Remaining relevant in a world so different from the days of the first Crusades takes a special kind of commitment. Very few Orders of Chivalry have survived into the modern day, but one Religious and Sovereign Order, of particular importance to the island of Malta, has not only survived through the centuries, but has grown, both in significance and size, enormously. And indeed, with 12,000 Knights and Dames, 80,000 trained volunteers and 11,000 employees, the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta (also known as the Knights of Malta) is as dynamic an organisation today as the day it was founded, almost one thousand years ago. And while the military function of the Order has lapsed entirely, the original Hospitaller and Social initiatives of the Order have expanded to reach right around the globe. Operating in 120 countries around the world, the Order now runs hospitals, hospices, medical centres, drug rehabilitation centres, old people’s homes, schools and universities, as well as offering humanitarian and disaster relief to victims of armed conflict or natural catastrophe.
In Malta, of course, the Order’s sovereign territory from 1530 to 1798, where every town, village and hamlet, every street corner and every mile of coastal landscape (dotted with watch towers) bears some reminder of the Order’s permanence, the Knights of Malta are mainly remembered for the glorious heritage they left the Maltese people. Valletta, the island’s exquisite Baroque capital built by Knights in 1565, with its palaces and auberges to house the noble Knights who lived here, the bastions and curtains that encircled and protected the city from the then almost constant threat of invaders, and the chapels, churches and cathedral built by the era’s best architects, decorated and enriched by the most renowned artists of the time, is most people’s first introduction to the Knight’s extraordinary determination to turn the barren island they were ceded as their base in 1530 into a fitting domicile for what many considered one of the most glorious Orders of Knights in existence.
But often, here in Malta at least, the glory of the Knight’s magnificent past tends to overshadow the perhaps more mundane, but infinitely more immediate glory of the Order’s present. In fact, the Order of Malta is one of the few Orders created in the Middle Ages which is still active today. However, while in the past most of its Religious Knights came from chivalrous and noble Christian families, today the majority of Knights belong to all classes of society. All Knights must meet the traditional requirement for the bestowing of knighthood, that is, they must distinguish themselves for special virtues. “Battles are no longer fought with swords;” the Order writes on its website, “but with the peaceful tools of the fight against disease, poverty, social isolation and intolerance, as well as the defence and promotion of the faith.”
While there are only a small number (some 38) Professed Knights who have made the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, in the Order today, there are some 12,000 Secular Knights and Dames, whose commitment is to living to Christian principles and the inspiring principles of the Order. Beyond that are the 80,000 permanent trained volunteers and 11,000 doctors, nurses and other personnel. Together this formidable body of people raise funds for and run the numerous hospitals, clinics, care centres, dispensaries, foundations, schools, universities and other facilities the Order maintains all over the world.
Headquartered since 1834 in Rome, in Palazzo Malta in Via Condotti, the Order is now led by the 78th Grandmaster, Fra’ Andrew Bertie. The Order’s national organisations (including its Grand Priories, National Associations, relief organisations and foundations) in the countries where they are present, are then responsible for carrying out the Order’s activities. The permanent institutions – such as hospitals, hospices and old peoples’ homes – are either managed directly by the Priories or Associations, or by subordinate bodies.
Millions of people around the world, across Europe, to South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, have benefited over the years from the care and assistance offered by the Order. From a maternity hospital in Bethlehem, and specialist neurology hospital in Rome, to palliative care hospices for the terminally ill in England, Belgium and Germany, general hospitals in a score of countries, leprosy hospitals in Senegal and Cambodia, HIV / AIDS centres in Argentina, specialist diabetic centres in a host of countries, centres of the disabled, for the elderly, for children, adolescents, the homeless and drug addicts, each type of specialized institution present in scores of countries across the world, the Order is carrying out its Christian, Hospitaller mission today as vigorously as ever before in its 1000 year history.
Keeping alive the order’s original motto: “Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum”; (defence of the Faith and assistance to the poor and the suffering), modern day Knights, Dames, Chaplains and Volunteers of the Order of Malta, though they may no longer be building ‘cities by gentlemen, for gentlemen; are nevertheless creating and expanding structures whose value to the human race goes far beyond the measure of aesthetic beauty.