Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Philermos
Australian Association of the Sovereign Order of Malta
Readings: Micah: 5: 1-4; Psalm 50; Romans: 8:28-30; Matthew: 1:18-23
11 September 2022
It’s been a big week for all of you in the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta. In the absence of your Chaplain, I am honoured to preside at this Eucharist and to preach on your patronal feast.
Last Saturday Pope Francis issued a decree ‘noting the need to initiate a profound spiritual, moral and institutional renewal of the entire Order’. With his characteristic bluntness the Holy Father said: ‘Many steps have been taken, but likewise many impediments and difficulties have been encountered along the way.’ He announced a new Constitution for your Order, revoked the High Offices of the Order, dissolved the Sovereign Council, nominated a provisional Sovereign Council and convoked an Extraordinary General Chapter for 25 January 2023. He ordered that his Decree be notified to you all forthwith, within the octave prior to your patronal feast, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Philermos.
Fra’ John Dunlap, Lieutenant to the Grand Master of the Order welcomed these ‘paternal actions of His Holiness which demonstrate the great love the Pontiff has for our Order.’ Dunlap thinks that the Pope ‘has determined a path forward that promises to ensure the Order’s future both as a Religious Institute and a Sovereign Entity’. Commenting on the new Constitution and the new provisional government, he says, ‘The involvement of a variety of accomplished and talented Knights in the Order’s governance has opened the door to new blood and fresh thinking in confronting today’s obstacles and challenges’. He thinks ‘the new Constitution is a carefully crafted document that speaks to the complexity and nature of a thousand year old religious order.’
These are obviously testing times for your Order. A reflection on the situation of Mary and Joseph in today’s gospel should inspire you and sustain you at such a time. Joseph being a righteous man was unwilling to expose the unaccountably pregnant Mary to shame. He decided to divorce her quietly. But then he heard the call: ‘do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’
As you prepare for your Extraordinary General Chapter, do not be afraid. Discern what the Holy Spirit is asking of you. Be prepared to take the necessary steps, whatever they may be. Don’t be motivated or directed by the prospect of public shame or the adverse judgments of others. Be true to yourselves and to the charism of your Order. Have the confidence that even though you be like Bethlehem-Ephrathah, ‘too small to be among the clans of Judah’, your Order can give witness to the one who can ‘stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the Lord’. Take to heart the invocation of Paul to the Romans, that together you can be called, justified, and glorified, even if, at this moment, you know not how.
In the twenty first century, it is no surprise that a long established Order of tens of thousands of competent lay people pledging obedience to the Holy See, treasuring their sovereignty, able to engage in diplomatic relations with over 100 countries, and committed especially to the sick and the poor, is in need of review and restructure. You are unique in the Church and in the world of diplomatic relations. You are active in 120 countries caring for people in need through your medical, social and humanitarian works. Day-to-day, the Order’s broad spectrum of social projects provides a constant support for forgotten or excluded members of society. That’s why you pray:
‘Be it mine to practice and defend the Catholic, the Apostolic, the Roman faith against the enemies of religion; be it mine to practice charity towards my neighbours, especially the poor and sick. Give me the strength I need to carry out this my resolve, forgetful of myself, learning ever from the holy Gospel a spirit of deep and generous Christian devotion, striving ever to promote God’s glory, the world’s peace, and all that may benefit the Order of St John of Jerusalem.’
One of your members said to me this week: ‘A passage of scripture familiar to members and relevant to the present is the following: “Youth itself may weaken, the warrior faint and flag, but those who trust in the Lord will renew their strength like eagles new-fledged: hasten and never grow weary of hastening, march on, and never weaken on the march”. (Isaiah: 40. 30-31).’
Before he became pope, Pius XII once had cause to write of your Order during World War II and before the foundation of the United Nations:
‘Long before the civilised nations united to set up an international law, long before they formed the dream – not yet realised – to set up a common force, guardian of wholesome human liberty, the independence of peoples, and of a pacific equity in their relationships among themselves, the Order of St John had brought together in a religious fraternity and under a military discipline, the people of eight different langues, dedicated to the defence of spiritual values which make up the common appanage of Christianity: faith, justice, social order, and peace.’
Pius XII concluded:
‘Therefore, you, dear sons (and we might now add, daughters) and illustrious Knights of Jerusalem by your origin, good Samaritans by vocation, hospitallers by destination, charitable by collective tradition and personal devotion; you, ancient founders of hospices for pilgrims and travellers in danger, give a roomy and pious refuge in your prayers, in your alms, in your cares, to the millions of human beings tried by poverty, disasters, and the scourge of war.’
On this feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Philermos, let’s pray for Pope Francis and the leaders of your Order that, together, they will do what is best so that the work of your Order and the spiritual formation of its members can be enhanced.
As a Jesuit might I offer this note of hope. Pope Francis had just completed his term as provincial superior of the Jesuits in Argentina when Pope John Paul II intervened in the affairs of the Society of Jesus, suspending our Constitutions, and appointing Fr Paolo Dezza SJ as his delegate in 1981. That two year inter-regnum was a testing time for many of us Jesuits. Fr Bergoglio was then a delegate at our 33rd General Congregation at which our Constitutions were restored with the Congregation members electing a new Superior General. We can be sure that Pope Francis is aware of the gravity of what he has done. He must have seen himself as having no option, and I would expect that he would want to see a return to routine governance in your Order as soon as possible – for the good of the members, for the good of the apostolate, and for the good of the Church.
With confidence we pray the Psalm you have chosen for today’s liturgy:
A pure heart create for me, O God,
put a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
nor deprive me of your holy spirit.
Give me again the joy of your help;
with a spirit of fervour sustain me.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth shall declare your praise.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).
 See https://www.orderofmalta.int/news/statement-issued-by-the-grand-magistry-of-the-sovereign-order-of-malta/
 Pope Pius XII, Response to Message of Goodwill, 16 January 1940, in An Introduction to the Order of Malta, Australian Association, Epilogue, p.24
 Ibid, pp. 24-5