On the road to reconciliation
Fr Michael Foster talks to DR FRANCIS CACHIA on valuable historical research leading to reconciliation
|HISTORICAL RESEARCH should
lead us along the road to reconciliation, not up the warpath. It seems better
to bury hatchet and make peace than to flourish it triumphantly at the risk
of causing conflict.
However, scholars intent on establishing the truth contend that research should be uninhibited and its results freely revealed, no matter the consequences. It is the spirit with which facts are discovered and diffused as well as how they are received, not the facts themselves, that can further concord or foment discord.
I read with interest that the Chancellor of the British Priory of the Sovereign Order of the Orthodox Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem. Fr Michael Foster, had completed "a book on the origin and continued validity and legitimacy of the Orthodox Grand Priory of Russia instituted by Emperor Paul I of Russia".
My immediate reaction was to wonder whether the publication of this new book, revealing the results of valuable research on a very sensitive matter, would be positively received. I asked myself: Could it lead to a rapprochement between the Catholic Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta (SMOM) and the Orthodox Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem?
Since 1963 the SMOM has maintained relations with an alliance of non-Catholic orders and commanderies of St John, including the German Johanniterorden and the British Grand Priory of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem; founded in 1888 by Queen Victoria.
Cannot the Orthodox Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem join this alliance? This was the question uppermost in my mind when I interviewed Fr Foster about the results of his scholarly work. This development would surely by very much in the ecumenical spirit of our times, fostered not least of all by Pope John Paul II, as evidenced by his recent apostolic journeys, including his unforgettable two-day stay among us in Malta.
Fr. Michael, I understand that you have conducted some specialised research on the difficult period the Order of St John went through after Grand Master Hompesch was expelled from Malta by Napoleon Bonaparte. Can you tell us something about the conclusions you have drawn from this research?
There is a Chinese curse;
"May you live in interesting times" and certainly the end of the 18th and
beginning of the 19th centuries was an interesting time. The French Revolution
was being exported, and the Order was in its dying days in Malta, and almost
begging to be put out of its misery. There was moral laxity and with the
loss of the French Commanderies a severe loss of income - besides the Christian
nations' accommodation with Turkey - the Order had lost its purpose.
are the historic facts:
In comparison to that Decision of 1817 are the existence of records of
permissions by the emperors to allow Orthodox Christians to wear the Order
who were not members of the Roman Catholic Order, dating 1867, 1889, 1912.
There will be others. Also anyone examining collections of Russian Portraits
painted in the period post 1817 (i.e. after the alleged statement that no-one
could were the decoration - and not just Roman Catholic members!) will be
surprised at the large number of nobles wearing the Order's
8. The listing of Russian members in the Court Almanacs right up until 1914. With a listing in 1914 specifically using the term "Hereditary Commander".
9. In 1907, Grand Duke Nicolas Mikhailovitch published a book on Russian Portraits in which he includes a biography of Prince Tufiakine - created from the State Documents. It is reported (I quote from my records) that "Prince Tufiakine emigrated abroad, where he passed the rest of his life. In 1841, he was stripped of his functions of Actual Chamberlain, and of his dignities of Master of the Court and of Commander of the Order of Malta. He spent his last years in Paris, where he died on 19 February 1845."
(i) In terms of the Order of Malta if it is a Roman Catholic Order member then the Russian State cannot strip him of that dignity.
(ii) if the Order in Russian was suppressed in 1810/1811/1817 - then the Russian State cannot strip him of that dignity - it has already been done! We are forced to conclude that a legal responsibility was continued by the State for the Russian Order in 1841. Nicolas Mikhailovitch in his books also provides biographies on a number of the other original Family Commanders.
10. We know that the Orthodox Church was involved in the Order. The Metropolitan Bishops for St. Petersburg were members of the Russian Grand Priory. Other clergy were members. Feasts of the Order were celebrated within Orthodoxy, and were found in the official Service books up to the Revolution in 1917.
11. In 1928, 12 Russian exiles, hereditary commanders (every one who could at that time be traced, except a thirteenth who joined in 1929) met in Paris to proclaim the continuation of the Russian Grand Priory, including the member listed in the Court Almanac of 1914.
12. After contacting Grand Duke Cyril, a Danish group was given contact with Grand Duke Andrew who had responsibility for the Russian Grand Priory. From this a Danish Priory was created in 1939.
13. If the issue of the survival of the Russian tradition was being tested in the Courts - expert witnesses would be called. Whilst there is no shortage of non Russians to pronounce on the survival of the Russian tradition, or as it often is alleged - its suppression, the expert witness is Russian-born Baron Michael de Taube. He was Professor of Law at St Petersburg University before the Revolution, was a member of the Council of the Empire, a Russian Senator and first advisor to the Foreign Office under Emperor Nicholas II.
