The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta (Latin: Supremus Ordo Militaris Hospitalis Sancti Ioannis Hierosolymitani Rhodius et Melitensis), also known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM) or the Order of Malta, is a Catholic lay religious order traditionally of military, chivalrous and noble nature. It was founded as the Knights Hospitaller circa 1099 in Jerusalem, Kingdom of Jerusalem, by the Blessed Gerard, making it the world’s oldest surviving chivalric order. Headquartered in Palazzo Malta in Rome, its mission is summed up in its motto: Tuitio fidei et obsequium pauperum, «Defence of the (Catholic) faith and assistance to the poor». The order is led by an elected Prince and Grand Master.
The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, now based in Rome, is the present-day continuation of the medieval Knights Hospitaller, with origins in the Fraternitas Hospitalaria hospital founded circa 1048 by merchants from the Duchy of Amalfi in the Muristan district of Jerusalem, Fatimid Caliphate, to provide medical care for pilgrims to the Holy Land. Following the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade and the subsequent loss of the Kingdom of Jerusalem to the Mamluk Sultanate, it became a military order to protect Christians against Islamic persecution and was recognised as sovereign in 1113 by Pope Paschal II. It operated from Cyprus (1291–1310), Rhodes (1310–1523), Malta (1530–1798), over which it was sovereign until the French occupation, and from Palazzo Malta in Rome from 1834 until the present. The order venerates as its patroness the Virgin Mary, under the title «Our Lady of Mount Philermos».
Widely considered a sovereign subject of international law, 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. Its two headquarters buildings in Rome enjoy extraterritoriality, similar to embassies, and it maintains embassies in other countries. The three principal officers are counted as citizens. Though its sovereignty is disputed by some legal scholars, it is often given as the only remaining example of a sovereign entity which entirely lacks territory.
The Order has 13,500 Knights, Dames and auxiliary members. A few dozen of these are professed religious. Until the 1990s, the highest classes of membership, including officers, required proof of noble lineage. More recently, a path was created for Knights and Dames of the lowest class (of whom proof of aristocratic lineage is not required) to be specially elevated to the highest class, making them eligible for office in the order.
The order employs about 42,000 doctors, nurses, auxiliaries and paramedics assisted by 80,000 volunteers in more than 120 countries, assisting children, homeless, handicapped, refugees, elders, terminally ill and lepers around the world without distinction of ethnicity or religion. Through its worldwide relief corps, Malteser International, the order aids victims of natural disasters, epidemics and war. In several countries, including France, Germany and Ireland, local associations of the order are important providers of medical emergency services and training. Its annual budget is on the order of 1.5 billion Euros, largely funded by European governments, the U.N., and the European Union, foundations and public donors.
- 1 Name and insignia
- 2 History
- 3 Organisation
- 4 International status
- 5 Military Corps
- 6 Orders, decorations, and medals
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Bibliography
- 10 External links
Name and insignia
The order has a large number of local priories and associations around the world, but there also exist a number of organizations with similar-sounding names that are unrelated, including numerous fraudulent (self-styled) orders seeking to capitalize on the name.
In the ecclesiastical heraldry of the Catholic Church, the Order of Malta is one of only two orders (along with the Order of the Holy Sepulchre) whose insignia may be displayed in a clerical coat of arms. (Laypersons have no such restriction.) The shield is surrounded with a silver rosary for professed knights, or for others the ribbon of their rank. Members may also display the Maltese cross behind their shield instead of the ribbon.
In order to protect its heritage against frauds, the order has legally registered 16 versions of its names and emblems in some 100 countries.
The birth of the order dates back to around 1048. Merchants from the ancient Marine Republic of Amalfi obtained from the Caliph of Egypt the authorisation to build a church, convent, and hospital in Jerusalem, to care for pilgrims of any religious faith or race. The Order of St. John of Jerusalem–the monastic community that ran the hospital for the pilgrims in the Holy Land–became independent under the guidance of its founder, the religious brother Gerard.
