Following centuries of humanitarian service and, at times, military combat, the Knights of Malta have begun commemorations of their 900th anniversary that include a large solemn procession to the tomb of St. Peter Feb. 9.
“This is a very special anniversary and over 4,000 of the Order’s members and volunteers are expected to arrive from all corners of the world,” Albrecht Boeselager, Grand Hospitaller of the Knights of Malta, told Vatican Radio. He said the anniversary observance will help the knights “thank happily the Lord for how he has guided us through history.”
The observance includes a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica celebrated by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State. Pope Benedict XVI will meet with the knights after the Mass.
The Sovereign Military Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, as the Order is officially known today, was founded in Jerusalem in about 1048. Pope Paschal II formally recognized the Order and put it under the protection of the Holy See in a papal bull issued Feb. 15, 1113.
Boeselager said loyalty to the Pope and service to the Church has been “a vital part of our identity” in the 900 years since.
The Order is sovereign and independent. It has its own diplomatic corps accredited to national governments and it has a permanent observer mission to the United Nations.
Its present head is the English-born Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing. The Order’s grand master has the ecclesiastical rank of cardinal but cannot vote in papal conclaves. About 60 Knights of Malta are professed knights vowed to chastity, poverty, and obedience, though most of its 13,500 members are lay men and women from around the world.
Knights and Dames of Malta must be Catholics who “maintain exemplary Christian behavior in their private and public life” and must maintain the Order’s traditions, the Knights of Malta website says.
The symbols of the Order include the famous Maltese Cross, whose eight points symbolize the eight beatitudes.
Jean-Pierre Mazery, the Order’s Grand Chancellor, told Vatican Radio the Knights of Malta are “builders of peace.”
“We do not depend on anyone, we do not defend territories, we do not take part in conflicts, we act only to help people, regardless of nationality, race or religion.”
The Order now operates in 120 countries. Its members offer medical, social and humanitarian support with the aid of 80,000 volunteers and 25,000 doctors, nurses and paramedics.
Boeselager said Syria is now a priority for the Order and it is increasing its efforts that presently help about 10,000 refugees among the 1.5 million people displaced by the fighting between rebel forces and the Syrian government. Malteser International, the Order’s relief agency, is distributing survival kits and hygiene kits to those in or near Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and Homs. The Order is also helping refugees in countries neighboring Syria.
The Knights of Malta are also focused on the Democratic Republic of Congo and its use of sexual violence as a tool of war. They intend to reach out to the “new poor,” including places like Europe with rising unemployment and decreasing welfare spending.
The Order reopened the Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem in 1990, a special maternity hospital located less than 500 yards from the traditionally recognized birthplace of Jesus Christ. The hospital has the only neonatal intensive care unit in the West Bank and operates a special mobile clinic. The hospital has delivered over 55,000 babies.
The Knights of Malta were originally founded to support poor pilgrims in the Holy Land. Their mission soon included the military defense of the pilgrims and the Order eventually had armies and fleets at its command. Its lengthy history includes periods of corruption, reform, military glories and major defeats across Europe and the Mediterranean.
The Order’s headquarters moved to Cyprus in the late 13th century after Christians lost control of the Holy Land, then moved again to Rhodes. In 1523, after a six-month siege from the fleet and army of the Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, the heavily outnumbered knights left Rhodes having suffered heavy casualties. The Order then set up headquarters in Malta in 1530.
Under the leadership of Grand Master Fra’ Jean de la Vallette, the Order in 1565 successfully defended Malta against an attempted Turkish invasion in the hard-fought and gruesome Great Siege of Malta. The modern-day Maltese capital Valetta is named for him.
The Order’s fleet played a role in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, a key turning point in the history of Europe that helped check Ottoman expansion.
Napoleon Bonaparte took control of Malta in 1798 and the Knights of Malta were forced to leave again because their code forbade them from taking up arms against other Christians.
The Order resettled in Rome in 1834, where it remains to this day with a worldwide focus on humanitarian work, not combat.