The Order of Malta: Serving in a time of crisis
Doctors, hospitals, and governments across the world have struggled to respond to the still-unfolding coronavirus pandemic. Taking the strain along with them is the Sovereign Military Order of Malta – the thousand-year-old Catholic religious order, medical aid organization, and international diplomatic entity.
Present in 120 countries, with over 2,000 projects in the medical-social field, and more than 120,000 volunteers and medical staff, the order functions as an emergency relief organization in many developing areas and crisis zones.
As the order works to cope with increasing need for its services, it is also grappling with an ongoing process of internal reform. A years-long process to change the order’s governing constitution has been put on hold, following the death of the Grand Master, Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre, earlier this year, and the recent fall from grace of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, whom Pope Francis had named in 2017 as his personal delegate to oversee the order’s “moral and spiritual” renewal.
This week, CNA spoke to the order’s Grand Chancellor – effectively the chief operating officer – Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, about a crucial period for the historic order and its work.
Boeselager told CNA that, while it is in a time of flux at the top, the order remains focused on its medical mission during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The order fortunately is organized in a very horizontal way,” he said. “The situation [in the order’s headquarters in Rome] does not affect in any way the ongoing, many different services of the order – which as you can imagine are in many countries under great stress due to the corona crisis.”
During the pandemic, many national associations and relief corps of the order have scaled up or even launched new projects to help treat COVID-19 patients.
“It’s very, very different,” Boeselager said, explaining that the order has tried to retool its medical missions to respond to the global health crisis.
In Italy, coronavirus wards and hospitals have been set up by the order’s relief corps, and many facilities in Germany, France and other European countries are now dedicated to patients with coronavirus.
Boeselager said that most of the Order’s entities are supporting national health authorities in triage operations, transportation of patients, and in test administration. In Africa and Asia many other projects have been converted into health, sanitation and virus prevention schemes to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
“We had to change many of our projects,” he said. “Even if Africa is not so much affected by the incidence of the illness, the precautionary measures [taken by local governments] are quite similar – in many countries we have the great challenge to get food to children who would normally have one or two meals a day in schools, which are now closed. These were the only substantial meals for many, many of those children.”
Working in Italy, where a second wave of the virus has caused a surge in cases, the order’s volunteer corps set up two dedicated field hospitals for coronavirus patients which came online towards the end of the first peak in the spring.
“When they were first opened [at the end of the first wave],” Boeselager told CNA, “they were not much needed anymore, but they may be needed again now. The hospital in Milan is already being prepared to receive patients again.”
Further from its base in Rome, but closer to its historical roots in the Middle East, Boeselager explained that the order remained deeply committed to its work in Lebanon, where overflow from the Syria civil war has taken a rolling toll on the country and triggered an ongoing refugee crisis. More recently, a massive explosion in the capital Beirut decimated large parts of the city, triggering further economic crisis and the resignation of the government.
“The crisis in the Middle East is the core of our concern,” Boeselager told CNA. “We have huge activities in Lebanon, Iraq, and also some in Syria.”
Boeselager said the order’s Lebanese association is “probably the only organization with good contacts with all of the eighteen other confessions in the country.”
“We run nine clinics, some of them as formal joint ventures with Sunnis, Shi’ites, and the Druze. In the south, we have a clinic in cooperation with the Shi’ites, where the nurses are Muslim and wear the burqa, but on the burqa is the cross of the order!”
The still-ongoing civil war in neighboring Syria has had a deep impact on Lebanon. Boeselager told CNA the order had set up a clinic in a heavily Sunni area on the northern border with Syria.
The order is unique in that, while it has no territory, it is a sovereign entity under international law – with its own passports, diplomatic relationships, and permanent observer status at the United Nations. Boeselager said that this diplomatic independence was crucial to is ability to work in war-torn regions like the Syrian border, without be perceived as a tool of any side of government.
“We were warned about going there,” he told CNA, “because it was said it would be too dangerous for Christians, and we were advised not to put the cross of the order on the mobile clinic.”
In fact, after the order established its presence in the region, it found that its Christian presence was not only accepted but adopted as an essential part of bringing peace to the area.
“After four weeks of operation, the elder of the local village asked us to put the cross up on the clinic to have it better visible and protected because the order is so respected. And then we were told that in the small waiting room, one day they found leaders of three different rebel groups meeting under pretext of needing medical care to discuss ceasefires.”
Boeselager said the order’s diplomatic neutrality and Christian identity among the different Muslim groups, is essential, not just for delivering its humanitarian aid but also for fostering peace.
“People in armed conflict have a sixth sense,” he said. “They know somebody is there only to help, or whether there is a hidden other agenda.”
“This is where you see our status in international law becomes so important,” he said. “You can see also how the religious identity is important, because in most Muslim countries – not in all – it is easier to work for a Christian organization than a secular organization.”
“Historically, the service to the poor is first,” said Boeselager, “this has always been in the foreground for us.”
“This and the order’s call to promoting, witnessing, protecting the faith are two sides of the same coin. It is creating a space where the faith can be promoted and is possible. The way the order promotes the faith is in combination in its work.”
“We are not theologians, we are not liturgists, our vocation is to promote the faith and serve the poor together.”
By Ed Condon
24 October 2020, Catholic News Agency