The Hospitaller Knights (the Order of the Knights of the Hospital of St. John) is a Catholic lay religious order officially established in AD 1113 that continues today as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. The Hospitaller Knights are involved worldwide in medical, social, and humanitarian work, especially in war-torn areas and places hit by natural disasters. The organization’s full name is the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. The symbol of the Hospitaller Knights is an eight-pointed star, which represents the eight Beatitudes that Jesus taught.
In the medieval period, many Christians began making pilgrimages to the Holy Land. These journeys were fraught with danger from the elements, from criminals, and often from warring factions. Various orders of knights (religious/military orders) were developed to provide aid and protection for these pilgrims on their journeys.
The word hospitaller comes from the word hospital, which has its roots in a Latin word for “hospitality.” Early on, a hospital was more like an inn where pilgrims could sleep and be fed. Many pilgrims carried little or nothing with them, relying upon the hospitality of other Christians along the way. Over time, the idea of a hospital began to include caring for pilgrims who became sick or injured on the journey, although care would have mainly consisted of food and lodging and only the most elemental medical care. (Think of the parable of the Good Samaritan in which the innkeeper is charged with taking care of the injured man. See Luke 10:25–37.)
The Hospitaller Knights trace their history to an eleventh-century group of monks in Jerusalem. In the twelfth century, a new hospital dedicated to John the Baptist was built in Jerusalem, replacing one that had been destroyed in the Muslim invasion. The monastic order that ran the hospital as a place for pilgrims to stay also cared for sick pilgrims. As times became more difficult, they also began to provide armed escorts for pilgrims, thus becoming a military order as well. (At this time, Jerusalem was under the control of Christians, but the surrounding areas were under Muslim control—see our article on the Kingdom of Jerusalem.) At the height of their strength in Jerusalem, the Hospitaller Knights had seven major forts and 140 other estates. They were divided into three groups: the military force, caregivers, and chaplains.
When Jerusalem fell to the Muslims at the end of the thirteenth century, the Hospitaller Knights were forced out of the area and retreated to Rhodes, a city on an island off the southwest coast of Turkey, then to the island of Malta, and finally to Rome, where they are headquartered today. For the next 400 years, the order was primarily military, participating in the various European wars. In the mid-nineteenth century, the order began to focus once again on hospitals, this time of the more modern variety.
On their official website, the Hospitaller Knights say the organization is devoted to humanitarian work and is “neutral, impartial and apolitical.” The Lieutenant of the Grand Master who leads the Hospitaller Knights carries the rank of cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. Most of the members of the Hospitaller Knights are Catholic laypersons, but some follow canonical orders, having taken the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The Hospitaller Knights operate two convents for nuns, one in Spain and the other in Malta. All members of the Hospitaller Knights are “required to maintain exemplary Christian behaviour in their private and public life, contributing to the maintenance of the Order’s traditions” (from their website).
Today, the Order of Malta has about 13,500 knights, dames, and chaplains, plus 80,000 permanent volunteers and 25,000 employees. They are active in 120 countries.
While their humanitarian work is commendable, the theology of the Hospitaller Knights is firmly Catholic. They teach a works-based salvation, lift tradition to the height of Scripture, and give the glory that should be Christ’s alone to John the Baptist, other saints, and of course Mary. In a recent speech in Lourdes, France, the Grand Master of the Hospitaller Knights said, “We pay homage to Mary with renewed passion and dedication” and that they were present “to renew our faith and hope in Mary and to bring peace and serenity to those we are assisting” (“The Order of Malta’s 59th International Pilgrimage to Lourdes,” www.orderofmalta.int/2017/05/08/order-maltas-59th-international-pilgrimage-lourdes/, accessed 8/11/2017). We should direct our “faith and hope” toward Christ, not to anyone else.