In 1929 he became the legal advisor to the Paris group of Hereditary Commanders. His legal opinion has been recorded in his book (in French) Emperor Paul I and his Russian Grand Priory, published in Paris in 1955. He states the Russian Grand Priory continued legally.
14. In 1973 a group of hereditary commanders met at the home of one of the members of the 1928 group in New York to add to the Paris initiative a priory in New York. This became the basis for the headquarters in 1977 following the death of all the leading members of the Paris Group (most hereditary commanders were to be found in the USA by then).
From all of these points, any reasonable scholar is forced to conclude a Russian tradition of the Order has survived to this day! Those within the tradition claim they are continuing, the Russian Grand Priory of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.
The full story of the survival of the Russian tradition has not been told.
What has got in the way, is (a) those who wish to discount the survival (using some form of suppressionist theory) and (b) the many mimic "Russian Orders" originating in the USA from a group led by a Charles Pichel 1953 onwards, who supplied a pre-history to his group, dating the beginnings to 1908 and crediting the beginnings to Russian hereditary commanders.
There is more than enough material on the Internet to discount Pichel's theory, rather than deal with it in this interview. But my aim is to tell the story fully in a book, hopefully later this year, or early next year. In this book I deal with those issues which get in the way, and to tell the full story. I also touch upon the main organisation, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and its allies, plus the mimic "Orders" ending with a plea, for a re-assessment of the historical place of the Russian Order.
You are Chancellor of the Priory of the British Isles of the Sovereign Order of Orthodox Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem. Do you consider it a separate Order from the Sovereign Military Order of Malta or a separate branch? Also, given your membership of an Order, how independent can your research be?
I have already touched upon the survival of the Russian tradition of St John. The headquarters are in New York. For an Order which claims to be Russian, the day to day leadership is of Russian Nobles Count Nicholas Bobrinskoy is the Grand Prior. I am secretary to the British branch. Again membership includes those of Russian hereditary commander's families, who are entitled to join by virtue of the rules on 1799. Some may question how we are an "Order", when there is the "Sovereign Military Order of Malta" (SMOM) who consider themselves to be the only survivors of the ancient medieval Order.
While some may consider the
British Royal Order as part of the Order, and the Johanniterorden,
from what I have read, thw SMOM accept them on the basis that the former
is a Royal Order (it is not a British State Order), and the latter has state
|Although the fiscal relationship was broken in 1810/1811, since
1809 the Russian Grand Priory has never had its own Grand Master, but has
always acknowledge the Grand Magistracy of Rome - a fact which separates
it from the many mimic "Russian Orders".
The present name, which introduced the question, was one, forced on the Order, when registering a corporate status in the USA in 1977. Sadly the many mimic Orders had taken the proper title, or variations of it.
As to independence of research - of course I come to the matter from a specific point of view. In the book I am writing, I warn people about that, and ask them to make an allowance. Both writings critical of the Russian tradition and apologising for it share one thing in common - they come from certain viewpoints. However the book is fully annotated, and makes reference to documentary evidence, which can be followed up by the reader. Some of the items are already on the Internet "www.knights-of-st-john.co.uk".
The Jesuit Order, which was suppressed in Catholic countries by a papal decree, was saved from extinction, ironically enough, by Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia. Did something similar happen in the case of the Knights of Malta?
observation about the Jesuits does have some bearing on our subject. In his
Political Testament of 1752, Frederick the Great made it clear that he considered
religion as superstition and would not declare himself for one religion or
another. In that Testament he positively he discouraged all religious
persecution, valuing all people irrespective of their beliefs.
In my book Preservation and Progress, A Tale of Two Towns: Kaster and Bedburg ISBN: 99909 41-22-x (Pietà, Malta, 1995), I tell a story of how civil and religious strife between Catholics and Protestants was appeased through a farsighted plan for unity proposed by Knights in Malta, This anticipated and reflected the cordial relationship that exists between the Johanniter and the Malteser, the Catholic and the Protestant Knights of St John, SMOM and the "Alliance Order". Cannot a similar arrangement be negotiated between SMOM and the Orthodox Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem?
there was a long gestation period before the present situation was reached.
The SMOM in the post-war period sought the possibility of becoming trustees
of the holy sites in Jerusalem. Any support was valuable. The British Royal
Order, until then distanced from the SMOM, also welcomed, and perhaps sought,
some form of recognition.
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