THE KNIGHTS OF THE CROSS – BETWEEN A LEGEND AND THE REALITY
Włodziemierz Rędzioch talks with Bishop Bruno Platter – a great master of the Teutonic order
Who in Poland has not heard about Knights of the Cross! Most Poles got knowledge about this order of knights from pages of the novel by Sienkiewicz. But neither literary fiction nor a look featured with nationalist or communist ideology favoured an objective evaluation of the role which was played by the Order of the Hospital of Blessed Mary the Virgin of the German House in Jerusalem.
WŁODZIMIERZ RĘDZIOCH: - Not everybody knows that the history of the Teutonic Order had begun much earlier than it appeared on Polish lands to the invitation of Konrad Mazowiecki in 1228 and that it is one of three biggest Orders of Knights of Cross – beside the Joannites , that is, the Malta Cavaliers and the Templars – established on the Holy Land during crusades of the Knights of Cross in XII century. Could Great Master remind the beginnings of his Order?
BISHOP BRUNO PLATTER: - The Teutonic Order was established in 1190 by participants of the Third crusade, townspeople from Northern Germany, from Brema and Lubecki, who established a field hospital in order to take care of wounded and ill knights of cross. The starting point was social activity – giving selfless help to those in need as a spontaneous act of Christian support. This is the beginning in fact. Hence there is the name: Order of Hospital of Blessed Mary the Virgin of the German House in Jerusalem. About half a year later pope Clemens III acknowledged the community officially as an Order – it was exactly on 6 February 1191. The Order of Knights of Cross began spread very quickly. First it functioned in the Holy Land, aimed at defending holy places and Christian faith. However, it quickly spread all over Europe, first of all in the area of the Mediterranean Sea and on German areas, and from 1230 – in the later Prussian country.
– Knights of Cross do not have a good fame in our country. They are perceived as longtime enemies of Poland.
– It is a classical example in Poland, but I noticed positive changes. Thanks to thorough scientific studies carried out in the last years, one starts perceive our Order more and more objectively. One cannot omit a fact that this negative image of bad Teutonic order was shown to Poles for tens of years, but, in fact, it was rather connected with a new trend of nationalism, which appeared in XIX century, and then, particularly in XX century, with development of communism and nationalistic movements. It is hard to deny that in the Middle Ages there were serious conflicts (for example, Grunwald) but there was not hostility which would last for centuries. And now, thanks to God, from the time of the political breakthrough, nobody has a need to base on ideologies. I appreciate it and I am grateful to Polish historians and theologians who undertook thorough studies on the spiritual dimension of the Teutonic Order.
And there is one fact which is not known to everybody. In XVI century, when there was secularization of the Order, there were friendly relations with Poland. Here, on the wall there is a portrait of the great master Clemens August Witelsbach, a grandson of king Jan Sobieski (son of Sobieski’s daughter – Teresa Kunegunda). Another example can be a Vienna succor during which also knights of our Order were fighting with Jan III Sobieski.
Today I am very grateful to Poland, Polish society, that in particular way it cultivates the heritage of the Order, for effort, also the financial one, put into maintaining castles and also for thorough academic studies on the history of the Order.
– What image of the Order of knights of Cross emerges out of academic studies?
– The activity of the Order is characterized by four elements. The first dimension is a religious aspect. The Teutonic Order was and remains in its essence a religious community (even if, for example, on areas of today’s northern Poland it used to be a political power). It has always been a community of monks, paying vows. Certainly, it has also been a pastoral Order. In many parishes we celebrate the jubilee of 800 years of the Order existence. For example, in my home place – in Southern Tyrol, in Bolzano in Italy, priests from the Teutonic Order, were conducting pastoral ministry for 800 years, always being close to people and serving them.
Another significant and characteristic element of the Order is its original charisma - charity activity, running medical centres and health care centres, beginning with hospices ( in the initial phase of activity), till institutions of the modern times: care houses for the elderly and ill, hospitals, centres for the disabled, places for the addicted and recently also for the refugees. This charity aspect is continuously seen in our activity for all centuries.
The third element – and here we are also partly moving to Poland – are cultural achievements, that is, castles of the Teutonic Order, from which the most important one is, certainly, Malbork, inscribed in the List of the World Culture Heritage. Besides that a lot of palaces, churches, wing altars in Germany and many other countries. One should also mention educational and didactic activity – in Latin schools in the Middle Aged districts on the area of former Prussia, but also in Germany, Austria and other provinces which gave the beginning to a long educational tradition lasting till today. There are a few examples: Musical Conservatory in the Czech Republic, junior-high schools and dormitories for children and the youth run by us in our provinces. This is just this significant cultural component.
The fourth component is a social-political dimension. The Second Vatican Council formulated it as apostolate in the world. In fact this is willingness of creating the society according to Christian criteria. It was so in the Middle Ages in the country of the Teutonic Order, later in Austria in defence from the Turkish threat and this is so among secular members of the Order: willingness of realizing basic Christian rules in professional life.
– What significance for the Order has Malbork got?
– Certainly, it has got an unusual significance – even in our Order rules in the Introduction, two symbols are mentioned, which characterize it in a particular way. On the one hand, it is Malbork, on the other – Marburg, a German city in Hesja; it represents St. Elizabeth who is an example of Caritas, a social engagement, love to the neighbor (Ellizabeth from Turyngia, called the Hungarian, when she became a widow, she settled here and founded a hospital for the poor. She died in 1231, a four years later she was proclaimed a saint by pope Gregory IX. In the same year, the Teutonic Order began building a church on her grave which became a place of pilgrimages). Whereas Malbork symbolizes willingness of forming the society and building a country in the spirit of Christ, willingness of bringing Christian rules into the social life. In this respect Malbork is an important symbol for the Order.
– What feelings has the Great Master got when travelling for ceremonies in Malbork, connected with conservatory works in the castle church of Blessed Mary the Virgin?
– I am very happy that a decision was made about conservatory works in the church, that gothic vaults were rebuilt, which returned the insides its range. After all the church of Blessed Mary the Virgin in Malbork is the central point on Mary’s land. What particularly brings me happiness is also the reconstruction of an excellent mosaic figure of Madonna with her Baby on the façade of the church, thanks to efforts of Foundation Mater Dei and many other donors. I could express it in the following way: Malbork is getting back its heart! Therefore I am glad that also I participate in ceremonies connected with opening this church and celebrate the Holy Mass in it again in the atmosphere of great mutual understanding and respect/
Translated from German by Joanna łukaszuk-Ritter