You perhaps have never heard of this, but it's a country, a humanitarian organization and a religious order all-in-one.
Though currently undergoing a renewal process under the guidance of a pope-appointed envoy, the Knights of Malta has been around for more than a millennia, since 1099. Last week, the organization elected a new interim “grand master” — Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre — continuing the astonishingly long tradition of this group.
Here are 10 things to know about this order — one of the gems in the Church’s history of service of God and neighbor.
1) It is the world’s oldest surviving chivalric order
The Sovereign Military Order of Malta or Order of Malta, is a Roman Catholic lay religious order founded as the Knights Hospitaller circa 1099 in Jerusalem. It is one of the oldest institutions of Western and Christian civilization. It has been an official lay religious order of the Catholic Church since 1113.
2) It is a country
The order maintains diplomatic relations with 107 states. It has United Nations permanent observer status, enters into treaties, and issues its own passports, coins, and postage stamps.
3) It is one of the biggest humanitarian organizations in the world
The order employs about 42,000 doctors, nurses, and other health care personnel, assisted by 80,000 volunteers in more than 120 countries. They assist children, homeless, handicapped, refugees, elders, terminally ill and others, regardless of ethnicity or religion.
4) It is not an NGO, but much more
Its 13,500 members include professed friars and others who have made the promise of obedience. The other Knights and Dames are lay members, devoted to the exercise of Christian virtue and charity. What distinguishes the Knights and Dames of Malta is their commitment to reaching their spiritual perfection within the Church and to expending their energies serving the poor and the sick.
The Order of Malta remains true to its inspiring principles, summarized in the motto “Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum,” nurturing, witnessing and protecting the Faith, and assistance to the poor and the suffering, which become reality through the voluntary work carried out by Dames and Knights in humanitarian assistance and medical and social activities.
5) The headquarters are not in Malta!
In spite of the name, the Order of Malta’s governing headquarters since 1834 have been in Rome, where it is guaranteed extraterritorial rights at the Magistral Palace in Via Condotti 68 and the Magistral Villa on the Aventine Hill. That means that Rome is the capital of three countries: Italy, the Vatican, and the Order of Malta. And here’s another bit of trivia: the keyhole at this address is the most photographed in the world. That’s because this is what you see if you look through it:
6) The superior is a religious … and a nobleman
The order’s constitution mandates that the grand master is elected from among the professed knights, with a minimum number of years having lived the professed vows. To serve as Grand Master a candidate must also satisfy the nobiliary requirements prescribed by the Order for the Knights of Honour and Devotion.
7) There are 3 kinds of members
1) Knights and Dames of Magistral Grace are men and women who have made the Solemn “Commitment” at their Investiture to serve the sick and the poor and witness the Faith (referred to in the Code as “Third Class.”) 2) Those in Obedience: men and women who have made a “Promise” to obey the laws of God. They are “Knights and Dames in Obedience,” (referred to in the Code as “Second Class.”) 3) the Professed: Men who have become vowed religious “brothers” called “Frás” having made the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They are “Knights of Justice” (referred to in the Code of the Order as “First Class”).
8) Currency and postage stamps
The coins are appreciated more for their subject matter than for their use as currency; postage stamps, however, have been gaining acceptance among Universal Postal Union member nations.
9) They have saved more than 53,712 lives in the Mediterranean in the last few years
Just in the waters of the Mediterranean, in the last nine years, this institution with its boats and medical teams has saved the lives of 53,712 (yes, you read that right) immigrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa who set out on the dangerous adventure of seeking a better future in Europe.
10) Some prominent Dames of Malta alive today
Anne M. Burke
Marie Isobel, Countess Cathcart
Mary Higgins Clark
Janne Haaland Matláry
Karen Garver Santorum
Marianna, Dowager Viscountess Monckton of Brenchley
Patricia Mary, Lady Talbot of Malahide (née Riddell)
Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis
Princess Michael of Kent