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

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 disheveled, and asks an aide if he should take off his sweater to be photographed.

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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.”

Garrulous and self-effacing, Festing embodies some of the paradoxes of a fabled Catholic religious order that dates from the medieval 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 has many trappings of a country, printing its own stamps, coins, license plates and passports, and yet -- a stateless state - it rules over no territory.

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta's world headquarters, down the block from the Spanish Steps, features reception rooms draped in oil portraits of grand masters past and a gem of a chapel where King Juan Carlos of Spain was baptized by the future Pope Pius XII.

On the ground floor, it runs a health clinic that, while private, provides free services for anyone who can't pay.

"It is, I suppose, a series of contradictions," Festing told The Associated Press 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 Saturday 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. And though its military past is well behind it, the order is waging real legal battles to fend off what it says are impostors seeking to piggyback on its name to con people out of money.

Festing, a 63-year-old Briton and former Sotheby's auctioneer, is expansive about the unusual attributes of his organization 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 organization. It's a complicated mixture of things," he says in an interview in the gold silk brocaded state drawing room between meetings with parting Vatican nuncios and visiting ministers, diplomatic receptions and silent prayer.

BORN DURING CRUSADES

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 like the Knights Templars that combined religious fervor with fierce military might to protect and expand Christendom from Islam's advance during the Crusades.

In February 1113, Pope Paschal II issued a papal bull recognizing the order as independent from bishops or secular authorities. That "birth certificate," as Festing calls it, is the legal basis for asserting the order's sovereignty and the reason for Saturday's anniversary celebrations at the Vatican.

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 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.

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