The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and Malta better known as the Order of Malta celebrates its 920th anniversary this year. In spite of the advanced years, the Order continues to work actively around the world and its postulates have not changed for hundreds of years. As a subject of international law with the headquartered in Rome, the Order has its embassy in Moscow. spoke with the outgoing Ambassador of the Order of Malta Gianfranco Facco-Bonetti about the results of his work in Russia, Knightly vows, history and modernity.

«Some believed we are Masons»

— Mr. Ambassador, your stay in Moscow comes to an end. What do you believe to be your main achievements over the time spent in Russia?

— Yes, today is my last day in Russia, I am leaving for Berlin. Starting from November there will be a new Ambassador of the Order in Moscow Aimone of Savoy-Aosta. As for me, I headed the representative office starting from 2007. Before that, I served as the Italian Ambassador to Russia from 2001 to 2006 and I was Minister-Advisor to the Italian Embassy in Moscow in the 1990s. So I can say that I have been in Russia for quite some time.

And I think that the most important achievement during this time was that the Order of Malta managed to bring here old Christian relics from Italy related to saints who are both respected by the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Together with the Orthodox Patriarchate, we implemented a program that made these relics available to residents of Moscow, St. Petersburg and even those cities in which you may have never been. For example, Ulan-Ude and Arsenyev. As you know, most Christian relics in Russia were destroyed by the Bolsheviks, and the church needed relics when it was rebuilt. While we have a great many relics in Italy, there are few of them in Russia. I traveled a lot during the implementation of this program sometimes to very distant Russian regions. This allowed me to meet many wonderful people in person. Among them were many young priests, metropolitans.

Besides, we needed to take care of our two social centers in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Just yesterday, I paid my farewell visit to the St. Petersburg center. A kitchen that distributes 250 free lunches five days a week works there. It is very good, I tried it. I talked with those who come there who are mostly women. Some of them are very old. I saw a 92-year-old woman there. Listening to their stories is like reading Dostoevsky’s novels. What they experienced in their lives is simply unbelievable. And now they have to exist for the equivalent of €200, a maximum of €300 per month. They have a very difficult life and I'm happy that we can somehow help them. Most of the funding for these two centers comes from Germany.

We also worked in the cultural sphere. In 2012, we organized a large exhibition at the Moscow Kremlin Museum which took us more than a year to put together. It was visited by sixty thousand people. And we had a similar but a smaller one in the Hermitage.

— This year the Order of Malta is celebrating its 920th anniversary. How did it manage to survive for so long and how did the goals change over this time?

— I think that the Order of Malta is better known in Russia today than it was a few years ago. But some people thought that we are Masons and this was one of our problems. This is a completely wrong judgment. We are a religious Order and Masons are the opposite of it. I don’t know where this belief came from in Russia, but we have overcome this problem by showing people who we are. I want to say it again: we are a religious Order that has had two missions for over 900 years: to care for the poor and needy and to remain committed to the Catholic faith. This is the true nature of the order, no more, no less.

The first step taken by the Knights of the Order was creating a hospital by the St. John Church in Jerusalem. If there is one reason why the Order of Malta has existed for so long and is diplomatically recognized today in 109 states, this is because it never abandoned the mission that it took on 920 years ago — to take care of those in need. The other two orders, the Knights Templar and the Teutonic Order, which also originated in Palestine around the same time as the Hospitallers, did not have the same purpose. They had a different nature. And the Templars, as you know, disappeared in the XIV century, and the Teutons turned into an order that captures the lands of the Slavs. But we still follow our original goal.

Stefan Auth/Global Look Press

— Has the Order of Malta never captured land?

