Steeped in European nobility and mystique, the order's mission is humility and charity – running hospitals, ambulance services and old folks' homes around the globe.
Knights of Malta eye changes on eve of 900th birthday
ROME // Matthew Festing - aka His Most Eminent Highness The Prince and Grand Master of the Knights of Malta - bounds into the sitting room of his magnificent Renaissance palazzo sweaty and somewhat dishevelled, and asks an aide if he should take off his sweater to be photographed.
Garrulous and self-effacing, Mr Festing embodies some of the paradoxes of a fabled Catholic religious order that dates from the Crusades. Steeped in European nobility and mystique, the order's mission is humility and charity - running hospitals, ambulance services and old folks' homes around the globe. It is a stateless state; printing its own stamps, coins, licence plates and passports, and yet it rules over no territory. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta's world headquarters, down the block from the Spanish Steps and with an Hermes boutique on the corner, features reception rooms draped in oil portraits of grand masters past and a gem of a chapel where King Juan Carlos of Spain was baptised by the future Pope Pius XII. On the ground floor, it runs a health clinic that, while private, provides free services for anyone who cannot pay.
"It is, I suppose, a series of contradictions," Mr Festing said ahead of the order's 900th birthday this week.
And as the Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, as the group is officially called, celebrates the anniversary on February 9 with a procession through St Peter's Square, a Mass in the basilica and an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, the ancient order is confronting some very modern-day issues.
Once drawn exclusively from Europe's nobility, the order is trying to shed its image as a purely rich man's club while still tapping the world's wealthy to fund its charitable work. Although its military past is well behind it, the order is waging real legal battles to fend off what it says are impostors seeking to con people out of money.
Mr Festing, a 63-year-old Briton and former Sotheby's auctioneer, is expansive about the unusual attributes of his organisation of 13,500 Knights and Dames who make promises to be good Christians and fund the order's humanitarian work.
"On the one hand it's a sovereign entity. On the other hand it's a religious order. On the other hand it's a humanitarian organisation. It's a complicated mixture of things," he says.
The order traces its history to the 11th century with the establishment of an infirmary in Jerusalem that cared for people of all faiths making pilgrimages to the Holy Land. It is the last of the great lay chivalrous military orders such as the Knights Templars.
In February 1113, Pope Paschal II issued a papal bull recognising the order as independent from bishops or secular authorities. That "birth certificate", as Mr Festing calls it, is the legal basis for asserting the order's sovereignty and the reason for Saturday's anniversary celebrations at the Vatican.
Mr Festing himself is a "Professed Knight" - the highest rank of members who take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The poverty vow seems a bit relative in this context: Knights on the order's governing council have their own private apartments inside the palace, complete with a valet and driver for cars that carry either diplomatic plates or the order's own SMOM plates. Wine from the order's own vineyards is often served.
Pope Benedict XVI is among the professed knights, though he is an exception since professed knights are not ordained priests and traditionally descend from noble blood.
Mr Festing, whose family traces their ancestry to 14th and 16th-century knights, was elected grand master in 2008. It is a title he holds for life and is equivalent to the rank of cardinal, though he cannot vote in a conclave to elect a pope.
Currently there are about 60 professed knights and Mr Festing hopes to increase their numbers, which means the order is having to confront change.
"In general terms, in the old countries of Europe, we maintain the nobiliary requirement to an extent. But only to an extent. But in places like Australia, Central America, North America, Southeast Asia, it's all done on a different basis."
Members' contributions in the tens of thousands of dollars are not unusual. Members also volunteer, bringing the sick to the shrine at Lourdes or pitching in at a one of the order's clinics, like the maternity hospital it runs in Bethlehem just a few steps from Jesus' traditional birthplace, where most of the patients are Muslim.
One perk of membership in the top ranks, reserved for men only, is the fabulous uniform: bright-red military-style jacket, with sword, spurs and epaulettes for official duties, a dark cloak with a white, eight-pointed Maltese Cross on the front for religious services.
All told, 98,000 members, employees and volunteers work in aid projects in 120 countries; the overall annual operating budget can run to 200 million euros (Dh995m), Mr Festing says.
Governments, the European Union and United Nations finance the order's humanitarian operations; it has observer status at the UN and diplomatic relations with 104 countries - many in the developing world where such ties can help smooth the delivery of aid.
But the prestige has come with a price: Copycat orders have sprung up claiming to be the Knights of Malta or an offshoot that may or may not legitimately trace its origins to the group. These "false orders" prey on people eager to contribute to a Catholic charity thinking it is sanctioned by the Holy See.
The con jobs are sometimes so good that even the Vatican has been fooled. In October, the Vatican issued a public reminder that it recognises only two ancient equestrian orders - the Order of Malta and the Equestrian Order of the Holy See Sepulcher of Jerusalem - after a group purporting to be the knights obtained approval to host a ceremony within the Vatican walls, Mr Festing says.
"It was entirely innocent," on the part of the Vatican, he says. "But it wasn't actually us. It was somebody else."