What is the Sovereign Order of Malta?

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, better known as the Sovereign Order of Malta, has a two-fold nature. It is one of the most ancient Catholic Religious Orders, founded in Jerusalem in around 1048. At the same time it has always been recognised by nations as an independent subject of international law.

The Order’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 representing the Lord (obsequium pauperum).


What do we mean by saying that it is a religious order?

The Order was born as a monastic community inspired by St. John the Baptist. This community, which was created by Amalfitan Merchants around 1050, ran a hospice providing care and shelter for pilgrims to the Holy Land. In 1113 it received formal acknowledgement as a religious Order from Pope Paschal II. Before the loss of the island of Malta (1798) most of the knights were religious, having taken the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Today, although some members of the Order are professed knights (having taken the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience), others have pronounced only the promise of obedience. Most of the Order’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 Church and to expending their energies in serving the Faith and assisting others.


Is it a military order?
The Order became military to protect the pilgrims and the sick and to defend the Christian territories in the Holy Land. The Order ceased to carry out this function when it lost Malta (1798).

Is it a chivalrous order?
Traditionally Knights of the Order belonged to chivalrous and noble families of the Christian world. The Order is still a chivalrous order today as it has maintained the values of chivalry and nobility. Although the majority of its members no longer come from ancient noble families, they are admitted because of manifest merits towards the Church and the Order of Malta.

What are the works of the Order?
The Order of Malta works in the field of medical and social care and humanitarian aid, in over 120 countries, supported by the diplomatic relations it currently has with 104 nations. The Order also runs hospitals, medical centres, day hospitals, nursing homes for the elderly and the disabled, and special centres for the terminally ill. In many countries the Order’s volunteer corps provide first aid, social services, emergency and humanitarian interventions.

Malteser International, the Order’s worldwide relief agency, works in the front line in natural disasters and armed conflicts.

For over 50 years, the Order has been dealing extensively with the treatment of leprosy – a disease that unfortunately still plagues various areas of the world – through its CIOMAL foundation (International Committee of the Order of Malta).

The Order is also engaged in the cultural field.


How is the Sovereign Order Governed?
The life and activities of the Order are governed by its Constitution and its Code.

The head of the Order is the Prince and 79th Master Fra’ Matthew Festing, elected for life by the Council Complete of State. The Grand Master is assisted by the Sovereign Council, in turn elected by the Chapter General (the assembly of the representatives of the Order’s members, that meets once every 5 years). The Government Council is the advisory body of the Sovereign Council and provides advice on political, religious, medical and international issues. A Board of Auditors performs auditing functions. Both councils are also elected by the Chapter General.

Juridical issues are submitted to the Magistral Courts, appointed by the Grand Master and the Sovereign Council.


What is the international organisation of the Order?
Today, the Order is present with its Institutions in 54 countries. It has 6 Grand Priories, 6 Sub Priories and 47 National Associations

How many members does it have?
The Order is made up of more than 13,500 Knights and Dames.

Where have the main humanitarian missions been carried out in recent years?
The most significant aid projects have been carried out in Kosovo and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, India, in Southeast Asia after the Tsunami and in Afghanistan. More recently in Pakistan, Mexico, Congo, South Sudan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Georgia and Haiti.

How does one become a member of the Order?
One can become a member of the Order of Malta only by invitation. Only persons of undoubted Catholic morality and practice, who have acquired merit with regard to the Order of Malta, its institutions and its works are eligible for admission. The relevant Grand Priory or National Association is responsible for proposals of admission.

How does one become a volunteer?
Volunteers are most welcome. You should ask the National Association of your country.

How are the Order’s diplomatic activities conducted?

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 action in the event of natural disaster or armed conflict. Due to its neutral, impartial and non-political nature, the Order can act as a mediator whenever a State requests its intervention to settle a dispute.


How are the its activities financed?
Activities are funded essentially by its members. Funds come from private donations and vary according to different countries 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 Order’s activities.

Where is the Order based?
After the loss of the island of Malta, the Order settled permanently in Rome, Italy, in 1834. Its two headquarters, granted with extraterritoriality, are the Magistral Palace in Via dei Condotti 68 – where the Grand Master resides and Government Bodies meet – and the Magistral Villa on the Aventine. The latter hosts the Grand Priory of Rome – an ancient institution which is made up of the Order’s members in Central Italy – and the Embassy of the Order to the Italian Republic.