Listers, the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta has a long and rich history. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta or “SMOM” for short, traces its origins to a crusade-era hospital in the Holy Lands charged with caring for not only Catholics but for Jews and Muslims as well. The Order was further charged with the military defense of those hospitals - especially for the poor and suffering inside - and for Catholic pilgrims. While other military orders faded as their military purpose was no longer needed, the Order of Malta marched on by carrying out their hospitaller mission - to build hospitals (and defenses) wherever they go. Under this auspice, the Order not only survives but thrives as an Order of the Church showing Christ’s merciful love to the poor and suffering.
The following text and images are taken verbatim from either the SMOM International Website or from the Official Website of the American Association save the titles and organization provided by SPL unless otherwise cited.
Mission of the Order
1. Defense of the Faith & Service to the Poor
The Order of St John of Jerusalem is one of the oldest institutions of Western and Christian civilization. Present in Palestine in around 1050, it is a lay religious Order, traditionally of military, chivalrous, noble nature. Its 13,500 members include Professed Friars and others who have made the promise of obedience. The other Knights and Dames are lay members, devoted to the exercise of Christian virtue and charity. What distinguishes the Knights of Malta is their commitment to reaching their spiritual perfection within the Church and to expending their energies serving the poor and the sick.
The Order of Malta remains true to its inspiring principles, summarised in the motto “Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum”, nurturing, witnessing and protecting the faith and serving the poor and the sick representing the Lord, which become reality through the voluntary work carried out by Dames and Knights in humanitarian assistance and medical and social activities. Today the Order carries out these activities in over 120 countries.
The Sovereign Order of Malta is a sovereign subject of international law, with its own constitution, passports, stamps, and public institutions. The 79th Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing, was elected Head of the Order for life on March 11th 2008. The Order has diplomatic relations with 104 countries – many of which non-Catholic – and missions to major European countries, as well as to European and international organisations. The Order of Malta is neutral, impartial and non-political, which is why it can successfully act as a mediator between States.
The Order has recently returned to Malta, after signing an agreement with the Maltese Government which granted the Order the exclusive use of Fort St. Angelo for a term of 99 years. Located in the town of Birgu, the Fort belonged to the Knights from 1530 until the island was occupied by Napoleon in 1798. Today, after restoration, the Fort hosts historical and cultural activities related to the Order of Malta.1
2. Being a Hospitaller in the Third Millennium
The Order of Malta has been a religious Order since 1113, the year it was recognised by Pope Paschal II. As a religious Order, it is linked to the Holy See, but at the same time it is independent as a sovereign subject of international law. In this respect the religious character of the Order coexists with its full sovereignty. The Grand Master is at the same time head of a sovereign State and head of a religious Order. In this second capacity the Holy Roman Church gives him the rank of Cardinal.
The Order of Malta is a lay religious Order according to Canon Law, where some of its members are religious – they have professed the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience – and others have taken a special vow of obedience, while the great majority of the knights and dames are lay members. The Grand Master of the Order is elected from among the Professed Knights of Perpetual Vows.
The eight-pointed Cross which symbolises the Order represents the eight Beatitudes and is thus a visual memento of its spirituality.
According to the Constitution, members of the Order of Malta are required to maintain exemplary Christian behaviour in their private and public life, contributing to the maintenance of the Order’s traditions.
The Pope appoints a Cardinal as his representative to the Order, the Cardinalis Patronus, whose duty it is to promote the spiritual interests of the Order and of its members and to maintain relations with the Holy See.
The Pope also appoints the Prelate of the Order from the three candidates proposed by the Grand Master. The Prelate is the ecclesiastic superior of the Order’s clergy.
The Order remains true to its inspiring principles: defence of the Faith and service to the suffering. Its members share the same vocation and strive together for solidarity, justice and peace, based on the teaching of the Gospels and in the closest communion with the Holy See. They are involved in active and dynamic charity supported by prayer. No Knight or Dame is such by privilege of birth or merits acquired, but for having answered to the call to be where there is a material or moral need, where there is suffering.
