The Order of Malta is one of the few Orders created in the Middle Ages and still active today. It is also the only one that is at the same time religious and sovereign. This is due to the fact that most of the other Orders of chivalry lacked the hospitaller function which characterises the Order of Malta, so they disappeared as soon as the military purposes that represented the reasons for their existence ceased.
The knights of Malta
The knighthood nature explains and justifies the maintenance of the noble nature of the Order, as most of its Religious Knights came from chivalrous and noble Christian families. Today the majority of Knights of Malta belong to all classes of society. The members of the Order may be defined as Catholics enlivened by altruistic nobleness of spirit and behaviour. All Knights of Malta must meet the traditional requirement for the bestowing of knighthood: distinguish themselves for special virtues. The knighthood nature of the Order has kept its moral value, characterised by the spirit of service, sacrifice and discipline of today’s Knights of Malta. Battles are no longer fought with swords, but with the peaceful tools of the fight against disease, poverty, social isolation and intolerance, as well as witnessing and protecting the faith.
All the 13,500 Knights and Dames of the Order of Malta shall conduct themselves so as to give Christian example in their private and public lives, thus putting into effect the tradition of the Order. It is incumbent on them to collaborate effectively in its hospitaller and social works.
The three Classes
According to the Constitution, the members of the Order of Malta are divided into three Classes. The members are to conduct their lives in an exemplary manner in conformity with the teachings and precepts of the Catholic Church and to devote themselves to the humanitarian assistance activities of the Order.
Members of the First Class are Knights of Justice, or Professed Knights, and the Professed Conventual Chaplains, who have made vows of “poverty, chastity and obedience aspiring to perfection according to the Gospel”. They are religious for all purposes of Canon Law but are not obliged to live in community.
The members of the Second Class, by virtue of the Promise of Obedience, are committed to living according to Christian principles and the inspiring principles of the Order. They are subdivided into three categories:
- Knights and Dames of Honour and Devotion in Obedience
– Knights and Dames of Grace and Devotion in Obedience
– Knights and Dames of Magistral Grace in Obedience
The Third Class consists of lay members who do not profess religious vows or the Promise, but who live according to the principles of the Church and the Order. They are divided into six categories:
- Knights and Dames of Honour and Devotion
– Conventual Chaplains ad honorem
– Knights and Dames of Grace and Devotion
– Magistral Chaplains
– Knights and Dames of Magistral Grace
– Donats (male and female) of Devotion
The relevant Grand Priory or National Association is responsible for proposals of admission.