Homily for Mass of Investiture of Knights and Dames of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta

24 Jun 2022

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist 24 June 2022

When last in Rome I saw for the umpteenth time one of the most breathtaking panoramas of the Holy City: that from the Parco Savello or Orange Grove atop the Aventine Hill. It’s a beautiful garden, filled with sprawling spruces and an orangery with a rich Christian history: according to tradition it was the St Dominic (1170-1221) who smuggled the first orange tree from his homeland of Spain to plant on the hill. Through a hole in the porch of the basilica, one can see through to the cloister where that first tree (legend has it) still flourishes and where Dominic preached to his brethren while enjoying the shade.[i] In the next generation St Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-74) walked in that garden, seeking inspiration for his Summa theologiae. St Catherine of Sienna (1347-80) used its oranges to whip up some sweets for Pope Urban VI, the last pope to be elected from outside the conclave and one who certainly needed some sweetening up![ii]

The garden sits beside the ancient Basilica di Santa Sabina all’Aventino and the medieval fortress which became the Generalate of the Order of Preachers. Its main doors boast what is arguably the earliest surviving crucifix amongst the oldest Christian wood carvings.[iii] When last I was there the park and undercroft of the priory have become home to a sizeable group of our lords the poor and sick—men sleeping rough…

The Aventine Hill is, of course, home to another famous tourist attraction, much smaller than the Orange Grove and immense Basilica, a gem the size of a fifty-cent piece. Were it not for the crowd of patient tourists lining up to see through it and take their photographs, no-one would notice it. But there stands the Villa del Priorato di Malta, historic seat of the Grand Priory of the Order, which now houses its embassy to Italy, one of the many glorious properties that our newly invested and promised will now be able to call home—though I challenge you to get inside some of your new homes! On the large arched green door to the villa is the famous Buco della Serratura, a small keyhole through which can be spied the most unforgettable view of the majestic dome of St Peter, seen across three distinct territories or countries: the Order’s Garden in the villa, the rooftops of Italian Rome, and the seat of the Vatican city state. The frame of the keyhole helps the viewer see the dome in a whole new light, focused clearly and undistracted by surrounding monuments.

In our own lives, and especially our spiritual lives, it’s not always easy to see so clearly and focus on the important things. Amid all the noise and visual overload of contemporary life, we risk attending to everything except those things that should be our real priorities. Worse still, when disappointments or anxieties overwhelm us, we can lose hope. During these moments, we need a keyhole through which to refocus on what really matters… a reminder that we have been loved into existence, into redemption, into lives of service and so into the Order… that we have cause for hope and joy whatever our present hardships, tribulations, doubts and fears.

In our scriptures, God continually calls back the people of Israel from their ‘wandering’, not literally in the desert but morally and spiritually in a world of many distractions. They are reminded that their God, who created them as his ‘favourites’, who liberated them from bondage in Egypt, who made and kept renewing His covenant with them, loves them from the very depth of His being. And so in the second of the Servant Songs we hear Isaiah sing of that love evident in our creation in the womb, in the honours we receive and gifts from God, above all being called by Him, and our mission to serve Him and be a light to the nations (Is 49:1-6).

The New Testament continues the call to wandering humanity back to the right path, a path now incarnate in Jesus the Way (Jn 14:4-6; cf. Mt 22:16 et par.; Mk 10:52; Lk 1:79; 13:33; Acts 9:2; 16:17; 18:25-26; 19:19,23; 22:4; 24:14,22…). The Patron of our Order, whose feast we celebrate today, was of course the forerunner, the way-pointer, declaring that we must prepare the way, make straight the Lord’s paths (Mt 3:3; 11:10; 21:32; Mk 1:2-3; Lk 1:76,79; 3:4-5; 7:27; Jn 1:23). John is someone single-minded, totally focused, attending to God and His kingdom first, second and third. It is told in his celibacy, his counter-cultural dress and residence (Lk 1:80), his preaching repentance, his courageously speaking truth to power, to Herod even if it risked his life. He first pointed to Christ even from his mother’s womb (Lk 1:44) and, as we heard in our Gospel, grew and matured in readiness to point him out again (Lk 1:57-66). His father, Zechariah is less focused; he fails at first to look through the lens of faith and is struck deaf and dumb. But in our Gospel today we see that he is ready to look through the keyhole of the Good News revealed to Him by God through an angel and to confirm his son’s commission.

