Serving Knights according to the Tradition of the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John, A.D. 603

Prioratus Carolus Quintus

On a sunny autumn morning, we had the opportunity to interview Mr. Jan Engels, Prior of the Order of St. John, who gave us the historical overview of the Order. In the year 603, at the request of Pope Gregory the Great, the Benedictine Abbot Probus founded a hospital in Jerusalem. The aim was to provide shelter and care for poor and sick pilgrims who wished to visit the Holy Sepulchre. But turbulent periods of conflict with the Muslims followed. The Benedictine abbey of Our Lady of the Latins was founded by merchants from Amalfi at around 1050. As in all abbeys, hospitality was regularly provided, and the needs of the pilgrim were thereby taken care of. This soon became a more than demanding task in Jerusalem, however, which was why a house for poor and sick pilgrims was built next to the abbey in 1080, under the leadership of Brother Gerard (who died in 1118).

The hospital also claimed a spiritual affinity with the former hospital of Abbot Probus. Inspired by the travelling sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux, Jerusalem was recaptured in 1099 by crusaders under the leadership of Godfrey IV of Boonen, the Margrave of Antwerp, better known as Godfrey of Bouillon. In this period, the new hospital was still run by the above-mentioned Brother Gerard. Even though Gerard’s successor, Magister Raymond du Puy de Provence, was forced to deploy military escorts and build strong fortresses on the pilgrim routes in order to protect the pilgrims to the Holy Land, the emphasis still remained on charitable hospital work. This remained the case, even after the Order was expelled from the eastern Mediterranean in 1522 and settled on the island of Malta, which was assigned to it by Emperor Charles V, after the loss of its bases at Rhodes.

The Order ruled Malta as its own Kingdom, however, often to the annoyance of the Pope and the Sicilian monarchs.

During the 12th and 15th centuries, the network of hospitals, leper colony and pilgrim hostels spread from the Holy Land to all over Europe, from Portugal to the Baltic regions, and from Scandinavia to Sicily.

The hospital knights of Saint John of Jerusalem were also extremely active in our part of the world from the beginning of the 13th century. The first donation outside the Holy Land was the Montboire, a Brabant estate owned by Margrave Godfried.

The Counts of Flanders and Namur, the Dukes of Brabant and the Prince Bishops of Liège, all staunch crusaders, showed great generosity. They provided the Knights Hospitallers, who came to settle in Crown Flanders, State Flanders and other Dutch-speaking regions from the Rhine valley to the north and from the French regions, with grants of land and stipends. When the Order of the Temple, another famous crusader order, was banned and fell victim to the greed of King Philip II of Valois at the beginning of the 14th century, many of its domains were transferred to the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John.

Quite a few Templars ended up in the Order of St. John in this way. From that time onwards, the Order had bases in every corner of our country, which were managed as guesthouses and hospitals. Revenues from this activity contributed substantially to the maintenance of the central medical services and the strong fleet maintained by the Order in Jerusalem, and later in Acco, in Cyprus, Rhodes and Malta. The fact that this fleet dominated the Mediterranean for three centuries explains the fact that, as a former seafaring body, the Order still maintains close links with several naval forces and navies (the Order of Saint John was the basis for the establishment of the first nautical colleges).

During the occupation by the troops of revolutionary France, however, all the property of the Order was expropriated and sold off as “black property”.

Nevertheless, the care of the sick and the poor is still the prime concern for an Order that, as a result of the Reformation, the Napoleonic Wars, and the annexation of Catholic Eastern Poland to the Orthodox Russian Empire, has been torn apart almost as much as the people of God themselves. What’s more, this remains the essence of its existence: the commitment to the “Domini nostri Morbi” (our lords and masters the sick), is spectacular in the event of major disasters, but is also carried out in a modest and discreet manner by members of the various branches of the Order in more than eighty countries.

The Order saw many of its assets lost forever during the French Revolution. A long period of political instability followed the debacle of 1798, when Napoleon occupied the island of Malta and the Order in Western Europe lost all the possessions that financed its charitable work. In 1801, Pope Pius VII founded the “Soverano e Militare Ordine di Malte” (SMOM) from the groups of Catholic hospital knights remaining in Austro-Lombardy and the Papal States. In Europe, this organisation was built almost exclusively on the old noble families.

The Lutheran and Anglican branches of the Order, which no longer recognise the Pope as the spiritual head of the Order since the Reformation in the 16th century, are united in the Nieder-Weisel Alliance, and stand under the protection of their own dynasties. For example, we distinguish the Orders of St John’s in Germany under the protection of the no-longer-reigning House of Hohenzollern, under the Bernadotte’s in Sweden, and under the House of Orange-Nassau-Dillenburg in the Netherlands as well as the Venerable Order of Saint John, under the high protection of the British Crown from the time of Queen Victoria. These orders have a more democratic ethos, and have a large army of volunteers.

The oecumenical branch of the Order counts Roman Catholics and Protestants, Russian and Serbian Orthodox among its members. It is historically based on the protectorate acknowledged by the Russian dynasty of Romanov czars at the end of the 18th century. Emmanuel de Rohan-Polduc, who had a Flemish mother, was Grand Master of the Order from 1775 to 1797. He foresaw that the Order could no longer count on the protection of the many small Western European monarchs after the turmoil caused by the French Revolution.

