They trace their origins back to the warrior monks who tended to fallen soldiers of the Crusades, but have since become a humanitarian organization running hospitals, clinics, and relief operations in 120 countries around the world.
Now the Knights of Malta, also known as the Knights Hospitaller, are throwing their considerable resources into tackling growing levels of poverty in Europe, in addition to their traditional commitments to countries in Asia, Africa, and the Americas affected by war and natural disasters.
The chivalric order, which has nearly 100,000 doctors, nurses, and volunteers around the globe, announced the switch of emphasis this week in Rome, where it is celebrating 900 years since receiving official approbation from the Vatican.
The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and Malta – as it is officially known – is opening shelters and soup kitchens across Europe as the number of jobless and homeless rises amid the worst recession since the Second World War.
Out of the 27 nations in the European Union, more than 26 million people are now unemployed, with the rate of joblessness among the young even more shocking – more than 50 percent in Spain, around 35 percent in Italy.
The order, which has its headquarters in Rome after being expelled from Malta by Napoleon in 1798, identified the crisis in Europe as one of its three main areas of concern, along with war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the exodus of refugees from Syria.
“In Europe there is increasing unemployment and governments are cutting their funds for health and social welfare,” says Albrecht Boeselager, a senior member of the order.
“Our shelter for the homeless in Paris has a 98 percent occupancy rate. In Germany we are now caring for thousands of the homeless in Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg, and other cities. We plan to open new facilities in Britain and Ireland.”
The situation is even worse in Eastern Europe.
“Pensions there are low and more and more people are falling into poverty,” Mr. Boeselager says.
An increasing share of the charity’s $800 million annual budget is funneled toward Europe.
The Knights of Malta are not the first international organization to have identified the growing need for aid in Europe.
In October last year the Red Cross in Spain launched its first ever campaign to drum up donations for struggling Spaniards.
The Red Cross – more commonly associated with operating in the poorest parts of the developing world – said it needed 30 million euros over the next two years to help 300,000 Spaniards described as “extremely vulnerable.”
The origins of the Knights
The Knights of Malta order was founded in the 11th century to protect pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land during the Crusades.
It later became a fighting force and accrued land and wealth, rivaling another chivalric order, the Knights Templar.
When Christian attempts to take Jerusalem failed and the Crusades ended, the order established its base on Cyprus, before moving to Rhodes and then to Malta – hence their title today.
Nine hundred years ago this week the Knights received the official backing of the Church with a 'bull,' or decree, issued by Pope Paschal II.
That event will be commemorated on Saturday when 4,000 members of the order, dressed in ceremonial uniforms bearing a distinctive eight-pointed cross, will attend a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.
After being thrown out of Malta the order was taken in by Italy and allowed to reestablish itself in two imposing palazzi (or grand, historic buildings) in Rome.
The Knights of Malta order has observer status at the United Nations and maintains diplomatic relations with 104 countries. It has all the trappings of a state – passports, money, and stamps – but no land.
“We no longer have any territory, but we are recognized as having the functions of sovereignty,” says Jean-Pierre Mazery, the order’s foreign affairs minister. “Our neutrality and impartiality enables us to work in countries where almost no other humanitarian organization has access.”