Wherever they settled, the Knights Hospitallers always established first a Hospital and Hospice and then, if they needed to, built defence fortifications. What does being a Hospitaller mean in the Third Millennium? It means dedicating oneself to easing suffering and to bringing the balm of Christian charity to the sick, anywhere in the world, not only in hospitals but also in private homes and nursing homes in the shantytowns of destitute populations. The Order does not only dedicate itself to the sick, but also to the socially isolated, the victims of persecution and the refugees of any race and religious faith.2
3. The Founding of the Order - 1048 AD
The birth of the Order of St. John 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 which ran the hospital – became independent under the guidance of its founder, Blessed Gérard. Pope Paschal II approved the foundation of the Hospital with the Bull of 15th February 1113, and placed it under the aegis of the Church, granting it the right to freely elect its superiors without interference from other lay or religious authorities. By virtue of the Papal Bull, the Hospital became a lay-religious order. All the knights were religious, bound by the three monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The constitution of the Kingdom of Jerusalem obliged the Order to take on the military defence of the sick and the pilgrims, as well as guarding its medical centres and main roads. 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.3
4. Loss of the Holy Land - 1291 AD
After the fall of Saint John of Acre and the loss of the Holy Land in 1291, the Hospitaller Order of St John transferred its seat and hospital to Limassol on the island of Cyprus, where it had been present since 1210 thanks to the concession of important properties, privileges and commercial rights. It continued to build new hospitals faithful to its hospitaller mission, and benefitted from the strategic position of the Island to constitute a naval fleet to protect pilgrims on the sea route to the Holy Land. The number of members coming from all over Europe continued to grow and contributed to the strengthening of the Order’s structure, acquiring new possessions on the Mediterranean shore. Amongst these were the important port of Famagusta, the city of Nicosia and numerous Commanderies.
Due to the consequences of increasing instability in Cyprus, which resulted in restricting their expansion on the island, the Hospitallers sought to consider a more suitable base for the seat of the Order of St John on the Island of Rhodes. Nevertheless, Magistral Lieutenants remained present in Cyprus to govern the Priories and Commanderies (said to have been over sixty by 1374) for another century until the middle of the fifteen century, when the Knights were recalled to the Conventual Seat in Rhodes.
5. The Naval Defense at Rhodes - 1307 AD
Under the leadership of Grand Master Fra’ Foulques de Villaret, in 1307, the Knights of the Order of St. John landed with their fleet in Rhodes, completing the acquisition of the island by 1310 when it transferred its seat there. Besides offering natural ports for its fleets, the island was a strategic location that linked the eastern and western worlds. From then, the defence of the Christian world required the organisation of a naval force. Thus the Order built a powerful fleet and sailed the Eastern Mediterranean, fighting many famous battles.
The Order’s independence from other nations granted by Pontifical deed, and its universally recognised right to maintain and deploy armed forces and to appoint ambassadors, has constituted the grounds for its international sovereignty. 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. There were initially seven groups of Langues (Tongues): Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon (Navarre), England (with Scotland and Ireland) and Germany, and later on an eighth: Castille and Portugal. Each Langue included Priories or Grand Priories, Bailiwicks and Commanderies.
The Order was governed by its Grand Master (Prince of Rhodes) together with the Council, it minted its own money and maintained diplomatic relations with other states. The senior positions of the Order were given to representatives of different Langues. The seat of the Order, the Convent, was composed of religious members of various nationalities. After six months of siege and fierce combat against the fleet and army of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, the knights were forced to surrender in 1523 and left Rhodes with military honours.
6. The Island of Malta - 1530 AD
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 with the approval of Pope Clement VII. It was decided that the Order should remain neutral in any war between Christian nations.
