The Order of Saint John: The Grand Master Writes

Somewhat to my surprise, I have received an email from Nicholas Papanicolaou, Prince Grand Master of the Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, Knights of Malta, the Ecumenical Order (OSJ), and a close associate of Christian Right “A-Listers” such as Gen William “Jerry” Boykin and Rick Joyner. The Grand Master is also a co-founder the World Public Forum, which holds international-level conferences involving academics, politicians, and religious leaders.

The Grand Master was prompted to write following a post I wrote concerning a trademark dispute between the Ecumenical Order and the better-known Roman Catholic Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM). The facts of the dispute, which was recently heard in a US district court in Florida, hinged on events in 1798, when Napoleon invaded Malta. The Knights of Malta left the island, and at that time the Russian Tsar, Paul I, became the new Grand Master. From SMOM’s perspective, this was an unhappy interlude, described by the historian Jonathan Riley-Smith as an “illegitimate and eccentric grand mastership” (1). On Tsar Paul’s death, Pope Pius VII appointed Giovanni Battista Tommasi as his successor Grand Master, and SMOM is today based in Rome. By contrast, the OSJ perspective claims a legitimate continuation of the order in Russia, followed by a transfer to the USA at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Grand Master of the Ecumenical Order has asked me to take account of the origins of the Order, which was founded as a hospital for sick and weak pilgrims in Jerusalem in the mid-eleventh century (the traditional date is 1048, although historians are less clear about the exact year). Although the founders were merchants from Amalfi, their initiative (which included a Latin chapel) dated from before the Great Schism of 1054 between the Latin Catholic and the Greek Orthodox Christians. The Grand Master further tells me that the Order was established with the approval of Michael I Cerularius, the Patriarch of Constantinople (I haven’t been able to confirm this detail), while it was not confirmed as a Catholic Order by the Pope until 1113, following the Latin invasion of 1099. The Grand Master tells me that the Order of Saint John was therefore “clearly established as an Orthodox Order”. The OSJ recognises SMOM as a legitimate Catholic organisation, but it cannot claim to be the sole expression of the Order. The implication is that the move to Russian patronage in 1798 was by no means “illegitimate”, as Riley-Smith asserts.

I can anticipate some counter-arguments. First, although the Great Schism was in 1054, it did not come from nowhere: Greek and Latin Christians belonged to differing intellectual cultures, and there were already serious theological differences when the hospital was founded. Second, although the Patriarch of Constantinople may have approved the hospital, it was for pilgrims from the Latin west, and there was no Orthodox interest in its development afterwards. The gap to Tsar Paul is 800 years. Third, it is difficult to see the chapel and hospital constituting a chivalric order in the early decades: there was no military aspect, and there was no Grand Master until 1070.

It is also worth noting the existence of an Orthodox Order founded in Cyprus in 1972 by Archbishop Makarios. Makarios also appealed to pre-1054 origins: he regarded the Amalfi hospital as being the revival of a hospital created by Pope Gregory I in 603, and he pointed out that Amalfi had formerly been under Byzantine rule. However, Makarios regarded his Orthodox Order as something new, albeit “in the spirit of the old Graeco-Russian Grand Priory” of Tsar Paul I.

It seems to be a matter of perspective: disparate historical events can be shaped into more than one narrative. Perhaps a more serious difficulty faced by the OSJ is the thread from Tsar Paul I in 1798 to the USA more than a hundred years later. Russian hereditary knights established a Russian Grand Priory in Paris after 1917, but there is no link with the USA; the OSJ claims that Grand Duke Alexander brought the Order from Russia to the USA, but SMOM’s supporters, and others, dismiss this as a fiction created by a  far-right activist named Charles Pichel in the 1950s.

(1) Jonathan Riley-Smith (2007), “Towards a History of Military-Religious Orders”, in Karl Borchardt, Nikolas Jaspert, Helen J. Nicholson (eds), The Hospitallers, the Mediterranean and Europe: Festschrift for Anthony Luttrell (Ashgate: Aldershot), pp. 269-284.

4 Responses

  1. […] “Jerry” Boykin and Rick Joyner. Papanicolaou, Boykin, and Joyner also all belong to a chivalric order which claims to have had Russian protection in the nineteenth century; however, while it may be […]

  2. […] The organisation is primarily involved with charity work, but it is also hostile to Islam: Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff was recently invested as a “Dame” of the OSJ at a ceremony in Rhodes, and Boykin and Papanicolaou co-signed a hostile statement on Islam on behalf of the OSJ in 2010 (“The Obama Administration’s Department of Homeland Security recently swore in two devout Muslims in senior posts…. Was it not ‘Devout Muslim men’ that flew planes into U.S. buildings 9 years ago?”). I looked at the historical claims of the OSJ here. […]

  3. […] Roman Catholic group called the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM). The order’s history was disrupted 1798 when Napoleon invaded Malta and the Russian Tsar became the organisation’s […]

  4. […] discussed competing claims about the historical background here. Last year, SMOM lost a trademark case against the OSJ in Florida. Despite SMOM’s objection […]

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