By SUE NOWICKI
last updated: May 24, 2008 03:31:18 AM
The Order of Malta is the common name for The Federal Association of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. It is a lay religious order of the Catholic Church, founded in 1099. According to its Web site (www.smom.org), there are about 12,500 Knights and Dames of Malta worldwide. To become a member, applicants:
* Must be Catholic lay men or women in good standing with the church
* Must be at least 25 years old
* Should be regarded as leaders in their fields and in the community
Must have a record of service to the Catholic Church and hands-on volunteer service to the poor
* Must be sponsored by two members of the knighthood
* Must participate in a year of formation, which includes meetings and volunteer activities
* Must pay an initiation fee of $3,500, part of which goes toward international relief programs
In "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," in order to save his father (Sean Connery) from a gunshot wound, the title character (Harrison Ford) must choose the correct chalice used by Jesus Christ on the eve of his crucifixion.
The task is challenging because many potential Holy Grails rest in a chamber guarded for centuries by a medieval knight.
Knights in the Middle Ages served in a variety of roles -- as military support to kings, lords and religious leaders -- and as defenders of their faith.
Usually sons of aristocrats, the future knights were sent to other families at about age 8 to be raised without a lenient parent to spoil them. In their midteens, the boys became squires, assisting other knights, before attaining knighthood in early adulthood.
Although there are no knights in shining armor sitting around King Arthur's round table today, knights remain active in the Catholic Church. The Knights of Columbus, for instance, were founded 125 years ago and exist in many parishes to help raise funds for needy individuals and families.
Less well known are the Knights of Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and the Knights of Malta, which trace their lineage back to the 11th and 12th centuries. They were established to protect people making pilgrimages to Jerusalem and to care for the sick and handicapped.
Ham Shirvani, president of California State University, Stanislaus, is a modern-day knight. He's a member of the Holy Sepulchre group and a provisional knight for the Malta fellowship. He carries no sword and rides no steed, but his mission otherwise is much unchanged from those performed centuries ago.
"Obviously, there are no military components to the order anymore. The
promotion of the faith is not by the sword," said Monsignor Jim Kidder, pastor of the Holy Trinity parish in El Dorado Hills and chaplain to the two orders in the Sacramento diocese. "The mission hasn't changed. From the beginning, it was taking care of the sick and nurturing and promoting the faith."...
There aren't many knights from the two orders in the area, he added -- about 25 in the Sacramento diocese, which numbers roughly 600,000 Catholics. No one is quite sure how many exist in the Stockton diocese, which has about half that many Catholics on its rolls.
"I haven't met anyone yet from Stanislaus County," Shirvani said. "Most of the activities are in San Francisco or Palo Alto. But I've heard there are people in Stockton and Fresno. I'll be interested to meet them."
As part of his provisional training, Shirvani traveled last month to Lourdes, France, where he helped people with physical and mental ailments get to various sites for healing. Following the claims that Jesus' mother, Mary, appeared to a peasant girl and others in 1858, Lourdes has become a major place of Catholic pilgrimage and reported divine healings.
"It's all about spirituality and service. I was sometimes pulling, sometimes pushing. It's an incredible experience. While you are there in that holy place, you are also serving.
Shirvani's journey to knighthood began when he was a boy. Born in Tehran, Iran, in 1950, to a Catholic family, his early education was in Catholic schools.
Like knights centuries earlier, Shirvani was sent from his home at age 11. His parents sent him to a Catholic boarding school in London.
"My parents debated. My mother wanted to send me to Dublin; my father was more concerned about the educational system. I went to Saint Augustine Academy in London from age 11 until
"I truly enjoyed it. The first three months were hell, because you're in a completely new environment. Although we were taught French and English, we still had language problems. And then, of course, there were no parents (to nurture you). But after six months, I was as happy a camper as you could get. There were wonderful Irish nuns there who acted as a second mother. It was a small school and a wonderful environment. There was a lot to learn, and I gained a lot of support."
Shirvani said he's always had a strong faith. "I do believe strongly in the Lord," he said. "It's mostly spiritual within yourself. My brother is not like that, and we grew up in the same family.
"Being faithful is a very important aspect of daily life. The Lord said it beautifully: 'I am with you.' What he means is that 'I'm inside you; I'm also in infinity -- out there.' To me, the spirit connects the soul to the body, so if you are faithful, it helps you get a strength and make your contributions and be committed to your work.
That attitude led to his 2007 award by the statewide CSU student organization as president of the year. It's also what led him to become a knight....
Shirvani is aware that knights are linked to the Crusades, which today are often viewed as a time of murder and religious intolerance, especially against Islam.
"Religion has been abused by power-hungry people," he said. "You cannot punish the religion or lose your faith because of it."
As a secular college president, Shirvani has been criticized for his religious views. In 2007, he wrote an opinion piece on spirituality and college students for The Bee and concluded,
He said he received quick negative responses from "a couple" of CSUS professors. He also was dinged by a Bee letter writer who questioned the use of the CSUS campus to host a Christian event last summer, the Greg Laurie Harvest Crusade.
For him, that includes knighthood, which combines financial donations and hands-on work.
Shirvani said he enjoys the work.
As a provisional Knight of Malta -- he expects to become a full knight within the next year -- Shirvani has financial obligations as well as meetings and work.
When he's not running the university or spending time as a knight, Shirvani can be found with Fathmeh, his wife of nearly six years, in the home he designed -- he holds degrees in architecture, urban planning and landscape architecture, as well as a master's of science degree. He and his wife both enjoy cooking, Shirvani said.
A member of Sacred Heart parish in Turlock, he attended St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Modesto when he first moved to the area, and said he "can't wait" for the new St. Stanislaus church on Maze Boulevard to open later this year.
"Architecturally, it's really magnificent," he said.