One may often read in the local media that “this Ambassador” of this powerful country puts down “this other one”, “that Ambassador” of another powerful country, “pushes that other one”. For one Ambassador one may hear that he is here to get the hand of St. John the Baptist and the Icon of Lady of Philerme… that Ambassador, Alberto di Luca, a representative of the Knights of Malta, has let us follow him for a few days and find out the truth about his work. The only thing he got was children’s smiles …
Writes Branka Mitrovic
Photos Nebojša mandić
Belgrade’s asphalt slowly began to melt. The scale was racing, officially, to the thirty fifth degree while a little group was preparing for a trip. Only one man was not wiping the sweat from his forehead. Although he was wearing a suit, hints showed he was agile, a real athletic type. He cheerfully chatted while the Electrocardiogram, glucometers and hair trimmers were put in the car – it was all finally good to go. Destination – the monastery of St. Petka in Izvor. The Nuns and caretakers at the home for children and youth with disabilities are finally receiving the long coveted humanitarian aid.
When I officially met the team leader, I had to smile. Yes, he was a sportsman, Italian President Francesco Cossiga once awarded him for his outstanding results achieved as a motorcycle driver, speedboat driver, sportsman … graduated in political science in Milan, he became a successful businessman. Today, he is the Ambassador of the Sovereign Order of Malta in Serbia, better known as the Hospitaller Knights, Knights of Malta, Knights of Rhodes, Cavaliers of Malta.
Who is Alberto di Luca and what is he doing here? What is he doing among the Knights of Malta, that take their origin before the first Crusade, when they received permission to found a hospital in Jerusalem to help the sick and poor pilgrims of all faiths. Officially, the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta has Embassies in 120 countries, and a permanent mission to the UN, explains Ambassador Di Luca.
“The Order has 13,500 male and female members (professed knights and the knights and ladies of grace, of honor and obedience), 80,000 volunteers and 25,000 associates among doctors and nurses in more than 200 hospitals around the world.” They say that among them is our Zoran Stanković, the famous pathologist. Also, the agreement on cooperation and delivery of humanitarian aid to Serbia was signed in late 2013. Since then Ambassador Alberto di Luca almost didn’t stop…
Diplomatic relations between the Order of Malta and Serbia were actually established in the mid-19th century. During the war in 1885 between the Kingdom of Serbia and the Principality of Bulgaria, the Order of Malta has donated to Serbian Railways a hospital train of 10 wagons, which operated on the route Belgrade-Niš. But with the arrival of Communists to power in Yugoslavia after the Second World War, diplomatic relations were interrupted. They were again renewed on May first 2001, when Serbia and Montenegro were still a common state, to definitely be confirmed by Belgrade in 2003. To “godparent” was professor, writer and playwright Nenad Prokić, the first president of the Friendship Group with Order of Malta in the Serbian parliament. The Prince and Grand Master of the Sovereign Order, Fra’ Matthew Festing awarded Prokić with the knightly Pro Merito Militense Cross of Grand Officer of the Sovereign Order of Malta on June 15th, 2012. As of October 2014, he holds the position of advisor for Humanitarian Issues at the Embassy of the Order to the Republic of Serbia.
Following each step
How much are we actually slaves of stereotypes and clichés? Is this, how it’s said all over the world, the oldest NGO only politically influential, a lobbying firm close to the Vatican or is it something else? Are they in this region on a secret mission: preparing to steal the hand of St. John the Baptist and the icon of Lady of Philerme and crush anyone who stands in their way, according to the strongest defenders of Orthodoxy?
“Nor are we a secret organization, nor do we have hidden intentions,” the Ambassador convinces me. That it is that way so is convinced the Serbian Patriarch Irinej, who has awarded His Excellency, on the final celebration of the Edict of Milan in Nis, with the High honor of “Holy Emperor Constantine” precisely because of the numerous humanitarian activities of Amb. di Luca and his team. The Order of Malta has already participated in the project of humanitarian aid to handicapped children in Priboj, as well as in the training project for organ transplants.
What are they doing this summer; I personally wanted to find out. I followed the Ambassador for days. Literally: from breakfast to late evening hours. Kind, smiling, he didn’t complain, and the playwright Prokić enjoyed this kind of plot.
To the Knights of Malta, as I understood from numerous conversations with Amb. Di Luca, it is important to be recognized as part of the modern world, and not classified as anachronistic remnants. With the 1998 “Constitution” began a number of changes: the relations with the Holy See were revised towards full legal autonomy, the Grand Master is no longer appointed by the Pope. Although, and it should be said, the spiritual connection of the Order of Malta and the Roman Catholic Church is unbreakable, this order has adapted it’s organizational structure to be more than Sovereign for the sake of strong diplomatic activities. Women are allowed to become members, and milder criteria are introduced for the recognition of aristocratic origin. The dominance of the Roman headquarters was also reinforced, where the Grand Master resides, that coordinates over forty national associations. Today, the budget of this Country without a territory is fulfilled by its members, private donations and legacies, and the coordination helped more funds to go to Serbia.
The opening of the Embassy in Serbia, whatever people thought about it, opened another channel of communication with the official Belgrade and that part of the world, which, can lobby “where necessary”.