With the Papal bull Pie Postulatio Voluntatis dated 15 February 1113, Pope Paschal II approved the foundation of the Hospital and placed it under the aegis of the Holy See, granting it the right to freely elect its superiors without interference from other secular or religious authorities. By virtue of the Papal Bull, the hospital became an order exempt from the control of the local church. All the Knights were religious, bound by the three monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
The constitution of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem during the Crusades obliged the order to take on the military defence of the sick, the pilgrims, and the captured territories. The order thus added the task of defending the faith to that of its hospitaller mission.
As time went on, the order adopted the white eight-pointed Cross that is still its symbol today. The eight points represent the eight «beatitudes» that Jesus pronounced in his Sermon on the Mount.
In 1310, led by Grand Master Fra’ Foulques de Villaret, the knights regrouped on the island of Rhodes. From there, the defense of the Christian world required the organization of a naval force; so the Order built a powerful fleet and sailed the eastern Mediterranean, fighting battles for the sake of Christendom, including Crusades in Syria and Egypt.
In the early 14th century, the institutions of the Order and the knights who came to Rhodes from every corner of Europe were grouped according to the languages they spoke. The first seven such groups, or Langues (Tongues) – from Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon (Navarre), England (with Scotland and Ireland), and Germany – became eight in 1492, when Castille and Portugal were separated from the Langue of Aragon. Each Langue included Priories or Grand Priories, Bailiwicks, and Commanderies.
The Order was governed by its Grand Master, the Prince of Rhodes, and its Council. From its beginning, independence from other nations granted by pontifical charter and the universally recognised right to maintain and deploy armed forces constituted grounds for the international sovereignty of the Order, which minted its own coins and maintained diplomatic relations with other States. The senior positions of the Order were given to representatives of different Langues.
In 1523, after six months of siege and fierce combat against the fleet and army of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, the Knights were forced to surrender, and left Rhodes with military honours. The order remained without a territory of its own until 1530, when Grand Master Fra’ Philippe de Villiers de l’Isle Adam took possession of the island of Malta, granted to the order by Emperor Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and his mother Queen Joanna of Castile as monarchs of Sicily, with the approval of Pope Clement VII, for which the order had to honour the conditions of the Tribute of the Maltese Falcon.
The Reformation which split Western Europe into Protestant and Catholic states affected the knights as well. In several countries, including England, Scotland and Sweden, the order was dissolved. In others, including the Netherlands and Germany, entire bailiwicks or commanderies (administrative divisions of the order) experienced religious conversions; these «Johanniter orders» survive in Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden and many other countries, including the United States and South Africa. It was established that the order should remain neutral in any war between Christian nations.
Colonies in the Caribbean
From 1651 to 1665, the Order of Saint John ruled four islands in the Caribbean. On 21 May 1651, it acquired the islands of Saint Barthélemy, Saint Christopher, Saint Croix and Saint Martin. These were purchased from the French Compagnie des Îles de l’Amérique which had just been dissolved. In 1665, the four islands were sold to the French West India Company.
Great siege of Malta
In 1565, the Knights, led by Grand Master Fra’ Jean de Vallette (after whom the capital of Malta, Valletta, was named), defended the island for more than three months during the Great Siege by the Turks.
Battle of Lepanto
French occupation of Malta
The French forces occupying Malta expelled the knights from their country.
The Treaty of Amiens (1802) obliged the United Kingdom to evacuate Malta which was to be restored to a recreated Order of St. John, whose sovereignty was to be guaranteed by all of the major European powers, to be determined at the final peace. However, this was not to be because objections to the treaty quickly grew in the UK.
Bonaparte’s rejection of a British offer involving a ten-year lease of Malta prompted the reactivation of the British blockade of the French coast; Britain declared war on France on 18 May.
The 1802 treaty was never implemented. The UK gave its official reasons for resuming hostilities as France’s imperialist policies in the West Indies, Italy, and Switzerland.
