Brief History of the Order
The Order of St. John dates to around 1048 where the Merchants from the ancient Marine Republic of Amalfi obtained from the Egyptian Caliph the authorization to build a church, convent and hospital in Jerusalem, to care for pilgrims of any religious faith or race.
The Order of St. John of Jerusalem – the monastic community which ran the hospital – became independent under the guidance of its founder, Blessed Gérard. Pope Paschal II approved the foundation of the Hospital with the Bull of 15th February 1113 (Pie Postulatio Voluntatis), and placed it under the protection of the Church, granting it the right to freely elect its superiors without interference from other lay or religious authorities. By virtue of the Papal Bull, the Hospital became a lay-religious order. All the knights were religious and were bound by the three monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. In Marcello Maria Marrocco Trischitta’s book: The Knights of Malta, he states:
“The Order became military but there were substantial differences between this and other similar institutions. Men in search of a meaning to give to their fighting in war and wishing to put their own courage in the service of the Faith would gather under the banners of the Templars and the Teutonics. The Hospitallers, were men who had already been touched by the Word of God, were dedicated to charitable works, were devoted to altruism and in the name of this ideal, decided to take up arms”.
The constitution of the Kingdom of Jerusalem obliged the Order to take on the military defence of the sick and the pilgrims, as well as guarding its hospitals and roads. The Order thus added the task of defending the faith to that of its hospitaller mission. As time went on, the Order adopted the white eight-pointed cross that is still its symbol today.
Throughout the centuries the number of members coming from all over Europe continued to grow and contributed to the strengthening of the Order during its presence in Rhodes (1310-1522) and in Malta (1530-1798). While members of the Order of Malta in former times traditionally belonged to the aristocracy, the emphasis today is on a nobility of spirit and conduct.
The Maltese cross
The most recognizable symbol of the Knights Hospitaller, is of course the Maltese cross. It is a four armed cross (most often white) with eight points and usually embellished with other symbols depending on which of the current Orders in reference. The four arms symbolize four virtues:
- Prudence: Carefulness and forethought
- Justice: Fairness and equality
- Temperance: Moderation in all things
- Fortitude: Courage and endurance
The eight points represent The Beatitudes, the spiritual qualities blessed by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. They are:
- Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the earth.
- Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
- Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied.
- Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
- Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God.
- Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
- Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
For further historical information please consult the official websites of each Order or the numerous books available.