The New Knights — and Dames

The rising sun penetrates the shroud of fog and melts away the morning dew which surrounds Lourdes’ Rosary Basilica. Linda Carl, clothed in Malta’s white robe, pushes a cart in a long procession of carts which solemnly winds its way towards morning Mass. Each cart carries one malade (French for sick or unhealthy) and is drawn from the front by a Knight and pushed from the back by a Dame.

The Order, which sponsors an annual trip to Lourdes, assigns a Knight and Dame to serve each malade during their visit with the Virgin Mary. Just as Christ freely dragged the weight of His Cross through the streets of Jerusalem, each Knight and Dame freely shoulders the weight of a malade. Carl, a Dame since April 1994, describes her first experience at Lourdes last year: “We shuttle them anywhere they want to go, and in doing so, we develop a desire — no, a need — to serve more. We tend to their needs and we listen to their cries. . . . The joy in serving someone in that capacity is overwhelming.”

After Mass, the procession — in deep, reverent prayer — slowly makes its way to the Grotto where the malades offer up their suffering for others, and the Knights and Dames offer up their service for the malades. “We call them ‘our lords, the sick,” says Carl, “because they’re sharing in the very suffering of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” In addition to serving her personal malade, Carl, a registered nurse for 15 years, donates her medical abilities to the entire group. On her first trip she helped organize a care system which provided the pilgrims with physiological, spiritual, psychological, and emotional assistance. She says the comprehensive care system is necessary because each malade suffers from a different illness.

Though her first malade, a female cancer patient, was found to have a significantly lower cancer count after their 1993 pilgrimage, Carl has yet to witness a physical miracle during either of her two trips to Lourdes. Yet miracles occur daily as the malades experience a profound spiritual renewal. Even more, Lourdes re-charges the souls of the Knights and Dames, for they witness the suffering malades passionately praying to Our Lady for other malades rather than for themselves. In this sense Lourdes is more than just a physical pilgrimage. It is a spiritual journey which promotes selfless giving as the highest virtue.

Carl says Malta’s two-week pilgrimage is the only chance many malades from the United States get to visit Our Lady. The Order covers the cost of each malade and a companion, while the Knights and Dames pay for themselves. She says the toil and cost of Lourdes adds up, but it has made her appreciate the joy of suffering in service. “I’ve never had a better experience than Lourdes,” says Carl. “It awakened in my soul a real love of serving others. Everyone should try it.”

In February 1994, Nina Shea arranged for representatives of the Order of Malta to visit Cuba and assess the island’s health care crisis. What they found shocked them: patients suffering without proper medicines; doctors lacking necessary pharmaceuticals; and hospitals facing a severe shortage of beds, bed coverings, and linens. The list of necessary medical supplies lacking in Cuba’s health delivery system was endless.

Cuba’s desperate situation is in large part a result of the fall of the Soviet Empire, which has left the island without its traditional source of goods and supplies. But Malta has provided a glimmer of hope to a situation which seemed hopeless. The government has reluctantly turned to Caritas — the Catholic Church’s institution of social outreach in Cuba—to help eliminate the shortage of medical supplies through private donations. Caritas is enjoying an upsurgence of private practitioners announcing their Catholicism — but it is struggling to provide them with the necessary supplies. That is why Shea, a Dame for two years, is helping the Federal Association spearhead a relief project to provide Caritas with $25,000 in supplies. She believes the health-care supplies provided by Malta will be more than simple humanitarian aid on the part of the Order. “We don’t just want to hand out medical supplies and leave it at that,” she says. “What we want to see is the Church [become] a social and spiritual force which will continue to liberate Cuba from its currently desperate situation.”

Shea says Caritas has shown remarkable success in Cuba despite the fact that it has only been officially recognized for two years. The renewal has exceeded expectations, with baptisms now outpacing births even as the Church slowly regains her strength after years of state domination. “The Church in Cuba is trying to provide for a depleted health care system while at the same time trying to overcome her own depletion in personnel, spiritual strength, and financial stability. The supplies we are providing will hopefully strengthen both,” says Shea.

Shea, an outspoken human rights activist through the Church before she became a Dame, says she first suggested the relief project shortly after joining the Order. Now, after much money and effort, the project is beginning to bear fruit despite long odds and numerous obstacles. Each shipment risks being seized by the government and diverted to the medical facilities reserved for Cuba’s primary cash industry — tourism. Also, with the Cuban government still violently protective of its own power and stability, Church efforts are heavily monitored, which makes communication between Caritas and Malta difficult and slow.

These kinds of obstacles make it necessary for Malta to proceed with extreme caution, with each step forward being contingent on previous successes or failures. As an illustration, Shea observes that the first shipment of supplies, scheduled for September 1993, was canceled when the Cuban bishops issued a statement on human rights. The statement caused such a government furor that the bishops decided it was unsafe to proceed with the relief shipment. It wasn’t until eight months later that Malta went through with its first shipment of medical supplies to Cuba through Caritas. “This is an incredible occurrence,” says Shea. “I’m just happy that my days in the Order have been productive and beneficial to people who are in desperate need of help.”

This summer, James Cardinal Hickey, the Conventual Grand Cross Chaplain of Malta’s Federal Association, will break ground on land donated by the archdiocese of Washington, D.C. for the construction of Malta House, an affordable housing project sponsored and financed by the Order. Though financed by Malta, the project is being undertaken by Victory Housing, an organization of Catholic business professionals who provide affordable housing to the needy. Christopher Dorment, a Knight of three years, serves as chairman of the organization. He says the 75-room Malta House is the fourth housing project constructed under Victory Housing, but the first sponsored by the Knights.

The Knights are using the project as an outreach program, a chance to reach the most disparate sectors of the community and serve them. “It’s a chance to be responsive to a real need,” says Dorment, “and it helps sanctify and strengthen the Order at the same time.” The house is a pre-nursing home which services the poor and aging, not the incapacitated. “You must remember, the people who take advantage of our services are very lucid, very mindful. They require only a little help . . . but that still means help.” The development provides community meeting rooms, outdoor facilities, music teachers and programs, as well as other services to keep residents busy and active.

Dorment believes the housing project will be self-sufficient. The initial project costs are covered by the Order and low-interest loans, but after that the residents will finance the living quarters themselves. Residents who are able will pay the market price for their living quarters. That money will be funnelled back into the project to help subsidize those residents who cannot afford the market price. Dorment looks at Malta House as a pipeline that will lead to future projects. Even while working on Malta House the group haws already started working with the Department of Health and Human Services to construct 62 homes in a campus-like housing development that will serve unwed mothers. “Every project is important because it always spawns future projects. New ideas can’t be put aside until old ideas are completed,” Dorment notes. “There’s too much to be done for that.”

As these stories show, young members in the Order of Malta are fulfilling their obligation to perform corporal and spiritual works of mercy. They are all leaders because they work serving others, and they embrace their service as Christ embraced the world from His cross — spilling blood and sweat for the unconditional love of neighbor. This small sample of young Knights and Dames represents the thousands of young members who wrap themselves in the yoke of service and bring the world to Christ by bringing the Order of Malta into the world.

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At the time this article was written, John Saffian was a free-lance writer and a full-time radio journalist in Washington, D.C.

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