After having temporarily resided in Messina, Catania, and Ferrara, in 1834 the precursor of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta settled definitively in Rome, where it owns, with extraterritorial status, the Magistral Palace in Via Condotti 68 and the Magistral Villa on the Aventine Hill.
The original hospitaller mission became the main activity of the order, growing ever stronger during the last century, most especially because of the contribution of the activities carried out by the Grand Priories and National Associations in so many countries around the world. Large-scale hospitaller and charitable activities were carried out during World Wars I and II under Grand Master Fra’ Ludovico Chigi Albani della Rovere (1931–1951). Under the Grand Masters Fra’ Angelo de Mojana di Cologna (1962–88) and Fra’ Andrew Bertie (1988–2008), the projects expanded.
Relations with the Republic of Malta
Two bilateral treaties have been concluded with the Republic of Malta. The first treaty is dated 21 June 1991 and is now no longer in force. The second treaty was signed on 5 December 1998 and ratified on 1 November 2001.
This agreement grants the Order the use with limited extraterritoriality of the upper portion of Fort St. Angelo in the city of Birgu. Its stated purpose is «to give the Order the opportunity to be better enabled to carry out its humanitarian activities as Knights Hospitallers from Saint Angelo, as well as to better define the legal status of Saint Angelo subject to the sovereignty of Malta over it».
The agreement has a duration of 99 years, but the document allows the Maltese Government to terminate it at any time after 50 years. Under the terms of the agreement, the flag of Malta is to be flown together with the flag of the Order in a prominent position over Saint Angelo. No asylum may be granted by the Order and generally the Maltese courts have full jurisdiction and Maltese law shall apply. The second bilateral treaty mentions a number of immunities and privileges, none of which appeared in the earlier treaty.
In February 2013, the order celebrated the 900th anniversary of its papal recognition with a general audience with Pope Benedict XVI and a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone in Saint Peter’s Basilica.
The Order experienced a leadership crisis beginning in December 2016, when Albrecht von Boeselager protested his removal as Grand Chancellor by Grand Master Matthew Festing. After considerable publicity and competing accounts given by several parties, in January 2017 Pope Francis ordered von Boeselager reinstated and required Festing’s resignation. Francis also named Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, as his personal representative to the Order–sidelining the Order’s Cardinal Patron Raymond Burke–until the election of a new Grand Master. In May 2017, the Order named Mauro Bertero Gutiérrez, a Bolivian member of the Government Council, to lead its constitutional reform process. And in May 2018 when a new Grand Master was elected, Francis extended Becciu’s mandate indefinitely. In June 2017, in a departure from tradition, the leadership of the Order wore business attire rather than military uniforms to their annual papal audience.
The proceedings of the Order are governed by its Constitutional Charter and the Order’s Code. It is divided internationally into six territorial Grand Priories, six Sub-Priories and 47 national associations.
The six Grand Priories are:
- Grand Priory of Rome
- Grand Priory of Lombardy and Venice
- Grand Priory of Naples and Sicily
- Grand Priory of Bohemia
- Grand Priory of Austria
- Grand Priory of England
The supreme head of the Order is the Prince and Grand Master, who is elected for life by the Council Complete of State, holds the precedence of a cardinal of the Church since 1630 and received the rank of Prince of the Holy Roman Empire in 1607. Fra’ Giacomo dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto was elected 80th Grand Master on 2 May 2018, a year after Fra’ Matthew Festing resigned as Grand Master at the insistence of Pope Francis.
Electors in the Council Complete of State include the members of the Sovereign Council, other office-holders and representatives of the members of the Order. The Grand Master is aided by the Sovereign Council (the government of the Order), which is elected by the Chapter General, the legislative body of the Order.
The Chapter General meets every five years; at each meeting, all seats of the Sovereign Council are up for election. The Sovereign Council includes six members and four High Officers: the Grand Commander, the Grand Chancellor, the Grand Hospitaller and the Receiver of the Common Treasure.
