Melbourne recently played host to the Order of Malta's biennial National Assembly.
A three-day event, the Assembly is always held in proximity to the 24 June feast day of the Order's patron, St John the Baptist. This year, it saw the Order continue a process of renewal and growth.
The gathering featured an excellent overview of the Order's charitable work in Australia and abroad, opportunities to socialise and meet other members and supporters, invest and welcome new members and, perhaps most importantly, to reflect on the Order's mission and charism through various liturgical fixtures.
Several hundred delegates (members, their families and friends) were present, representing all units of the Australian Association of the Order – which takes in not only the Australian states and territories, but also neighbours such as New Zealand, East Timor, and Thailand. Delegates were also updated on fruitful efforts to plant the Order in Hong Kong and South Korea. The Order's presence in Singapore, originally a project under Australia's auspices, is now fully-fledged and independent.
Sessions at the Assembly covered topics ranging from the Order's work around the world, to evaluating the role of Catholic leaders, and to some of the pressing life issues in Australia today.
The Victorian Branch, which hosted the National Assembly, did an excellent job in providing opportunities for members and supporters, especially newcomers, to network and socialise, whether during informal breaks or some of the more formal meals. The hosts were aided in their work by a dedicated team of young volunteers, conspicuous in their red Order work vests.
Perhaps the most impressive social event was a black-tie dinner featuring guest speaker Tim Fischer, former Deputy Prime Minister and Australia's first dedicated ambassador to the Holy See. His anecdotes and reminiscences, including the period surrounding St Mary MacKillop's canonisation, made for a memorable occasion.
Most of the National Assembly took place in what is fast becoming the "Catholic Precinct" of Melbourne, containing amongst other landmarks: St Patrick's Cathedral, the Church of St John the Evangelist, the Australian Catholic University, and the newly-constructed Catholic Leadership Centre. All of these facilities were utilised over the three days, with the churches named providing the venues for most of the Order's liturgy.
The Friday evening saw a vigil ceremony, in which postulant members of the Order had their robes blessed and received instruction on the commitment they would be asked to make the following day. The evening also included benediction – and a beautiful selection of the Order's own music, some of which has only recently been unearthed. The Kyrie chosen for the event, for example, was apparently sung by the Order during its time on Rhodes, many centuries ago.
Postulants were previously informed about the connection between the modern vigil and investiture ceremonies and the customs of old. Many breathed a sigh of relief that the ancient all-night vigil of the aspirant knight before the altar has been dispensed with (although the author must humbly disagree).
The investiture itself – of some 46 new knights (including this writer), dames and donats – took place on the Saturday afternoon at St Mary's, West Melbourne. The beautifully-restored church was a perfect choice for a very solemn ceremony in which postulants were asked whether they were willing to take up Christ's cross, to defend the Faith and to serve "Our lords the poor and the sick".
As with the selection of music, aspects of the liturgy were also unique to the Order, such as the chanting of the Order's own litany of saints. This litany includes the Order's crusading-era founder, Blessed Gerard, as well as notable members of the Order such as the English martyr Blessed Adrian Fortescue, Blessed Pius IX, and Blessed Charles, the last Emperor of Austria.
The Assembly continued on the Sunday with Mass and a procession by members at St Patrick's Cathedral. This was followed by a farewell lunch before the gathering dispersed across Australia and overseas, recharged or, in the case of some, ready to finally begin their efforts as members of the Order.
It would be possible, given the weight of history and ritual which the Order carries, to mistake it for a nostalgic society or, worse, an opportunity to play dress-up. But such a misconception would fly in the face of the vital work the Order does locally and overseas. In many European nations, for example, the Order actually runs the main ambulance service. It also maintains professional disaster relief services that can make the difference between life and death for many. These, and many other services, are provided without reference to creed or colour.
Locally, the Order continues its work through such projects as medical aid to East Timor and the purchase of heavy-duty coats for the thousands of Australians who sleep rough every night. The coats are distributed nationally in conjunction with organisations such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul and the outreach centres of many religious congregations.
From July, the Order is seeking people around the country to host coffee mornings to support the coats for the homeless program. This is an easy way to perform a corporal work of mercy which will make someone's life a little better. To register your interest, please email or visit for more information and for material to help you plan your event: info@smom. org.au; and orderofmalta.org.au