The Knights of Malta military order of the Catholic Church – which dates back to the time of the Crusades – is celebrating its 900th birthday in Rome.
The order is one of the few created in the Middle Ages that is still active.
It has now become a major international humanitarian organization.
The order says that its battles today are no longer fought with swords, but with “peaceful tools against disease, poverty, social isolation as well as protecting the faith”.
The Knights of Malta military order was officially recognized by Pope Paschal II in February 1113.
More than 1,000 knights and dames from dozens of countries – all dressed in flowing black robes bearing their order’s distinctive eight-pointed cross on their shoulders – will walk in procession into St. Peter’s Basilica.
They will attend mass and hear words of congratulations and blessings from Pope Benedict XVI for their charitable work among the sick and the poor all over the world.
The current Grand Master of the Order, Matthew Festing, is elected for life and comes from Britain. He bears the title of prince, and ranks as a cardinal of the Catholic Church, having sworn oaths of poverty, chastity and obedience.
“We have 13,500 members, with about 4,500 people here [in Rome] over the weekend, so it’s a very big gathering.
“It’s interesting that a small band of Crusaders has expanded into this huge worldwide organization.
“The reason we’ve survived is because we have changed from knights in armor to what we are now in the 21st century. We are still doing what we did then, looking after the sick,” said Matthew Festing.
The order was originally founded by a group of aristocratic European Crusaders who looked after sick pilgrims in Jerusalem in the 12th Century, when they received official papal recognition.
Centuries later, they were chased from their headquarters in Malta by Napoleon and now have their headquarters in an ancient palace in the smartest and most fashionable shopping area of central Rome.
Today they run hospitals and humanitarian operations in more than 120 countries.
The order is eager to shed its image as a club for wealthy European aristocrats and is now searching for new talent to continue its worldwide mission.
The Knights of Malta:
- Believed to have been formed around 1048
- Also known as Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem
- Founder was called Blessed Gerard
- All members are expected to conduct their lives in an “exemplary manner”
- They must live in conformity with the teachings of the Catholic Church
- They must also devote themselves to humanitarian assistance