The Grand Commander is the chief religious officer of the Order and serves as Lieutenant «ad interim» during a vacancy in the office of Grand Master. The Grand Chancellor, whose office includes those of the Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is the head of the executive branch; he is responsible for the Diplomatic Missions of the Order and relations with the national Associations. The Grand Hospitaller’s responsibilities include the offices of Minister for Humanitarian Action and Minister for International Cooperation; he coordinates the Order’s humanitarian and charitable activities. Finally, the Receiver of the Common Treasure is the Minister of Finance and Budget; he directs the administration of the finances and property of the Order.
Patrons of the order since 1961
- Paolo Giobbe (8 August 1961 – 3 July 1969)
- Giacomo Violardo (3 July 1969 – 17 March 1978)
- Paul-Pierre Philippe, O.P. (10 November 1978 – 9 April 1984)
- Sebastiano Baggio (26 May 1984 – 21 March 1993)
- Pio Laghi (8 May 1993 – 11 January 2009)
- Paolo Sardi (6 June 2009 – 8 November 2014)
- Raymond Burke (8 November 2014 – present)
Prelate of the order
The pope appoints the prelate of the order to supervise the clergy of the order, choosing from among three candidates proposed by the Grand Master. On 4 July 2015 Pope Francis named as prelate Bishop Jean Laffitte, who had held various offices in the Roman Curia for more than a decade. Laffitte succeeded Archbishop Angelo Acerbi, who had held the office since 2001. Laffitte’s appointment followed the traditional meeting between the pope and the Grand Master, and an audience with the Grand Chancellor and others as well, held on 24 June, the feast of St. John the Baptist.
Membership in the order is divided into three classes each of which is subdivided into several categories:
- First Class, containing only one category: Knights of Justice or Professed Knights, and the Professed Conventual Chaplains, who take religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and form what amounts to a religious order. Until the 1990s membership in this class was restricted to members of families with noble lineages. There are also three surviving enclosed monasteries of nuns of the Order, two in Spain that date from the 11/12th centuries and one in Malta, whose members hold the same rank in the Order as chaplains.
- Second Class: Knight and Dames in Obedience, similarly restricted until recently, these knights and dames make a promise, rather than a vow, of obedience. This class is subdivided into three categories, namely that of Knight and Dames of Honour and Devotion in Obedience, Knight and Dames of Grace and Devotion in Obedience, and Knight and Dames of Magistral Grace in Obedience.
- Third Class, which is subdivided 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, and Donats (male and female) of Devotion. All categories of this class are made up of members who take no vows and who had to show a decreasingly extensive history of nobility. Knights of magistral grace need not prove any noble lineage and are the most common class of knights in the United States.
Within each class and category of knights are ranks ranging from bailiff grand cross (the highest) through knight grand cross, and knight — thus one could be a «knight of grace and devotion,» or a «bailiff grand cross of justice.» The final rank of donat is offered to some who join the order in the class of «justice» but who are not knights. Bishops and priests are generally honorary members, or knights, of the Order of Malta. However, there are some priests who are full members of the Order, and this is usually because they were conferred knighthood prior to ordination. The priests of the Order of Malta are ranked as Honorary Canons, as in the Order of the Holy Sepulchre; and they are entitled to wear the black mozetta with purple piping and purple fascia.
Prior to the 1990s, all officers of the Order had to be of noble birth (i.e., armigerous for at least a hundred years), as they were all knights of justice or of obedience. However, Knights of Magistral Grace (i.e., those without noble proofs) now may make the Promise of Obedience and, at the discretion of the Grand Master and Sovereign Council, may enter the novitiate to become professed Knights of Justice.
Worldwide, there are over 13,000 knights and dames, of whom approximately 55 are professed religious. Membership in the Order is by invitation only and solicitations are not entertained.
The Order’s finances are audited by a Board of Auditors, which includes a President and four Councillors, all elected by the Chapter General. The Order’s judicial powers are exercised by a group of Magistral Courts, whose judges are appointed by the Grand Master and Sovereign Council.