‘Between believers, we have a better understanding of each other,” the Grand Hospitaller of the Order of Malta tells me. He is characteristically French, a confident man and the face of the order.
The Sovereign Order of Malta (full name: The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta) is the oldest Catholic lay order, dating back more than a thousand years. It has been described as “a nation without territory”. Yet despite its vast scope – today, the order is active in 120 countries and employs over 27,000 medical and paramedical personnel, as well as a further 100,000 volunteers – the Order of Malta is not as well known as many smaller organisations operating in the same fields.
Dominique Prince de La Rochefoucauld-Montbel has been involved in the order since 1982: a former president of the order’s French association, he was elected to his current senior role two years ago. His Excellency, as he is addressed, holds the medieval title of Grand Hospitaller, which equates to being minister of health, social affairs, humanitarian action and international cooperation. Inspired by his grandfather, who served as a member of the order, he was attracted to the organisation because it was a “possibility to be hands-on and to be helpful, while following the Catholic Church”.
The Grand Hospitaller is a busy man: the week that we speak he is travelling to London, Armenia and Serbia from the order’s headquarters in Rome. “There is no average day,” he tells me. “Three weeks ago I addressed the United Nations with three speeches in one day. Today I’m in Rome and I have three meetings.” Work varies according to the country and mission.
And what a mammoth organisation the Order of Malta is. It is surprisingly global – boasting bilateral relations with 106 countries (two more than Switzerland). Despite the impressive numbers, the nature of the order’s work is what makes it so impressive. It seems as if there is no corner of the globe that the order cannot reach, no crisis that the order shies away from, no ethical issue that the order ignores.
The issues that the order confronts are largely categorised as humanitarian or climate crises (examples include the tsunami of 2004, the Yolanda typhoon of 2013 and more recently the central Italian earthquake this summer) or local campaigns, such as helping the homeless. Furthermore, the order is working closely with refugees across Europe and the Middle East, is in a partnership with the Blue Cross in Turkey and Syria and runs a hospital in Palestine. “Every crisis is worthy of our assistance. I wish we could go everywhere,” the Grand Hospitaller tells me.
It is surprising that such a colossal organisation can operate with so many people from so many walks of life. But the Grand Hospitaller believes it is this that makes the order so unique, not its Catholicism as such. “From our experience, organisations need to be more thoughtful. You have to respect the different religions of the people you work with. We’ve learnt this from working in the field.”
Currently, the order is serving alongside Italian authorities in Lampedusa, seeking to provide shelter, medical care and food to displaced individuals arriving in perilous boats from north Africa. The order has successfully provided emergency care for more than 56,000 refugees and next year will be launching a programme of assimilation and integration. This will see the order work with some 48,000 refugees, helping to enhance their language skills, provide them with knowledge of local history and also help the host countries to adapt to the influx of new communities.
“I’ve been working with Muslims for years. We have differences but there is an understanding,” he says. In Lebanon, the order has been working with the Imam Sadr Foundation and Shia Muslims for more than three decades, and more recently has signed an agreement with Sunni Muslims in the north of the country, demonstrating the fluidity with which different religions can work together to ameliorate the environments of those less fortunate than themselves.
However, when discussing the current terrorist threat to France, His Excellency is not so accommodating. He describes relations between France and ISIS as “a war”, and explains that many of the order’s volunteers needed psychiatric help following their work in Paris and Nice in response to the atrocities last year.
But what of ethical issues? The Grand Hospitaller tells me that the most difficult challenges involve “life at the beginning, as well as the end”. The order “proceeds only within the brackets of the Catholic Church” but seeks to offer “choice”, such as training for palliative care, and support systems for potential mothers who are questioning their options. It is, the Grand Hospitaller concedes, a “very delicate subject”, but the order operates from the understanding that “often people have not had a good explanation”.
There you have it: mammoth organisation that hides its light under a bushel but is present in many geographical and societal spheres. At a time when nations are becoming increasingly insular, the order serves as a reminder of the possibilities that globalisation can bring, working to provide medical, social and humanitarian assistance to those in need, inspired and encouraged by the teachings of the Catholic Church. Its work is present and consistent.
In a world in which political and personal choices are so often guided by fear, where nations are becoming increasingly jealous of their own assets and ideas, the Order of Malta is an excellent reminder of the merits of integration, the virtues of cooperation and the extraordinary power of the teachings of the Catholic Church.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.