The Order of Malta—more formally known as the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta—is one of the oldest religious orders in the world.

There are many things about the order that make it distinct. Among them are the fact that it is a chivalric order, and also that it is a lay religious order—a rare enough thing in itself.

Unusually, too, the order exists as a sovereign entity, a subject of international law that is apolitical, impartial and non-partisan (as well as a permanent observer of the United Nations). What this means on a practical level is that when humanitarian crises unfold, such as in Ukraine or Myanmar or anywhere else, the Order of Malta is allowed to enter those countries when other nations cannot. Being sovereign without being a nation allows them to fulfil their Christian duty of caring for people in need, regardless of who they are.

Having been in existence for about 974 years, the order is present in 120 countries, with 13,500 members and 150,000 volunteers worldwide. Their origins are inspiring, and their work continues to keep the spirit of Christian chivalry alive.

A short history

Professor Darius von Güttner, dean of the Canberra campus of Australian Catholic University (ACU), says that the origins of the order were, even in their own time, ‘innovative’ and ‘revolutionary’.

Beginning in the 11th century, the Knights Hospitaller began in Jerusalem with Blessed Fra’ Gerard, who established a hospice, a resting place, for pilgrims and the sick. ‘It was not about performing a service for the sake of it,’ Prof von Güttner says. ‘It was not just about protecting people. It was about welcoming Jesus Christ in anyone that needed help.’

‘The Hospitallers were revolutionary because they welcomed every poor and sick [person] by seeing Jesus approaching in them,’ he explains.

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Blessed Gérard (Beato Gherardo) chained with a loaf of bread in the left hand, featured on a fresco in the Chapel of the Grand Magistry in the Via Condotti in Rome.

In these early days, the people who served at the hospice were not religious brothers, nor were they knights—that would come later. ‘They were simply people that were performing that service of care. They called the poor and the sick “our Lords” … They were in a servant position towards their “masters” to whom they swore obedience.’

It wasn’t until the 12th century that they were granted status as a religious order. In that time, they were also obliged to take on the military defence of the sick and of pilgrims travelling through Jerusalem, as well as guarding their medical centres and main roads—and so they became known as the Knights Hospitaller. In this we see the birth of the twin pillars undergirding the order: care for the poor and sick, and defence of the faith. Financed by wealthy Italian merchants from the city of Amalfi, the Hospitallers thrived.

Over the years, they established themselves in Rhodes and Malta—hence the expansion of their official title. Their near 1000-year history has included some dramatic affairs, including the 1565 siege of Malta by the Ottomans, a siege lasting four months and in which around 700 of the order’s knights, aided by ordinary Maltese citizens, defeated the efforts of some 40,000 assaulting troops. Knights of the Order of Malta were also present during the 1571 Battle of Lepanto.

In 1798, the order was driven out of Malta by Napoleon Bonaparte, followed by what Prof von Güttner calls the ‘bizarre’ and ‘strange’ episode of a Russian tsar ‘hijacking’ the government of the order.

Today, although they no longer take up arms, they remain a chivalric order of knights and dames—with a global network of volunteers—dedicated to the poor, the sick and their own personal sanctification. The position of Grand Master, currently occupied by Fra’ John T Dunlap, is technically the position of a prince, which is why he can make people knights and dames.

In terms of their chivalric nature, Prof von Güttner says the order stands out, especially when compared with popular media portrayals of ‘chivalry’.

‘What is important about the chivalric nature of the order is that for those that wanted to serve, it brought the avenue and means of delivering that,’ he says. ‘Chivalry does not need to mean being polite and gentle and kind. Chivalry also means that you are on the floor cleaning the vomit from the patient that is lying in bed. It means you are there, holding the hand of the person that is departing from this world to another place.’

The Order of Malta in Australia

John Murphy serves as the National Hospitaller for the Order of Malta in Australia, which means he oversees all their humanitarian projects nationwide.

He and his wife, Tanya, have been with the order since 2017. Although raised in strong Catholic families, before joining the order they were both searching for ways to grow in their faith and be a bit more practical.

‘We saw that the Church was struggling a bit,’ John says, ‘and we really felt that pain of what the Church was going through. And for me, personally, I really wanted to help rebuild the Church. But how do I do it? How do I get involved? … And just through Providence, through the Holy Spirit, someone approached us and asked if we’d heard of the Order of Malta.’

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John and Tanya Murphy. (Photo supplied.)

Tanya, too, was looking for ways to get more involved. Despite going to Mass every Sunday, observing Holy Days of Obligation and throwing herself into Lent, ‘I wasn’t really growing much in my faith,’ she says. ‘So, when we were approached, I thought it was a great way for me to explore my spirituality. I was a little bit lost as to how to do that, and this certainly does give us avenues of gaining a deeper spirituality.’

Both John and Tanya have benefited immensely from the combination of deep spirituality and ‘hands-on’ service the Order of Malta offers.

One of the first things Tanya did was sign up to the biography volunteer program with Eastern Palliative Care (which is part-owned by the Order of Malta). As part of one of EPC’s most popular programs, Tanya is privileged to hear people’s stories as they approach the end of their lives, working to put each story into a hardcover, physical volume that can then be handed on to the family after the person passes.

‘I’ve heard some amazing, amazing stories,’ she says. ‘Everybody always starts with, “I haven’t got much to say” or “My life’s not very interesting”. And I’m constantly going, “Wow! This is like a movie!”’

This program is just part of the Order of Malta’s commitment to preserving the sanctity of life, even in its later and terminal stages.

One of their biggest national initiatives, John says, is their ‘coats for the homeless’ program. ‘During the winter period, we have our own specially designed and manufactured coats that we take out to the homeless in major capitols. They’re waterproof, they’re big, they’ve got secure pockets … That’s a major program, and we’ve added care packs to it now as well.’

When John and Tanya go out onto the streets, though, they don’t just give out coats and care packs. They always make sure to build relationships and speak with people.

‘It’s all about connecting with them and getting to know them a bit, and most of them are just lonely,’ John says.

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The Order of Malta on the streets. (Photo supplied.)

It’s also a chance to find out what people actually need, Tanya explains. ‘That’s where the care packs have come from.’

Over the last two years, John says, they have also developed a community hub in partnership with ACU, based in Thornbury, connecting students to various volunteer initiatives based out of there. They have a youth camp for those with disabilities, and they have numerous outreach initiatives for those in aged and palliative care.

Another big initiative—coming up on 10 February at St Patrick’s Cathedral—is the Lourdes Day Mass.

For the last 60 years, he says, the Order of Malta has ‘taken over’ Lourdes, France, for about a week in May. More than 10,000 members from around the world come to serve pilgrims visiting the shrine. In Melbourne and other cities, a more local celebration takes place for Our Lady of Lourdes, especially for those who cannot make a pilgrimage. The order hands out special rosaries and bottles of holy water from Lourdes.

Being involved with the Order of Malta as a married couple has enhanced both their individual and their married lives. They have both seen the ways in which their faith has deepened and grown over time.

‘I think it’s good for our kids to see as well,’ Tanya says, ‘that faith isn’t just about going to Mass and saying the prayers that we have to say and doing the things we have to do. It’s actually bigger. It’s a huge part of our lives, it is our life, and we live it through our works.’

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Tanya and John Murphy on the streets. (Photo supplied.)

If you would like to learn more about signing up to the Order of Malta as a volunteer, you can learn more by visiting their website.