By John Thavis
ROME — After surviving wars, piracy, property confiscation, revolts and periodic exile over the last 900 years, the world’s oldest chivalric order is facing a thoroughly modern challenge: copycats on the Internet.
It’s a growing problem for the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and Malta, known less formally as the Knights of Malta. Established to care for pilgrims during the time of the Crusades, it lives on today as a lay Catholic religious order, a worldwide humanitarian network and a sovereign state.
The order holds observer status at the United Nations and maintains diplomatic relations with 92 countries. Its 11,000 knights and dames contribute time and money to the needy, enjoy social prestige, and on occasion get to wear some very snazzy uniforms.
No wonder counterfeit orders have sprung up, with similar names and symbols.
“They’re an absolute pain. These are self-styled orders that are trading in on our name and reputation. Just go to the Web and you can find many of them,” the Knights’ grand master, Fra Andrew W.N. Bertie, said in an interview at the organization’s Rome headquarters.
The Internet has made it easier for less-pedigreed — some Knights call them “bogus” — Orders of St. John to promote themselves, raise funds and recruit members. Some of the orders trace their roots to obscure historical chapters of the Eastern empire, which the Knights of Malta consider spurious.
“I don’t know how many emperors of Byzantium there are out there today,” Bertie said with a laugh.
The increased Internet presence of “noble orders” that sell memberships and titles has prompted legal actions and online scam alerts. The Knights of Malta now have their own four-language Web site and have successfully won court battles to protect their identity in Austria, Switzerland and France, Bertie said.
The fact that such a venerable organization must crusade against public confusion is partly due to its low-profile approach. The Knights’ national organizations work discreetly with the poor and sick, and its members are quietly recruited “by invitation only.”
On Rome’s fashionable Via Condotti, you might pass by the headquarters of the sovereign state without noticing, unless the flag happens to be flying from the first-floor balcony. Next door to a Hermes boutique, its offices occupy much of a Renaissance palazzo — all that’s left of a territorial realm that once stretched throughout the Mediterranean and beyond.
When Napoleon conquered Malta in 1798, he evicted the Knights from the island and they ended up here in 1834. Today, the tiny courtyard is packed with cars bearing the diplomatic license plates “S.M.O.M.” — Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
Bertie, a slender 72-year-old Englishman elected to head to order in 1988, greets visitors with decorum and a dry sense of humor. Asked how one addresses a Grand Master, he said almost apologetically, “I suppose the easiest is, ‘Your Highness.’”
In an office decorated with paintings of historic battles, antique swords and a couple of elephant tusks, Bertie lit up a Gauloises and, one by one, deflated myths or misconceptions about the Knights of Malta.
“We don’t go around soliciting embassies all over the place to increase our prestige. We have diplomatic relations where we need them for our charity operations, so we can import medical supplies and equipment into a country, for example,” he said.
The Knights are not nobility, he said, and in theory any Catholic can be a member — though the admission process is deliberately discreet. In general, individuals are approached personally by existing members and asked if they’re interested.
“There’s nothing secret about the order, but a lot of people think there is,” Bertie added. The fact that five of the six U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican have been members of the Knights of Malta is “sheer coincidence,” he said.
Many outsiders imagine hidden benefits to membership in the Knights of Malta, but Bertie said that’s a myth, too.
“Benefits? No, it’s about commitment. To be a member of the order is not an honor. It’s not about being able to dangle a nice cross around your neck. It’s not a question of sending in a check once a year. It’s about working with the sick and the poor,” he said.
In fact, the order expects every able-bodied member to contribute their time regularly to local humanitarian projects, such as clinics, homes for the elderly, annual trips with the sick, or summer camps for the disabled. The Knights’ headquarters in Rome is typical in this regard: Tucked into the basement of the building is a state-of-the-art clinic open to anyone.
Thomas Melady, a member and a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, said that in the Washington, D.C., area alone, the Knights of Malta run a soup kitchen, a meals-on-wheels service, and a home for assisted living, as well as providing help at a clinic for the terminally ill.
“As a member, there are two main things. You are expected to contribute money and do hands-on works of mercy — whether it’s dealing with the sick or handing out food in the soup kitchen. We conduct many activities, but it’s not with a loud voice,” Melady said.
Part of the Knights’ mission always has been defending the faith. But unlike the time of the Crusades, that is no longer accomplished through military means, but through quiet dedication to church teachings, Bertie said.
“Our militarism today is in making sure our clinics and hospitals are run according to Catholic ethics,” he said.
A recent painting of Bertie stood on an easel in his office. He sat 40 hours for the portrait, which shows him dressed in full military regalia, including a long silver sword.
That’s the official side of the grand master. The unofficial side is equally impressive to those who know him.