There are not very many sovereign entities that share a name, and, generally, when they do, there are marked tensions between the two.
The Republic of Malta and the Sovereign Order of Malta buck this trend. Both seem perfectly content with the shared title, perhaps due to the heritage that has defined them both.
Founded in Jerusalem in the eleventh century by an informal group of Benedictine tertiaries, led by Gerard Sasso – who was eventually beatified for his efforts – these monks quickly gained a reputation for their devoted ministry to pilgrims, to the poor and to the sick, whom they referred to as ‘Our Lords’.
The word ‘Lord’ was used because the brothers truly believed that they ministered to Jesus Christ himself when they served the ill and the infirm. However, the full interpretation of the word can only be fully understood when it is examined in its mediaeval context.
The ‘Lord’ was the all-powerful master, the one who issued directives and edicts, the one who commanded respect almost by divine right. The poor and the sick, on the other hand, were the outcasts, the banished, the very lowest ranking member of society. Blindness or leprosy, for example – two prominent afflictions that make regular appearances in the Catholic New Testament – would cause the sufferer to be totally ostracised, banned from the city and forever forgotten. Thus, the miracles performed by the Son of God were not merely granting relief from the symptoms of the disease but they were a tangible means of re-integrating the exiled into the sanctuary of the city.
The wilful subjugation of high-ranking members of society (as Gerard and his friends were) to the needs of the very lowest of the low generated widespread admiration, which in turn led to the rapid growth of this fledgling organisation. Within a few years they had established hospices in many Mediterranean ports and cities, the most famous of which was the hospital in Jerusalem, which naturally led to the confraternity being referred to as the Hospitallers.
In the year 1113 Pope Paschal II decreed that this community had become so distinct that it warranted elevation into a full Order of the Catholic Church. This placed the companions under the direct protection of the Holy See and granted them the right to elect their leaders freely and independently.
As the military situation worsened, the brethren realised that a defence strategy was required. It was at this point that the first knights appeared, with the addition of military prowess to the Hospitallers’ duties.
The loss of Jerusalem, and the fall of the bastion of St John of Acre caused the Order to take refuge in Cyprus, and in Rhodes a few years later. Here the Order was governed by a Grand Master and controlled a well-organised fleet. Significantly, it minted its own coins and entertained diplomatic relations with neighbouring states.
The Order’s relationship with Malta began in 1530, when, after the loss of Rhodes, Grand Master Fra’ Philippe Villiers de L’Isle-Adam took possession of the Maltese islands, which were granted to it by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.
The symbiotic relationship between the Order and Malta is palpable. The former received a new home and a refreshed raison d’être. The latter received far more than simply protection from a feared foe.
Architects, artisans, and artists flocked to Malta in the almost three centuries that followed. It was also a blessed coincidence for Malta that the Order was at it wealthiest here, and this was compounded by the fact that, especially in the later years, the flamboyant art form of Baroque happened to develop at this juncture. The consequent liberal sprinkling of magnificent palaces, auberges, and Churches all over Malta, but especially in its ‘new’ city of Valletta, has left us with a heritage that is recognised as a significant component of the world’s patrimony.
From a historical perspective, the Order’s presence in the islands had a profound impact and indelibly weaved Malta’s presence into the international scene. The Great Siege of Malta and the subsequent Battle of Lepanto, both of which featured the Order centre stage, had an immense effect on Europe’s geopolitical future, with the halting of the north-western spread of the Ottoman empire.
The Order’s physical presence in Malta came to an abrupt end in 1798 at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte, who occupied the islands during his Egyptian campaign. The Order found another safe haven in Russia, invited by Emperor Paul 1, and later in Rome, where it remains to this day.
The reasons for the loss of Malta have been the subject of many theses, but the immensely important by-product is this: the loss of territory and citizens now places the Sovereign Order of Malta in an ironically unassailable position. With neither land nor nationals to protect, yet still endowed with sovereign status, the Order of Malta can now dedicate itself entirely to its original calling: ministering to Our Lords the Sick and the Poor.
The Order today is focused on the provision of medical and humanitarian services worldwide. Its 14,500 members, 80,000 volunteers, and 25,000 employees are active in over 120 countries and deliver assistance to those affected by natural disasters or armed conflict.
We care for the elderly and the infirm in our hundreds of medical and social centres. We run a variety of emergency corps, and, through our international agency, Malteser International, we provide humanitarian relief worldwide, using our diplomatic credentials to facilitate this.
The Sovereign Order of Malta today is a subject of international law, it enjoys bilateral diplomatic relations with 108 states and it operates permanent missions within the principal international organisations such as the European Union, the United Nations and their specialised agencies.
It is particularly involved in the care of refugees, across Europe and globally, providing assistance along their journeys and in the host countries where they settle. It is also actively involved in the rehabilitation of their countries of origin, with the hope that, eventually, with the help of the international community, the very reasons spurring them to flee their countries are addressed and eradicated.
The Order of Malta is sometimes compared to a proto-European Union, when its historic langues brought together so many members of the various European states around a figurative table, acting together as one unit. We trust that our actions can bring further unity among nations, and a renewed interest in delivering care to the weakest, the poorest, and the most needy members of our world of nations.