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: