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Malta, 1775: The Twilight of the Knights

Monsignor Giovanni, absorbed by political quarrels, had completely forgotten that he had set an appointment with that new presbyter just arrived from Sicily, who was to take up service within a few days. Cursing Ximenez’s stupidity that distracted him from his institutional duties, he immediately put the letter he was writing under the desk pad and asked don Lawrenz to let the newcomer in.
He expected to meet a young Sicilian priest who had just been dismissed from the seminary of Palermo. On the contrary, don Lawrenz let in a man of about fifty, dark-skinned and with a face heavily marked by the sun, who greeted him with a “Bonġu Monsinjur!” which indicated an evident local origin.
Trying not to reveal his surprise too much, Monsignor Giovanni returned the greeting in Maltese and, immediately switching to Italian, with which he felt much more comfortable, he made the newcomer sit on one of the two chairs in front of his desk.
«Dear don Gaetano, I will not hide the fact that I imagined you to be completely different…», the Bishop began, smiling.
The other returned the smile placidly, replying: «Yes, I can imagine it!»
«Tell me about yourselves: I guess this is not your first appointment…», the high prelate continued.
«Actually, somehow it is, Monsignor. As for me, it is easy to say. I am, as you can clearly observe, the fruit of a belated vocation. I was born in the village of Ix-Xemxija, facing San Pawl Bay, fifty-one years ago. My father, from a family originally from Licata, in Sicily, was a wholesale fish trader and a small landowner, and I had the opportunity to study at Kulleġġ San Antonio until I entered the family business at the age of sixteen. I worked there for the next eighteen years, directing it after my father’s death in 1754. Since I was a boy, however, I felt that was not my place. So, two years after my father Giuseppe had passed away, I gave my position in the direction of our business to my younger brother Luca, moved to Sicily and entered the seminary in Palermo, from which I left ten years later. Since then, I have been sent as coadjutor to various parishes of the Madonie Mountains and, a month ago, I was allowed to return home being entrusted with a parish in the diocese of your Excellence».
«I understand», agreed Monsignor Pellerano. «Yours is a singular story. But, tell me, what brought you to the priestly life?»
«The fishermen, Monsignor!», the Maltese clergyman promptly replied.
«The fishermen? What do you mean?», Pellerano asked curiously.
«Yes, Monsignor, the fishermen who came to sell us the fish that we then had to transfer to the markets. They were all poor people, destroyed by the fatigue of nights spent at sea on their coloured “luzzi”, as large as walnut shells, but they had a dignity and a faith that I have rarely encountered in the so-called “upper classes”. It is that dignity and that faith which convinced me of the greatness of the Gospel message of preference for the least and which made me choose to dedicate my life precisely to those “least” despised by everybody!»

Pellerano got very impressed by that answer. He could not help but think about how, curiously, the path of his life and the one of that priest, too old to have any chance of an ecclesiastical career but so convinced of his choice, though being, in many ways, diametrically opposed, managed, at a certain point, to converge. He had entered the Church to escape poverty, and only later he had understood the meaning of love for the most disinherited. In contrast, that man had knowingly decided to take his steps on the path of that love, and that love had brought him to the Church. Perhaps, he reflected, this was the strength of the Divine call: it grasped each one differently and then led each one to the same undisputed truth.
«Do you already know the parish assigned to you?», the prelate changed the subject so as not to be carried away by his cogitations.
«Of course, Your Excellency! This is a small island: in one way or another, each community ends up knowing all the others. I have some friends in Floriana and, in any case, it will be a pleasure for me to finally have the possibility to speak my language with my parishioners!», don Mannarino replied enthusiastically.
«Then I just have to wish you good work and urge you to contact me in case of any need!», recommended the Bishop, getting up to signal to his priest that the interview was over.
Don Gaetano was already almost at the door when Giovanni thought of one last thing: «Oh, I forgot to ask you… What do you think of the Order of St. John that governs the island?» Mannarino turned with a sly smile. «May I speak freely despite you are wearing the octagonal cross, Your Excellency?», asked the priest.
«Sure!», the Bishop conceded. «I am a shepherd of souls before being a Knight!»
«Then I’ll answer you with a question: do you know the history of the island?»
«Yes, of course!»
«Well, then review all the occupants that followed one another: Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese… Did anyone ever come here for the good of the Maltese?»
«Honestly, I would say no…»
«And why should it be any different with the Knights?»

