From......... National Catholic Reporter

August 23, 1996 page 5


By DICK RYAN Special to the National Catholic Rbporter

William J. Flynn is no stranger to pomp and circumstance. Last year the Irish-American business leader led the St. Patrick's Day parade up Manhattan's Ffflh Avenue as grand marshal.

Since January Flynn has headed another group known for its ceremonial flourish the American Association of the Order of Malta. But that's an image he wants to change.

Flynn, who succeeds J. Peter Grace as president of the Knights of Malta, retired in 1994 as chief executive officer of the Mutual of America Life Insurance Co. and continues as its board chairman.

To many American Catholics, the Knights of Malta are considered an elitist club, taken with its tradition. Officially called the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, the order dates to 1070, making it the oldest religious order of chivalry in Christendom. A sovereign entity, subject of international law, the order began as a hospice infirmary for pilgrims in Jerusalem. Forced from the Holy Land by Muslims, the knights moved to Cyprus in 1291. Nineteen years later, they acquired the Aegean Island of Rhodes, occupied it for 200 years and became an international naval power during the Crusades.

No wonder, said Flynn, that "the public perception often seems to be that the Knights of Malta are too caught up with ritual and paraphernalia."

"Even a few of our own members seem to have the misconception that membership is really a reward for achievement in the business or professional world, or for generosity to the Catholic church and charities," Flynn said recently in his office on Park Avenue. " And that perception has to change.

"The fact of the matter is that service of the poor and protection of the faith have been two basic foundations of the knights from the very beginning. And there can be no other focus or direction and no more crucial emphasis, especially today."

Flynn has never been one to do things halfway. A few years ago, a couple of ardent Irishmen scolded him for lack of attention to violence in Northern Ireland. He became a major player in peace talks. As chairman of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, he commutes back and forth to Ireland almost as frequently as to his Garden City, N.Y., home.

"In all the positions I've held, in business and with different boards," Flynn said, "the only measurement of success I've ever used has been the effort and ability to really make a difference."

In his new position, Flynn wants to build the knights' membership of 1,800 by enlisting blacks and more women and people who are not necessarily business leaders, people who are known for service to the poor. "People are going to know the Knights of Malta for what we give and what we offer," he said.

If there is a black knight, Flynn hasn't met him. Women, known as Dames of Malta, are only 5 percent of the membership. Still, joining the knights is unlikely to become a routine affair. Membership is by invitation. Annual dues are $1,000, and bylaws list long-standing membership requirements. Candidates must be committed to church teaching, for example, and be sincerely interested in growing spiritually while helping the poor.

Flynn has two other goals: revising the order's mission statement by adding a specific focus on respect for life, and working more closely with American bishops.

In June, Flynn invited Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston to speak to the board about his role as bishops' committee chairman for pro-life issues. With the board's unanimous approval, Flynn committed a $250,000 grant to the cardinal.

Flynn also wants to restructure the board, having 24 members rotate by electing eight new members each year. Presently board members serve indefinitely.

The grand master of the knights, overseeing the worldwide organization, is based in Rome. In the United States, besides the association that Flynn heads, two smaller independent groups have formed: a Western Association based in San Francisco and a Federal Association based in Washington.