The latter saw their thrones being occupied by the brothers and sisters of Napoleon Bonaparte, and by his marshals of all kinds. Napoleon had long understood the strategic importance of Malta (the basis of the Order since the 16th century), and wanted to conquer it anyway.

This was not difficult; La Valetta was an easy task: the existing military potential there had no chance to turn against their revolutionary compatriots, due to the presence of numerous French people who would oppose this.

Shortly afterwards, Tsar Paul I Romanov accepted the protectorate of the Order. The Order could only more or less survive within his empire, which, since the third division of 1795, included all of eastern Poland, with its many Order commanders. The Tsar made one of his residences – the Gatchina – available for the establishment of the expelled central administration of the Hospital of Saint John.

When the “diaspora” realised that they would be bound to the Tsar’s hospitality for some time, especially when relations with the Pope, who was now being held hostage, and his curia became impossible, Paul I Romanov was elected Grand Master. More than three hundred dignitaries and knights of the Order were present at this ceremony.

This turned out to be an exceptionally strange situation from the view of canon law, however. Never before had a non-Roman Catholic and, in addition, married monarch become Grand Master of what was, in fact, considered to be a monastic order – albeit with a military mission. In view of the exceptional political circumstances, no compelling objections to this could be raised in constitutional law (the Order was also a sovereign state, even though it was in exile). Without Czar Paul there would no longer have been an Order.

After the death of Czar Paul, his son, Czar Alexander I, took on the patronage, but not the senior position of Grand Master. The dynasty remained involved in the ups and downs of the Order, and preserved the Grand Master’s Crown and the relics of the Order in Saint Petersburg until 1917. These were, in particular, an icon of Our Lady from Philerimos attributed to Saint Luke, and the forearm of Saint John the Baptist. After the Russian Revolution, the icon and relics were handed over to the Karadjordjevic dynasty. They ruled in Serbia, and kept the relics in the Royal Chapel of Belgrade, from where they disappeared during the Second World War to a destination that is still officially unknown.

The Order and its inspiration continues to exist in the 21st century, with various branches, but all showing a great dedication of abilities and means in the service of the poor and the sick. As mentioned above, these branches include, among others, the Pontifical Maltese Order, the Oecumenical branch, being the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John as the result of the Romanov intervention, the Nieder-Weisel Alliance of Lutheran and Anglican Knights of St. John, and there is also the venerable Knightly Order of Saint John the Baptist, which places its inspiration and tradition in the first Hospital in Jerusalem (A.D. 603).Together, they are all part of the large historical complex of evangelically-inspired health care.

About a millennium ago, this care for the sick and the poor was organised by merchants of Amalfi on the existing base of the older Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, in the founding of the Abbey of Our Lady of the Latins. Although the main objective remains the same for all the branches mentioned, and in particular care for the mind and body to all who are in need, there are specific emphases. With regard to our Order, and in addition to charitable works, a great deal of attention is paid to living and growing in mutual fraternal affection. Great importance is also attached to personal religious commitment within the spirituality of Saint Benedict: “Ora et Labora” (prayer and work).

The first hospital founded by Abbot Probus at the request of Pope Gregory the Great in 603 formed the basis of a tradition that has lasted for more than 1,400 years. It brings people together in fraternity, and encourages them to become the servants of Christ’s best friends: the poor and sick. The “Fons Honorum” of the venerable Knightly Order of Saint John the Baptist is based on the initiative of Abbot Probus and the still-current request of Pope Gregory the Great to dedicate himself to those who need help.

From the foundation of the Hospital in Jerusalem, the servants of the hospital formed a lay brotherhood dependent on, but distinct from, the abbey. In doing so, they followed the rules of conduct of Saint Augustine. We know that Pope Innocent XI stated that the rule of Saint Benedict would be followed in his confirmation document of A.D. 1130.

The Serving Knights of the Order of Saint John the Baptist in the 21st century, today or tomorrow, following the tradition of the first hospital of Jerusalem, are people who work on themselves, and who are borne by personal prayer to grow in fraternal affection among themselves, and to do good for everyone in need. They keep in mind that any poor or sick traveller could be the new Christ, for no one knows the day or hour when He will return.

Those who are confronted with Hospitaller Knights for the first time in this day and age may have some unanswered questions. We hereby provide some clarification.


Who are they?

They are people who gather at regular intervals in order to distance themselves for a few hours from the hustle and bustle that characterises the demanding working life. They reflect on the why and how of the great questions of life for everyone. They also have an eye for tradition, and keep alive ancient customs that have been part of the large family of hospital knights around the world for centuries.

What do they do?

They are people who make time in their lives to work on themselves, bearing in mind what is written in Biblical terms: “see how they love each other, that is by which you will recognise them”. Comradeship among themselves is of great importance to them, brotherliness is not an empty thought.

How do they work?

In addition to the above, they are intensively engaged in reaching out a helping hand to those in need, without making a distinction of any kind. “Good works” are only “good” if the help is given expertly, cautiously, but, above all, with great discretion. Each of them is working with their own resources to bring out this care for the helpless.

In recent years, we have been thinking above all of initiatives regarding palliative care, training dogs for the disabled, providing hot meals in deprived areas and to many individuals and families.

Dom Gerard Van Malderen
Abbot of Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s Abbey
“Prelate of the Order”

Jan Engels
“Prior of the Order”