February 9, 2013

At 900, Knights of Malta carries out noble mission

The religious order tries to shed its image as a club for the rich while tapping the wealthy for its charities.

By NICOLE WINFIELD The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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A Palestinian nurse at the Holy Family Hospital in the West Bank town of Bethlehem takes care of a newborn baby. The hospital is one of many run by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, an ancient Roman Catholic religious order.

Photos by The Associated Press

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Grand Master Matthew Festing, at the Order of Malta’s palazzo in Rome, says the organization is a “complicated mixture of things.”

Pope Benedict XVI is a member, though he's an exception. Professed knights aren't ordained priests and traditionally descend from noble blood.

Festing, whose family traces its ancestry to 14th- and 16th-century knights, was elected grand master in 2008. It's a title he holds for life and is equivalent to the rank of cardinal, though he can't vote in a conclave to elect a pope.

Currently there are about 60 professed knights and Festing hopes to increase their numbers as he seeks to expand the rank-and-file base to a younger generation of equally Catholic but not necessarily noble classes around the globe.

"It's not exactly out of date, but you can't maintain that in the 21st century," he says. "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."

RESPONSE TO DISASTERS

Members are still expected to chip in when natural disasters strike or wars erupt. 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.

Even though it's a Catholic aid group the order works in several Muslim countries, including Pakistan and Syria. "We do not hide that we are Christian, but we do not proselytize. That is impossible," said the order's health minister, Albrecht von Boeselager.

All told, members, employees and volunteers who total 118,500 work in aid projects in 120 countries; the overall annual operating budget can run to 200 million euros, Festing says.

Governments, the European Union and U.N. agencies finance the order's humanitarian operations; it has observer status at the United Nations 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.

 

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