Are they against orthodoxy? Many are convinced.
“Of course we’re not. Spiritually we are closest. Catholics and Orthodox have the same base, same culture, and the same spiritual environment that allows dialogue. With your Patriarch I agree entirely when he says that we need to concentrate on what unites us rather than what divides us “, determined is the Ambassador.
Today the Knights of Malta accept in their Orders all Christians, but in America, for example, are more powerful Orders established by Orthodox, among them King Petar II and his brother Andrej. It is little known that the Queen Maria of Yugoslavia was a Dame of the Order of Malta St. John and during the First World War she worked as a nurse. Crown Prince Aleksandar Karadjordjevic was awarded with the Grand Cross with the Gold Star of the Order of Malta, their most important medal.
Humanity first of all
On the occasion of the National Day of the Sovereign Order of Malta, the Embassy to the Republic of Serbia presented itself, on June 22nd, once again as a great humanitarian, combining an evening of diplomacy, culture and help at the National Theatre with the opera “Rigoletto”, by Giuseppe Verdi, under the baton of Dejan Savic. Special guests of the evening were definitely one of the finest baritones on the planet – Alberto Gazale and soprano Elena Mosuc. The opera stars renounced to their honorariums in favor of the poor children in Serbia, and the public figures, politicians and diplomats paid their tickets 250 and 1,000 euros. The collected money will go to the support of the project “Make a WISH” and will be destined, for the umpteenth time, to children and youth with disabilities placed in the centers in Sremcica and in the mentioned monastery in Izvor. And wherever else it is needed. The Ambassador hopes that a part of the funds will remain for the project “A hot meal in a cold winter”, which last winter was organized in Sabac and Aleksinac for more than 3000 people. It became evident that a meal with a spoon is necessary during hot summer days as well.
A few days before the biggest cultural event of the season, which was attended on behalf of Serbia by the President of the National Assembly Maja Gojkovic, I see an associate from the institution in Sremcica who visited the Embassy of the Order of Malta. Thanks to the generosity of Giacomo Salemma, also a Knight of the Order from Como (Italy), a truck of new clothing for children arrived. The next thing that they should receive thanks to the engagement of Ambassador Di Luca is a 20 seat bus, which will enable the children to go on excursions and necessary doctor appointments … washing machines have already arrived from the Principality of Monaco.
The Embassy has, since March of this year (the same project “Make a WISH” was organized last year), received many letters of children, some of whom are asking for new and better clothes (underwear, pajamas, T-shirts), medical equipment. The children also begged for a mini-bus, which would enable them to move towards the school, to performances and matches and not always be forced to stay inside a building; individuals in Sremcica asked for bathroom renovations (currently in very poor condition), caretakers of the children asked for a new washer and dryer …
“A little over a month ago we received in our Embassy a request for an electrocardiogram by the Nuns from the monastery of St. Petka. Quick help materialized, as you saw, with the delivery of the needed medical equipment. In addition, products for personal and general hygiene have been delivered to.
“The next wish worked on is the donation of an ambulance,” says Di Luca and promises: “We will make sure that they receive the vehicle this summer!” And industrial washing and drying machines are arriving for the nuns. It will facilitate their work, especially to nun Glikerija, who spent a lifetime there.
“We have a few things left to resolve. You know, on all the humanitarian aid we have to pay customs taxes, which is done nowhere in the world.
But now a new government will be formed, and we believe that this problem will be solved”, is convinced the tireless Ambassador Alberto di Luca.
Enormous human tragedy and poverty painfully unites many countries in our “civilized” Europe, including Serbia with the Knights of Malta. Hence the assistance to migrants.
The Shelter for Children in Belgrade, in its almost 60 years of work has taken care of over 70,000 children, often victims of violence, abuse and neglect, also was not left without help.
Should one close its eyes to all of this and say: no, thank you, your help we do not need? To those who object I would recommend one thing: to look into the eyes of those troubled children. Many things will be clearer, because that look can’t be forgotten. The Knights of Malta for them are truly the Knights of children’s hearts!
And where is the hand
I do not claim to have discovered everything. I know that the saga of the Knights of Malta, in addition to being romanticized, is still and will be mystical. But members of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta today are really humanitarians, protectors of the poor, the disadvantaged and, as said by Ambassador Di Luca, dispersed on all continents of the world.
And what about the hand of John the Baptist?
The Romanov family received it in 1799, as well as the icon of Lady of Philerme and a piece of the Holy Cross. The largest Christian relics were kept in the Winter Palace, but after the October Revolution they arrived in Serbia. They were in possession of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which has donated the relic to King Aleksandar I Karadjordjevic, in gratitude for the hospitality of Russian immigrants. At the outbreak of World War II, the relics were moved to the monastery of Ostrog. Today the Lady of Philerme is kept in the National Museum in Cetinje, and the other relics in the treasury of the monastery in Cetinje. In Montenegro, they will remain. About that His Excellency, the Ambassador of the Order of Malta in Belgrade, Alberto di Luca does not worry. There he goes again to the nuns in Izvor, breaking down stereotypes and clichés…