Passage from Chapter IV

Title: Malta 1775: the twilight of the Knights
Author: Lawrence MF Sudbury
Publisher: AMAZON KDP
Genre: Historical novel
Number of pages: 216. Date of release: May 21, 2021
Format: paperback and e-book
ISBN: 979-8503572001
Price: $ 18 [£ 12.69 – € 15,32] (paper) – $ 5.03 [£ 3.56 – € 4,14] (ebook) Purchase link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B095DV9NV2

Synopsis of “MALTA 1775: THE TWILIGHT OF THE KNIGHTS”

Fra’ Bartolomeo Ruspoli di Cerveteri is a young Knight of Malta descendant of one of the most influential families of the Roman nobility.
Since he was a boy, he has been an idealist dreaming of living an adventurous life, far from the comforts he seems destined for. This is what has led him to join the Order of the Hospitallers of St. John.
After his training in Rome, he has been assigned to practice among the “conventuals” in Malta and here he seems to have found what he was looking for: although realizing that his Order is no longer what it used to be and that, in the changed historical and cultural conditions of Europe, careerism and laxity have often taken the place of the heroic virtues of the past, Bartolomeo leads a satisfying life as the commander of his ship, the “Levriero”, which his father has given him to facilitate his career and which has been annexed to the Melitense fleet and has become a member of the Guard of Honor of the now elderly but powerful Grand Master Manuel Pinto.
During his early years in Malta, Bartolomeo has also developed a fraternal friendship with two confreres of the same age, belonging to the Langue d’Anglaterre et Alemagne: the English fra’ Henry of Norfolk, remarkably disillusioned and pessimistic about the fate of the Order, and the Bavarian fra’ Franz Von Hohenlohe, enthusiastic and joyful. Unfortunately, one evening, while he is getting back to the Auberge d’Italie from a village party, the Roman Knight accidentally sees something he should not have seen: the respected and feared fra’ Yves de Compigny is leaving the house of Lucia Zoratto, a well-known Venetian prostitute, famous throughout the island. Fra ‘Yves is aide-de-camp and great friend of the Grand Marshal Emmanuel Rohan-Polduc, one of the most influential men on the island, indicated by many as the future Grand Master. Although Bartolomeo is inclined to turn a blind eye to the probable breaking of the oaths of the brethren, actually a very common practise among the Knights, he can’t do it as fra’ Yves at that moment should have been in command of the garrison of Forte Sant’Elmo and, therefore, has carried out a severe act of desertion.
Although intimately torn, Bartolomeo, driven by a sense of chivalrous honour, decides to report the incident to the “Balì” of Malta, but the latter, an old Castilian brethren at the end of his career, citing pretexts and not wanting to antagonize Rohan-Polduc, passes the case to the Grand Marshal.
Rohan-Polduc, unlike what Bartolomeo might have thought, meeting the Roman Knight does not try to dissuade him from filing the complaint but, on the contrary, brings the case in front of the Grand Council, the supreme body of the Order, made up of all the most important governmental officers and chaired by Grand Master Pinto. However, when the session of the Grand Council is held, things do not go as Bartolomeo had imagined: not only fra’ Yves and Lucia Zoratto deny any wrongdoing but a witness, a very young French Knight, affirms that fra’ Yves never left the guard post. Compigny is, therefore, acquitted while Bartolomeo, guilty of having made false accusations against a

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