In some of the most remote and impoverished places on earth, amidst poverty, illness and famine, medical personnel wear clothing branded by a white Maltese Cross on a red background. In fact, once you start looking for it, it becomes hard to miss. It dots ambulances, marks the names of buildings and teases the transparency of glass hospital doors.
Everyone who has been to school in Malta knows the 300 year history of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta’s stay on the islands like the back of their hands. We still marvel at the Order’s architecture daily. They built our capital, which at the time was the first planned city in Southern Europe and is today a UNESCO world heritage site.
But Malta’s fascination with the Order, officially the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, declines sharply after they were expelled by Napoleon in 1802. They didn’t exactly vanish though. What has happened to them since?
A 104 bed hospital specialising in HIV/AIDs treatment in Njombé, Cameroon.
I slept through History Class. How did the order get to Malta again?
In 1048, rich merchants from Amalfi founded an order of religious knights and financed a hospital in Jerusalem, primarily to tend to Christian pilgrims. When the Crusades started, the Knights took up arms to defend Christian pilgrims, but after 200 years, Jerusalem was reconquered and they were expelled. They settled in and were subsequently expelled from Cyprus and then Rhodes before settling in Malta for 300 years. It bears pointing out that the history of the Knights is taught through rose tinted glasses: when based in Malta, the Order routinely pirated ships, kidnapped Muslim and Jewish prisoners for ransom and attempted to colonise the New World.
What happened after Napoleon expelled them?
Remnants of the Order scattered through Sicily and in towns like Ferrara, before finally settling permanently in Rome in 1834. Palazzo Malta remains to this day the headquarters of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, and is considered an extraterritorial territory - a legal status resembling that of foreign embassies in a host country. This means that while Palazzo Malta is not subject to Italian law, it doesn’t exactly belong to them either, which is tricky because they’re technically a country.
This is because Pope Paschal II recognized the Order as a 'sovereign entity' in 1113, and since no one then dared contradict a Pope, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta today still enjoys the perks of being treated as a country despite it having no actual land. This means that the Order has its own military, licence plates, currency, stamps and passports. It also has a permanent observer status in the UN and maintains diplomatic relations with 107 other countries. In fact, the Order is often cited by legal scholars as being the only example of a sovereign entity that's entirely lacking in land.
The Order mints its own stamps and coins.
At times, this sovereignty was even handy to the Italian government. Italy was for instance forbidden to fly bombers after its World War II peace treaty. The Italian government though found a handy loophole to maintain part of its air force: it gave a number of Savoia-Marchetti SM.82 bombers to the Order under the pretext of being “transport” aircraft for humanitarian work. The aircraft, sporting Maltese crosses, were still flown by Italian Air Force personnel and could double as bombers at a moment’s notice.
Sporting Maltese cross insignia's, a 3 aircraft formation of Sovereign Military Order of Malta Savoia-Marchetti's fly over Rome (left). One example still exists in a museum today (right).
What do they do Today?
Nearly a thousand years after being first founded, the Order still lists its original mission as being the “defence of the Faith and service to the poor.” The organisation currently employs around 25,000 people, the bulk of whom are doctors and nurses serving in remote or impoverished areas.
80,000 other volunteers and 13,500 members bulk up the number of people involved with the organization to 120,000.
Pupils at the Order's school for refugee children in Kilis, Turkey, near the Syrian border.
Currently they operate 1,500 hospitals, including a field hospital for Syrian refugees at Kilis, on the Turkish border and offer medical and legal aid to migrants in several European countries. Quick to respond after a natural disaster, they've deployed teams to Asia after typhoons, Africa following famines and Haiti after it's earthquakes.
The Order also implements care for leprosy, cholera and HIV in Africa, Asia and South America. Interventions aren’t just limited to remote areas though: one of the organization's hospitals is in California, and serves people who can't otherwise afford healthcare.
Through their NGO aid agency Malteser International, the Order is also implementing over 100 projects in 20 countries. In 2016 alone, Malteser International spent 9.5 million euros in Africa, 31 million euros in Asia, 2.2 million euros in the Americas and 3 million euros in Europe.
All in all, the Order of Malta’s humanitarian and medical projects span 120 countries.
The Order’s relationship with the Republic of Malta
The Republic of Malta granted the use of Fort St Angelo in Birgu to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, as detailed in a bilateral agreement signed between the two parties in 1998 and ratified in 2001. While the agreement is intended to last for 99 years, the Maltese government has retained the right to unilaterally cancel it after 50 years.
The Order's Flag being flown together with the Republic of Malta's flag at Fort St. Angelo.
The Order also gave up rights to grant asylum in Malta, and differently from their properties in Italy, Maltese law still applies inside Fort St Angelo.
The Grand Master’s fallout with the Pope
The Order currently doesn’t have a Grand Master, after Fra' Matthew Festing resigned in early 2017 following a dispute with the Vatican. Festing had fired the order's Grand Chancellor for allowing a project to distribute contraception to the poor, on grounds of Catholicism’s policy on contraception.
Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager however appealed to Pope Francis, who ordered a commission to investigate the matter. Seeing it as an affront to the Order's sovereignty, Festing insisted that the Order itself be allowed to set up a commission internally - the Vatican not only refused, but began attempting to discredit that internal commission’s members.
Former Grand Master Fra' Matthew Festing (left) and Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager (right).
Festing was only the third ever Briton to serve as Grand Master, and was perceived as a leader of the more conservative elements within the Order, while others like Grand Chancellor Boeselager were more open to Pope Francis’s non-traditional approach to the religion. Boeselager has since been reappointed as Chancellor.
What does the future of the Order look like 10 centuries on?
Despite the modernisation pains, it looks like the Order’s image is being rebranded to fit in better with the times. In June 2017 for instance, Fra' Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto, acting leader, ditched the Order's longstanding tradition of wearing military attire and met the Pope donning a business suit. While that seems relatively insignificant to us, it was the first time tradition was broken in over 900 years – and the symbolism didn’t go unnoticed by Catholic news websites.
Lieutenant Grand Master Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto, currently acting as leader, meeting Pope Francis.
Officially, the Order's constitution is also in a process of reform, and with people like Boeselager back in the Order and swearing their loyalty to the current Pope, it’s probable that some of the changes sweeping the Vatican will soon be likewise realised in Palazzo Malta.
In one respect however, the Order pledge to remain steadfast. In the last forward he authored as Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing wrote:
daily acts of love and help of man to man are the great tradition of our Order... For as long as poverty, disease and loneliness exist, we will be there.