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April 12, 2009

Historic Order of Malta hosts first showing of new JP II documentary

By Michelle Martin


When the Order of Malta hosts the U.S. charity premiere of “Testimony,” a documentary about the life of Pope John Paul II, May 8, its members will be doing something new.

Serving the sick and the poor are more common activities for the order, which was founded more than 900 years ago to serve pilgrims to the Holy Land.

But putting on a movie premier fits the mission of the order, members say, because the movie itself teaches about the Catholic faith, and the money raised will support the order’s humanitarian work in Chicago and in Cuba.

The movie, produced by Przemyslaw Häuser, is based on the book “Witness to Hope,” by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, archbishop of Krakow, after serving as the late pope’s personal secretary for 40 years.

Häuser, is ambassador of the Order of Malta to Cuba, and his involvement drew the attention of local members.

Building a bridge

Slawomir Wronski, first secretary of the Order of Malta’s Embassy to Cuba, said that the Order of Malta’s embassy in Cuba is “trying to build a bridge” between various associations of the order around the world and the church in Cuba, since the Cuban Association of the Order of Malta is in exile, based in Miami.

The embassy coordinates humanitarian efforts on the island nation, including projects requested by the various dioceses in Cuba, support for a hospital in El Rincon and a new project Häuser is starting that will take spiritually themed films to various communities in Cuba, Wronski said.

The embassy also is trying to help people rebuild after three hurricanes struck Cuba last year.

“The material they are most in need of is roofing,” he said. “Houses have no roofs.”

There are about 75 knights and dames who live in the Chicago area, members of either the Washington, D.C.-based Federal Association or the New Yorkbased American Association. Cardinal George is a member and chaplain in the Federal Association. A third association in the United States, the Western Association, is based in California.

There are more than 12,000 knights and dames worldwide, according to the order’s Web site,

Only a few — some 35 worldwide — are vowed religious brothers. Among them is Thomas Mulligan of Chicago, who is one of four in the United States. While Mulligan has made temporary vows of poverty, obedience and chastity, he lives his vocation in the world — in his case, as a partner in a limousine company.

Faith and service

The rest are lay members who live their vocation in faith to the church and service to the poor.

“No knight is such by privilege of birth or merits acquired, but for having answered to the call to be where there is a material or moral need, where there is suffering,” said Heriberto López Alberola, referencing a centuriesold chivalric manual of the Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order.

The order traces its history to 1099, making it the fourth oldest religious order in Christendom, according to Mulligan. During the first Crusade, Mulligan wrote in an e-mail, Blessed Gerard founded a hospice-infirmary for pilgrims in Jerusalem, which was dedicated to St John the Baptist. In 1113, Pope Paschal II approved the institution of the hospital and formally recognized the serving brothers as the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.

“From the beginning, the order was founded upon the dual principles of ‘tuitio fideii et obsequiem pauperum’ — to defend the faith and to serve the poor and the sick,” he wrote.

For example, the Federal Association has sent more than $50 million worth of food, medicine and relief supplies all over the world, and its members have performed thousands of hours of personal service to the sick and the poor. It also sends millions of dollars worth of free medicines to participating clinics in Chicago and 16 other locations nationwide.

Members of all three U.S.- based associations have traveled to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina to repair homes, participating in five day work sessions that allowed some 32 families to move back into their homes and thus stabilizing their old neighborhoods.

The order’s Project Lifeline has supported medical programs in Haiti, Guatemala, Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, which have supplied thousands of children with medicine, vitamins and clean water. The Emergency Relief Corps, or Malteser International, is comprised of nearly 100,000 trained volunteers and staff. With an expertise in water purification, disaster relief and refugee camp operations internationally, Malteser was already serving the needs of flood relief in India when the devastating tsunami hit southern Asia in 2004. This put them in place to be on site within 24 hours providing care for the victims with its own $40.5 million worth of works in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India.

Malteser International is often the complete medical corps attached to a U.N. Peacekeeping Force sent in to stabilize and provide medical treatment to an area. Throughout the world, the Order of Malta operates hospitals, clinics and facilities for the aged as well as offering emergency ambulance service in more than 30 nations, and it is a world leader and authority in the treatment of leprosy, including in Cuba.

In Chicago, the Order of Malta participates in the Rebuilding Together program, the food pantry and expanding programs at the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, soup kitchens at St Thomas of Canterbury and Catholic Charities and Port Ministries Program.

Also a sovereignty

In addition to being a religious order, the Order of Malta is a sovereign nation that maintains its own state-to-state diplomatic relations with 102 countries as well as permanent observer status in the United Nations. These diplomatic relations allow it to intervene with timely and effective action in the event of natural disaster or armed conflict, and it is this arrangement that has allowed the order’s embassy in Cuba a wide and comprehensive understanding of the effects of three hurricanes last year and to cooperate with the church in Cuba to respond to severe humanitarian and medical needs in the wake of the storms.

Membership in the Order of Malta, while an honor, is also a commitment to hands on service, Mulligan wrote. New members must be invited by existing members; however, volunteers are welcome to help with the order’s efforts.

“Helping others’ needs, completely regardless of race, creed or color, becomes a part of one’s everyday life, which can not help but assure that all become better by their treating others with compassion and charity,” he wrote.

“Testimony” will have its U.S. charity premiere in Chicago at 8 p.m. May 8 at the Copernicus Community and Civic Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave. For tickets, call (800) 300-5892 or visit and click on the link.