelchairs and attending to their needs. Some 20 doctors and nurses—volunteers, and members of the order—also accompanied them, as did Bishop Kevin Vann. It was Jill’s 18th trip to the shrine.
“It’s so intense,” she says. “You’re not there as a tourist, you’re working, getting to know the malades and their struggles and how they’re dealing with them.”
The effect on most of their charges is “more of a spiritual healing,” she says. “It’s an acceptance. It’s gives them a different outlook on dealing with their illness, and I think it really separates their illness from who they are. Every year I’m in awe at their courage and faith. We all come back changed.”
During his 11 years in Rome as the Norbertine Order’s representative to the Holy See, Abbot Hayes says he was motivated by the work done by the Knights of Malta.
“Those who are members in Malta are real servant leaders,” he says. “They are all successful and busy people; they are generous with the most important natural treasure we have on this earth: time. In prayer, I came to realize that if they could make this commitment, so could I.”
The Knights of Malta got their name in 1530, after being ejected from their home on Rhodes by the Turks and seeking haven on the island of Malta. They stayed for 268 years, transforming a barren landscape into a flourishing island, but were eventually forced to leave by Napoleon Bonaparte, who occupied the island on his way to Egypt.
The order found its current home in Rome in 1834, and its office today is on the Via Condotti, close to the Spanish Steps and flanked by expensive boutiques. The order today is a unique sovereign entity: it has the power to appoint and receive ambassadors and has its own constitution, courts and legal codes. The knights print their own stamps, coins and license plates and issue passports, but have no real state to govern. And, just like the Vatican, the order has observer status in the United Nations.
The order’s military history still can be seen in the uniform—including beret and tunic—male members wear on formal occasions, such as the Lourdes pilgrimage. Members call it a “work uniform”. The religious underpinnings of the group are on display when members wear what they call their “church robes” on liturgical occasions: a long black robe emblazoned with a Maltese cross.
The Western Association’s charitable services include free medical clinics, nursing services in Catholic parishes, and an annual healing Mass celebrated by the bishop of the diocese, as well as the Lourdes pilgrimages.
As chaplain, Abbot Hayes pays particularly special attention to the spiritual well-being of the members and of the sick whom they serve. He also shares his knowledge and love of the Church by teaching classes in canon law to those who current or aspiring members of the order.
“I share the special gifts God has given me for the spiritual and intellectual building up of the membership order,” he says. “I hope in this way that the Body of Christ is both holier and healthier.”
Orange County Catholic Editor Patrick Mott contributed to this story.