— Of course, the Order used to have its territory. We left Palestine when the Muslims captured Jerusalem again and found refuge on the island of Rhodes. There the Knights founded their state which lasted about 200 years until after a long siege they were defeated by the Turks. Then the order settled in Malta which is why it is called the Maltese Order today — this was its last territory. We remained in Malta until 1798, until Napoleon occupied the island on his way to Egypt and sent Knights out of there. Since that time the order no longer had its land but still managed to survive this loss. Today it is a unique case: it remains the subject of international law, like any state, despite not having the territory. This is because it has never been so important for the fulfillment of our mission. I am a Knight but I am also an Italian, I am not a citizen of the Order of Malta. Today, our members are more than 13 thousand people and about 80 thousand volunteers work for us.

«The „Foreign Agent“ law does not bother us»

— Representatives of charity organizations with foreign funding have recently complained that the Russian «Foreign Agent» law impedes their work. Have you experienced similar problems with the Russian authorities?

— We never did. The Order and Russia have established in 1992 bilateral relations that are tantamount to diplomatic relations. Establishing official relations for us is a tool that allows our organizations to work in a more favorable, safe environment. Therefore, the Russian «Foreign Agent» law does not affect our social centers and they operate normally without any problems.

And in general, we have very good relations with Russia as it happened historically. There is a very interesting episode in history when the Order of Malta was headed by the Russian Emperor Paul I for four years (from 1798 to 1801 — I would have never thought but many people in Russia still remember this. I received many requests for information about the life of the tsar and his family, especially from St. Petersburg.

— Which region is the main focus of your work now? As far as I know, the Order also acts as a diplomatic mediator in the settlement of international conflicts.

— The Order is very active in all areas in the Middle East and North Africa. This region is a priority for us. Just one example: for several decades we have been supporting a maternity hospital in Palestine that is open to everyone. We believe that it contributes to the peaceful coexistence of all faiths in this part of the world. The Order also funds refugee programs in Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The Syrian refugees are mostly Muslims, not Christians, but we do not divide the needy according to their religion, we help everyone.

«Many people in Russia are interested in joining the Order»

— A question that I cannot but ask: how does one become a Knight of the Order of Malta?

— To do this, you must go through a certain procedure. First of all, you need to be Catholic. I often have to explain this to the Russians who ask these questions. And besides, one must be a person of decent behavior. You should lead a normal, modest lifestyle and have people among your friends who can confirm that you are a good person. These, for example, can be Catholic priests or bishops. If these conditions are met, your request will be considered, but it will take some time.

— Are there any Russians among the Knights of the Order?

— I received a lot of requests in Russia. Many are interested in joining the Order. Often I had to answer that we did not consider requests from people of the Orthodox faith but only from Catholics. As far as I know, there are only two Knights of the Order of Malta in Russia, well, three, if you count me. One of them is the new Ambassador. And the second is an Englishman. I personally do not know the Russians who are the Knights of the Order.

— What vows do the Knights take?

— There are three classes in the order. The first class is the knights who made a religious profession. They make three vows — poverty, chastity, and obedience. The knights of the second class, to which I belong, give only two vows — poverty and obedience because we are married and have children. I can take a vow of chastity and become a Knight who made a religious profession if I become a widower. The Grand Master should belong to the first class and give three vows. But this is mandatory only for the highest position in the Order like the Grand Master.

— Can women join the Order?

— Yes, they can since the end of World War II. We call them Dames of Malta. They can belong to the second or to the third class.

— And what was your path to the Knighthood?

— When I was finishing my term as the Italian Ambassador the Apostolic Nunciature to Russia (the diplomatic mission of the Holy See in the Russian Federation — asked me if I would be interested in becoming the Ambassador of the Order of Malta in Russia. Its Ambassador was just about to leave at that time. I thought this opportunity over and said: why not. It was the time for me to retire, I left the Italian diplomatic service. And I liked Russia ... To put it more precise, I loved it very much, so I agreed. And that's how I became a Knight because I was not a member of the Order before. I have conferred knighthood after two years of serving as an Ambassador. This is not a typical case. Usually, the process takes longer, about five years. But in my case, perhaps because of age, they decided to speed it up.

— Well, I wish you and your Order a long life. It will celebrate a millennial birthday in 80 years!

— I definitely won’t be there to celebrate but I hope that you will (laughs).