Since the rumors concerning His Eminence Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke’s reassignment as the Cardinalis Patronus of the Sovereign Order of Malta, all we’re hearing is what a demotion this new position is. (Interestingly enough, when Cardinal Burke was appointed as Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, his detractors and the mainstream media went berserk with talk of that being a demotion despite that, beside the Holy Father, he held the second most powerful position in the Roman Curia.)
In the more anxious circles of the Catholic Church, the transfer is being examined and dissected in any number of ways. In the more uncharitable circles of the Church, the transfer is being celebrated with mocking commentary about His Eminence and the Order of Malta. Internal politics of the Church aside for a moment, the Cardinal’s new position is being touted generally as “ceremonial,” “pencil-pushing,” “punitive” and the like.
What must those who are members of the Sovereign Order of Malta be thinking about all of this?
According to their website, “the Order of St John of Jerusalem is one of the oldest institutions of Western and Christian civilization. Present in Palestine in around 1050, it is a lay religious Order, traditionally of military, chivalrous, noble nature. Its 13,500 members… [are] devoted to the exercise of Christian virtue and charity. What distinguishes the Knights of Malta is their commitment to reaching their spiritual perfection within the Church and to expendingtheir energies serving the poor and the sick.” The site goes on to state: “The Order of Malta remains true to its inspiring principles, nurturing, witnessing and protecting the faith and serving the poor and the sick representing the Lord, which become reality through the voluntary work carried out by Dames and Knights in humanitarian assistance and medical and social activities.” Finally, “The Sovereign Order of Malta is a sovereign subject of international law, with its own constitution, passports, stamps, and public institutions. The Order has diplomatic relations with 104 countries – many of which non-Catholic – and missions to major European countries, as well as to European and international organizations. The Order of Malta is neutral, impartial and non-political, which is why it can successfully act as a mediator between States.”
The Sovereign Order of Malta is no small thing, nor are the innumerable corporal works of mercy it carries out in over 120 countries around the globe. In fact, and here’s where I’ll irritate several people, I’d venture to say the Order of Malta is actually carrying out the mission of the Catholic Church and the directives of Christ Himself in a more efficacious way than some of the social institutions and religious orders of the Church.
It’s Just a Bunch of Wealthy People Showing Off
Even if that were what the Order of Malta is about—which it is not—for some inexplicable reason, our culture seems to think that money, pageantry, and ceremony are backwards, evil things to be avoided (except when it comes to spending obscene amounts of money on symbolically-laden weddings). There is nothing wrong with ceremony, pageantry, or wealth as long as they’re put to good use and the Sovereign Order of Malta does precisely that.
Anything done without meaning is fruitless. In the Church, pageantry and ceremony exist for a reason. They are not empty shows of wealth and foppishness. For those who understand them, they are beautiful, public displays of humility and an attempt at the glorification of the King of Kings. (For instance, the much-maligned Cappa Magna has its symbolism rooted in Ephesians 4, 22 and 24. When the Cappa is removed the bishop prays: Take off of me, Lord, the old man with his manners and deeds: and put on me the new man, who according to God is created in justice, and the holiness of truth. (via New Liturgical Movement)
In the Order of Malta, members are recognized by the eight-pointed Cross they wear which represents the eight Beatitudes and is “thus a visual memento of [the order’s] spirituality.”
From the website, “The Order remains true to its inspiring principles: defence of the Faith and service to the suffering. Its members share the same vocation and strive together for solidarity, justice and peace, based on the teaching of the Gospels and in the closest communion with the Holy See. They are involved in active and dynamic charity supported by prayer. No Knight or Dame is such by privilege of birth or merits acquired, but for having answered to the call to be where there is a material or moral need, where there is suffering.”
Based on the Order’s devotion to the exercise of Christian virtue and charity, it’s members’ commitment to reaching their spiritual perfection within the Church, their representing the Lord by nurturing, witnessing, protecting the faith and serving the poor and the sick, they have just been given a great gift of a Cardinal Patron whose values match their own.
How many of us could learn a lesson from the Order of Malta?