Lourdes Day Mass with Order of Malta
Welcome to today’s special Lourdes Day Mass. I acknowledge the presence of Magistral Chaplains of the Order, Monsignors Doherty and Redden and Fr Nicholas Rynne. I acknowledge the presence of John Spencer representing the Chancellor of the Venerable Order of St John. To all the Knights and Dames of the Order of Malta, my confreres and consouers, all volunteers and friends of the Association, and of St John’s Ambulance, and especially to the malades who have come today to be blessed: a very warm welcome!
Homily for Lourdes Day Mass with Order of Malta
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 29 November 2014
“Tilting at windmills” is a phrase referring to misdirected efforts to solve problems that don’t really exist. It stems, of course, from Cervantes’ famous novel, Don Quixote. The seventeenth century original has been adapted many times for opera, ballet, drama, film and music, has many imitators, and is on the reading list of every literate youngster. The novel’s famous protagonist – who had read far too many tales of knights coming to the rescue of distressed damsels – is now so befuddled that he seeks to defeat thirty or forty windmills he thought were giants with huge sails for limbs. Needless to say, he comes off second best, his lance broken and the Don left lying in the dirt, believing himself the victim of sorcery.
The idea of knights and dames continues to fascinate even as the cultural context in which they arose has passed. Mediaeval fares are all the rage – there was some such thing going on rather noisily at the Old Barracks on Macquarie Street last night – with people dressed in armour and engaging in mock heroics with swords and shields. From Heath Ledger’s 2001 A Knight’s Tale to his Joker opposite Christian Bale’s Batman in The Dark Knight, chivalric ideals keep making a come-back in pop culture. Now, the Sovereign Military Order of St John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta is no creature of gothic fantasy. Since Pope Paschal II recognised this “hospitaller fraternity” in his 1113 bull Pie postulato voluntatis, they have survived as the oldest Order of Chivalry of the Church and the fourth oldest religious order – pipping even the Dominicans and Franciscans! True to its original inspiration, Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that the Order has always been characterized “by fidelity to the Church and to the Successor of Peter, and also for its non-renounceable spiritual identity, characterized by high religious ideals”. These “high religious ideals” have meant the members of the Order have, over the centuries, dedicated themselves to securing the safety of pilgrims and holy places, and caring for the victims of war and disease. That evolved, by the nineteenth century, into the dual mission of defending the faith and serving the sick poor. Instead of fighting Saracens these modern knights and dames fight physical sickness and spiritual ignorance.
In so doing they fulfil the call of St James in our epistle this morning to commune with Christ the Physician of Bodies and Souls by confessing our sins, praying for the sick and calling the elders of the Church to lay on healing hands (Jas 5:13-16). So “our Lords the sick and poor” are blessed, the Fair Damsel of Lourdes is invoked, and the Gospel of life and love is preached. And there is a chivalric element to all this, not just in the Order’s habits of dress but in its habits of heart, in the willingness to put power, wealth and privilege at the disposal of the vulnerable. The Australian theologian Tracey Rowland, our consoeur whom Pope Francis recently appointed to the International Theological Commission, argues that at the heart of true chivalry is the Biblical message about power and service, the Beatitudes paradox of blessedness through suffering, life through giving up our lives for others. So Christian gallantry both promotes the faith – bringing the Gospel to those deprived of it – and cares for the needy (Isa 61:1-3; Lk 4:16-22).
Our confreres of old knew all too well that such a mission can come at a real cost. A recent study of religious persecution around the world found religious freedom impaired in 81 countries and Christians bearing the brunt of the oppression. Extremist Islamists and anti-religious dictatorships are responsible for the worst persecution (Aid to the Church in Need, Religious Freedom in the World – 2014). Day after day, we hear stories of people being unjustly targeted because of their religion: only a few days ago the BBC reported that a Christian couple, with their unborn child, were beaten to death and incinerated by a Pakistani mob inflamed by entirely false allegations of desecrating the Koran (http://cathnews.com/ cathnews/19633-christian-couple-in-pakistan-killed-by-mob-over-koran-blasphemy). This follows months of crucifixions and beheadings by I.S. members in Iraq and Syria, with occasional spill-overs as far away as Australia. At a juncture in history where evangelical courage and courageous evangelisation are so sorely needed, this is no time for the Order of Malta to pack up its crucifixes and catechisms, however old-worldly religious orders and chivalry might seem.
Earlier this month, the young, beautiful and articulate Brittany Maynard availed herself of the assisted suicide provisions of the U.S. state of Oregon. She was 29 years old, recently married and had been diagnosed with brain cancer. She became a euthanasia crusader in the months that followed, arguing that this would empower dying people. But reason and experience suggest the opposite is the case, especially for those without the money, fame and articulateness of Brittany. Once euthanasia is accepted, even as a last resort, those who are suffering tend to suffer more and those who are vulnerable face new threats to their dignity and very life. Stories have emerged in recent times from Holland and Belgium, the two jurisdictions with the most experience of medicalized, state-sanctioned killing, of people being euthanased without their families knowing, while too young or disabled, unconscious or depressed to understand and to freely consent. Now it’s to be offered to children and long term prisoners. At a juncture in history where reverence for the sick, dying and marginalized is being so sorely tested, this is no time for the Order of Malta to pack up its stretchers and medicaments, however old-worldly orders of hospitallers and service of malades might seem.
So my thought today is this: that at this unique juncture in history, where both respect for religious liberty and respect for human health are in danger, Christian hospitaller knights are more necessary than ever. Though our unworldly weapons of prayer and charity might seem futile in modernity, they are precisely the weapons for the battle for the soul. Our models are not conquerors of giants or tilters at windmills, but Christ, the Man of Honour, who lays down his life for others and in the process teaches, heals, secures, saves. As our world cries out with the blind beggar ‘Son of David, have pity on me; Son of the Living God, save me’ (Mk 10: 46-52), the Order of Malta responds: let us bring you to Him. And Our Lady of Philerme and of Lourdes joins her prayer to that of Bartimaeus and our Order: that all may come to know salvation of body and soul in Jesus Christ!