In 1565 the knights, led by Grand Master Fra’ Jean de la Vallette defended the island for more than three months during the Great Siege of the Ottomans.
Following this victory the city and port of La Valletta was built and named after the Grand Master, its founder. The knights transformed Malta, undertaking urban construction projects: palaces and churches were built, as well as formidable new defence bastions and gardens. Architecture flourished as well as artistic patronage. The island was given a large new hospital, considered to be one of the best organised and most effective in the world. A school of anatomy was also founded and the faculty of medicine followed. In particular, the Order contributed to the development of ophthalmology and pharmacology.
As well as these activities, for centuries the Order of Malta’s fleet took part in the most important manoeuvres in the Mediterranean against the Ottoman fleet and against North African pirates. In 1571 the fleet of the Order of Malta took part in the Battle of Lepanto, contributing to the victory of the Christian fleet against the Ottoman Empire’s expansion into Europe.
7. From Malta to Rome - 1798 AD
Two hundred years later, during his Egyptian campaign in 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Malta for its strategic value. Because of the Order’s code prohibiting them from raising weapons against other Christians, the knights were forced to leave their island. The Treaty of Amiens, signed in 1802, which established the sovereign rights of the Order over the island of Malta, was never applied. After having temporarily resided in Messina, Catania and Ferrara, in 1834 the Order settled definitively in Rome, where it owns, with extraterritorial status, the Magistral Palace and the Magistral Villa on the Aventine Hill.
8. The 20th and 21st Centuries
In the second part of the 19th century, the original hospitaller mission became once again the main focus of the Order, growing ever stronger during the last century, most especially because of the contribution of the activities carried out by its Grand Priories and National Associations in so many countries around the world. Large-scale hospitaller and charitable activities were carried out during World War I, and World War II under Grand Master Fra’ Ludovico Chigi Albani della Rovere (1931-1951).
Under the Grand Masters Fra’ Angelo de Mojana di Cologna (1962-1988) and Fra’ Andrew Bertie (1988-2008), the projects expanded until they reached the furthermost regions of the world.
Modern Mission & Membership
9. Modern Mission to Help the Sick & Needy
Following its historic mission to help the sick, the needy and the most disadvantaged in society, the Order of Malta continues its work today, operating in more than 120 countries. Its programmes include medical and social assistance, disaster relief in the case of armed conflicts and natural catastrophes, emergency services and first aid corps, help for the elderly, the handicapped and children in need and the provision of first aid training, and support for refugees and internally displaced persons regardless of race, origin or religion. The Order of Malta has been operating with this impartial perspective for over 900 years, caring for people of all beliefs – muslim, orthodox, catholic, protestant, jewish.
The Order relies on the involvement of its 13,500 members, as well as approximately 80,000 trained volunteers and 25,000 employees, the majority of whom are medical personnel. The Order’s organisations worldwide (Grand Priories, National Associations, relief organisations and foundations) are responsible for carrying out its activities, both in its the permanent institutions – such as hospitals, outpatient medical centres and old peoples’ homes – and with its socio-medical and humanitarian programmes.4
10. The Cardinal
The Supreme Pontiff appoints a Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church as His representative to the Order of Malta, the “Cardinalis Patronus” (Cardinal Patronus), vested with special authority. The Cardinal Patronus is in charge of promoting the spiritual interests of the Order and of its members, as well as the relationships between the Holy See and the Order of Malta.5
11. Modern Membership
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
In researching the Order of Malta, SPL stumbled across the Flickr page of Giorgio Minguzzi. Mr. Minguzzi’s page displays many impressive photographs with the Order as their subject. The following are a few that caught our attention and that we found worth sharing. Please support Mr. Minguzzi by visiting his Flickr page. Thank you.
Cardinal Patronus. This list was researched and compiled amongst rumors, and then published the day after His Eminence Cardinal Burke was officially removed from the Apostolic Signatura and appointed the Cardinal Patronus of the SMOM. ↩︎