Giorgio Minguzzi via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
The Sovereign Military Order of Malta can be hard to define. The thousand-year-old entity is a Catholic religious order, medical aid organization, and international diplomatic entity all in one.
Present in 120 countries, with over 2,000 projects in the medical-social field, and more than 120,000 volunteers and medical staff, the order functions as an emergency relief organization in many developing areas and crisis zones.
The Order of Malta is headed by a Grand Master who oversees the order with the help of a body called the Sovereign Council. Those members are elected for five-year terms by the order’s General Chapter.
The rest of the organization’s members belong to three classes.
The First Class consists of the Knights of Justice, or professed knights, and Professed Conventual Chaplains, who take the religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They are defined as religious but not required to live in a community.
The Second Class is composed of Knights and Dames in Obedience, who promise to strive for Christian perfection in the spirit of the order.
The Third Class comprises lay members who neither take vows nor make promises but are committed to living a fully Catholic life according to the order’s principles.
The order is unique in that, while it has no territory, it is a sovereign entity under international law – with its own passports, diplomatic relationships, and permanent observer status at the United Nations.
This diplomatic independence was crucial to is ability to work in war-torn regions like the Syrian border, without be perceived as a tool of any side of government, according to former Grand Master Boeselager.
“Historically, the service to the poor is first,” said Boeselager, “this has always been in the foreground for us.”
“This and the order’s call to promoting, witnessing, protecting the faith are two sides of the same coin. It is creating a space where the faith can be promoted and is possible. The way the order promotes the faith is in combination in its work.”
“We are not theologians, we are not liturgists, our vocation is to promote the faith and serve the poor together.”