Order of Malta helps sick seek healing with annual Lourdes pilgrimage

| Susan Klemond | May 26, 2017 | 0 Comments

Annamarie Adkins (back row, middle) and her children, Xavier and Mary Frances, gather outside St. Bernadette in Lourdes, France, with their combined “pod” of Order of Malta caregivers. Michelle Babyak/Courtesy Annamarie Adkins

Annamarie Adkins hoped that two of her children who suffer from serious illnesses would experience healing in Lourdes, the Marian apparition site in southern France renowned for healings. But traveling to France seemed impossible for a mother who also suffers from a debilitating disease.

In May, members of the 900-year-old Order of Malta made the Lourdes trip a reality for Adkins, 40, and her children by providing for their travel expenses and complete care throughout.

“I lived in perfect love, and my children lived in perfect love for a week, and I as a caregiver was served,” Adkins said. “To know that God can and does provide — that is another huge faith thing for me because of it.”

Adkins, her husband, Jason, and their four children are parishioners of St. Agnes in St. Paul. Mary Frances, 7, has chronic kidney disease; Xavier, 10, suffers from allergies and other health conditions; and Annamarie has Lyme disease.

While neither Adkins’ daughter nor son have yet received significant physical healing after participating as “malades” (French for “ill”) in the lay religious order’s annual Lourdes pilgrimage, they each have experienced spiritual blessings, she said.

Traveling with the Adkinses on the May 3-9 pilgrimage was another malade, Deacon Jim Meyer of Holy Family in St. Louis Park, who has Parkinson’s disease, as well as eight other Order of Malta members, including its chaplain and volunteers. The Minnesota Area contingent, which first participated in the pilgrimage in 2008, joined about 8,000 members and malades of all ages from 38 countries. Both malades and Order members who cared for them returned from the pilgrimage renewed and inspired.

Father Joseph Johnson, pastor of Holy Family and Minnesota Area chaplain, said the Order of Malta lifts up the sick “and brings them to Our Lady’s shrine and then serves them the whole time.” As international travel can be difficult for the sick, he said, “The knights and dames of Malta and volunteers are all there to lift that burden.”

The Order of Malta’s charism is defense of the faith and care of the sick and poor. Originally both a hospital and military order, the service aspect modeled on the beatitudes is now more prominent, said Minnesota Area chairwoman Anne Marie Hansen.

The Minnesota Area, which includes parts of Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas, has 40 regular and 35 auxiliary members, mostly professionals aged 35 to 70. Worldwide membership is 13,500.

Malades are selected through sponsorship and application, and Order members pay for their pilgrimage expenses. Each malade is cared for by a “pod” of Order members and volunteers who wear distinctive uniforms and transport them in individual carriages around Lourdes to the famous sanctuary baths, religious sites and events. A medical team assists the malades.

Hansen, 44, helped care for a malade this year.

“What you give you get back a hundred-fold in this intimate relationship of six days with this individual that you get to care for,” said Hansen, a parishioner of the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul and president of Gianna Homes, Minnetonka-based residential care homes for people with memory loss.

She joined the Order in 2011 after sensing a call to serve the sick using her hospice experience. The Lourdes pilgrimage gave her that opportunity, she said.

Since Mary’s 18 apparitions to St. Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes in 1858, 69 cures at the site have been recognized as miraculous by a bishop, and many more have not been formally recognized.

Dr. Paul Diekmann, 58, and his son, Delaney, were malades on the trip last year. Diekmann’s advanced stage 3 melanoma cancer was already in remission then, and this year he was well enough to serve on a pilgrimage medical team. Delaney’s condition also has improved.

Cathedral parishioners, Diekmann and his wife, Becky, who served as her husband and Delaney’s caregiver in Lourdes, are now considering joining the Order.

“In reality, we’re all malades, and there is this same grace and healing available to everyone when you’re there — whether on a team or as a malade — if you’re open to it,” he said.

That healing includes spiritual maladies, Father Johnson said.

“A lot of people experience rebirth in hope, if not the physical cure,” he said, “but the sense that life is a journey and our true home is not here, but to look forward to the hope of heaven.”

In the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Order members’ charism of service, lived both corporately and individually, is drawing new members, Hansen said. The Lourdes pilgrimage is another facet of that service.

“We believe that the malades — the sick, the poor — we are their servers,” she said. “We call them our ‘lords’ … so we treat them with the utmost respect, dignity, care and love. We give them the best that we can give them. To serve in that way and for people to receive it in the world we live in today, it’s not bare bones, but it’s lavish.”

Order of Malta: healers and protectors 

Since the 11th century, members of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta — the “Order of Malta” for short — have lived their charism of defending the faith and serving the sick and poor, first by running a hospital in Jerusalem and protecting Christians in the Middle East, and then by operating a major naval fleet to defend against Eastern invaders. In modern times, the Order has returned to its original focus of helping people in need.

What is now the Order of Malta was founded as the Order of St. John of Jerusalem around 1048, under the patronage of St. John the Baptist. Blessed Gerard, an Italian monk, served as the first grand master of the order, also known as the Knights Hospitaller. The founders’ hospital in Jerusalem served Christian pilgrims and people of other faiths.

In 1113, Pope Paschal II approved the hospital’s foundation, giving the order the status of a lay religious order. The order also had a military character and its monk-knights took monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The knights fought in crusades in the Middle East until the fall of Jerusalem in 1291 when they transferred their seat and hospital to Cyprus. The new location provided a strategic naval position for protecting pilgrims on the sea route to the Holy Land. 

The Order continued to grow as men joined from all parts of Europe to defend Christendom. The Order moved again to the island of Rhodes in 1307, another strategic location for its naval fleet, which was involved in many battles in the eastern Mediterranean.

In 1523, the knights had to leave Rhodes after six months of siege and combat against the fleet and army of a great Ottoman sultan.

The Order took possession of Malta in 1530, and 35 years later it once again was under siege by the Ottomans. The Order defended the island for three months. In 1571, the Order’s fleet helped Western forces defeat the Ottoman empire in the famed Battle of Lepanto.

A 16th-century papal decree prohibited the knights from fighting against other Christian forces, so when Napoleon occupied Malta in 1798, the knights were forced to leave the island. Since then, the Order has been based in Rome.

From the latter half of the 19th century, the Order has again focused on the hospitaller character of its mission of serving the sick and poor. In addition to its 13,500 lay members, 60 religious brothers have made vows to the Order. According to Catholic News Service, it is the world’s largest chivalric order.

The organization has recently made headlines with the forced resignation of one of its top officials in December 2016, the appointment of a Vatican commission to investigate the matter, and Pope Francis’ requested resignation of the top official in January.

Wisconsin native and U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke has served as patron of the order since 2014.

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