Founded in the 11th century in Jerusalem, the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta is a lay religious order of the Catholic Church and a sovereign subject of international law. Faithful to its centuries old mission of service to the vulnerable and the sick, it runs medical, social and humanitarian projects in 120 countries.
The Order of Malta’s mission is summed up in its motto “Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum”: nurturing, witnessing and protecting the faith (tuitio fidei) and serving the poor and the sick (obsequium pauperum).
The Order was born as a monastic community inspired by St John the Baptist in the Holy Land around 1050. The Hospitallers ran a hospice providing care and shelter for pilgrims of any faith. In 1113 it received formal acknowledgement as a religious order from Pope Paschal II. Before the loss of the island of Malta (1798) all knights were religious, having taken the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Still today, some members of the Order of Malta are religious according to Canon Law, others have pronounced the promise of obedience, pledging to follow Christian principles more profoundly while living in society. Most of the Order of Malta’s 13,500 knights and dames are lay members.
Although they have not pronounced any religious vow, they are all devoted to the exercise of Christian virtue and charity, and committed to developing their spirituality within the Catholic Church and to expending their energies collaborating in the medical and social works of the Order.
The Order of Malta runs humanitarian, medical and social projects in 120 countries. It is especially involved in helping victims of armed conflicts and natural disasters by providing medical assistance, caring for refugees, and distributing medicines and basic equipment for survival.
It has social assistance programmes to help the homeless in developed and developing countries, cares for people often pushed to society’s fringes including the disabled and elderly, provides first-aid and organises medical and social campaigns.
Members of the Order of Malta are admitted by invitation. They are made up of people with undoubted Catholic morality and practice, who have acquired merit over the years with regard to the Order of Malta, its institutions and its humanitarian works. The relevant Grand Priory or National Association is responsible for proposals of admission.
The Order of Malta operates through 12 Priories, 47 national Associations, 1 worldwide relief agency and 33 Volunteer Corps, as well as numerous hospitals, medical centres, day-care centres and specialist foundations.
Currently the Order of Malta is committed to assisting the Syrian population fleeing the conflict into neighbouring countries and runs operations in Iraq supporting internally displaced people. The Italian Relief Corps of the Order participates in rescue operations in the Mediterranean while the Order of Malta’s entities along migration routes to northern Europe provide refugees with emergency aid.
Over the past years, the Order of Malta’s most significant interventions have taken place in Kosovo and Macedonia, India, South East Asia (after the tsunami), Afghanistan, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Haiti, the Philippines and Nepal.
The Order became military to protect pilgrims and the sick and to defend the Christian territories in the Holy Land. The Order ceased to carry out military function when it lost the island of Malta in 1798. Today the Order of Malta preserves only its historical military traditions.
Funds come from members, private and public donations and vary according to different countries, types of projects and situations. Resources for hospitals and medical activities usually come from agreements stipulated with the national health and social systems. The same is true for emergency services.
In developing countries, activities are often backed by grants from governments, the European Commission or other international organisations. Funds also come from donations or benefactors’ contributions to the Order of Malta’s activities.
The government of the Sovereign Order of Malta has a similar structure to state governments. However, it also includes specific features associated with its nature as a religious lay order, as well as particular terminology evolved from nine centuries of history.
The head of the Order is the Grand Master who governs both as sovereign and as religious superior, and is assisted by the Sovereign Council, which he chairs. The current Grand Master is Fra’ Matthew Festing, who was elected for life in 2008.
The Sovereign Council is elected for a term of five years and is made up of the Grand Commander (the religious superior of the Order’s religious members);
Grand Chancellor (Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister of the Interior); Grand Hospitaller (Minister for Health and International Cooperation); Receiver of the Common Treasure (Minister for Finance), together with six other members, all elected by the Chapter General.
The life and activities of the Order of Malta are governed by its Constitution and its Code.
The Sovereign Order of Malta is a subject of international law that exercises functions of sovereignty, recognised as such by more than 100 States and by the European Union, with which it exchanges ambassadors.
It has permanent observer missions at the United Nations (New York, Geneva, Paris, Vienna, Rome, Nairobi, Bangkok), and with the principal international organisations. Diplomatic relations allow the Order of Malta to intervene with timely and effective humanitarian aid in the event of natural disaster or armed conflict.
Due to its status as a neutral, apolitical and independent institution, and its humanitarian role, the Sovereign Order of Malta is able to intervene on an international level as a mediator in disputes.
While members of the Order of Malta in former times traditionally belonged to the aristocracy, the emphasis today is on a nobility of spirit and conduct. Nobility in this deeper sense means: carrying more responsibility than others.
Such an attitude is realised in social responsibility, loyalty to the Catholic faith and Church, readiness to uphold Christian tradition and commitment to a corresponding attitude to life and to reach out to people in need.
Today, the majority of its members no longer come from ancient noble families, and are admitted because of manifest merits towards the Church and the Order of Malta.
The Order of Malta settled permanently in Rome, Italy, in 1834. Its two institutional seats, granted extraterritorial rights, are the Magistral Palace on Via dei Condotti – where the Grand Master resides and Government Bodies meet – and the Magistral Villa on the Aventine. The latter hosts the Grand Priory of Rome – which is made up of the Order’s members in Central Italy – and the Embassy of the Sovereign Order to the Italian Republic.