Focusing heart and soul on God’s call to us is what the five new members to be invested and the three to make their promises of obedience are undertaking. It can come at a cost. There is the opportunity cost, every moment of our lives, of following God’s will as best we can grasp it, as we forego other possibilities to which the world or even our own inclinations may direct us. There is the cost of sheer investment of time and energy in the true and good and beautiful, when there may be easier routes to less noble but more immediately satisfying pleasures. And there are grave trails, such as John suffered in his imprisonment, depression and ultimate execution, and as so many have suffered since, including the dozens of martyrs in Nigeria in recent weeks. Our service of our lords the poor and sick and our defence of the faith may not cost us our lives, but if it is not costing us in attention and physical, financial, emotional and spiritual energy then we are still wandering in the wilderness, not looking through the keyhole.

We don’t know a whole lot about our founder, Blessed Gérard (de Martigues c.1040-c.1120), but he managed to inspire a bunch of soldiers, likely ill-disciplined and violent by nature, to transcend those natures and habits, as well as their national and political allegiances, and put themselves at the Lord’s service as knights hospitallers. He inspired generations thereafter to cultivate the interior spiritual dispositions to contribute to the mission of the Order and thereby achieve holiness. The tree of Fra Gerard, like that of St Dominic on the Aventine Hill, continues to bear fruit to this day and has grown into a whole garden spreading throughout the world. Our newest members remind us all to look through the keyhole to the Church of St Peter and to its mission to the world, undistracted by the other monuments we build to ourselves. May Our Lady of Philermos and St John the Baptist, Sts Zachary and Elizabeth, Blessed Gerard our father, St Nuno Álvares Pereira, St Ubaldesca, St Flora of Beaulieu, St Nicasius, St Toscana, St Hugh and Sts John XXIII and Paul VI, Blessed Clemens von Galen, Bld Gerard Mecatti, Bld Vilmos Apor, Bld Gerland, Bld Adrian Fortescue, Bld David Gonson, Bld Alfredo Schuster, Bld Peter Pattarini and Blessed Charles of Austria, guard and intercede for you. All saints of the Order, pray for us!

[i] https://www.turismoroma.it/en/places/savello-park-or-orange-garden.

[ii] https://www.italyguides.it/en/lazio/rome/districts-of-rome/aventine/giardino-degli-aranci.

[iii] Door Panels of Santa Sabina (rome101.com); Sheckler, A., & Winn Leith, M. (2010). The Crucifixion Conundrum and the Santa Sabina Doors. Harvard Theological Review, 103(1), 67-88. doi:10.1017/S0017816009990319

Introduction to Mass of Investiture of Knights and Dames of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney,Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist 24 June 2022

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral for our Mass celebrating the feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist and the Investiture Mass of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta. Today we will witness and pray with those being Received or making their Promise of Obedience. For close to a thousand years, our Order has played a important role in both the Church’s corporal works of mercy (through its care for Our Lords the poor and sick) and the spiritual works of mercy (through defence and promotion of the faith). In these ways the Order of Malta has been a visible sign of God’s grace working through those lay faithful who have answered the call to love selflessly after the model of Christ.

Concelebrating with me today are Most Rev. Daniel Meagher, Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney and Conventual Chaplain, Rev. James McCarthy, Magistral Chaplain,

Father Anthony Robbie is our MC.

I salute Hon. James Douglas QC KMG, President of the Australian Association of the Order of Malta; Professor David Kissane AC KMG (Ob), Procurator of the Sub-Priory of the Immaculate Conception; Dr Steve Christie, Regional Hospitaller for the Central Eastern Region; Graham Beal coordinating our ceremonies; as well as ambassadors of the Order, past presidents, former and current Executive Committee members and, of course, all members, volunteers and friends of the Order.

I also acknowledge the five new knights and dames being invested: Leonie Harle, David Macintosh, Joseph Mastrangelo, Prof. Zlatko Skrbis and, all the way from Japan, Assoc. Prof. John Takeda, and the three members who will make their promises on entering the sub-priory, Hon. James Douglas QC, Mark Dorney and Brigadier Peter Evans KStJ. A very warm welcome to you all and to your families.