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Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta
Sovrano Militare Ordine Ospedaliero di San Giovanni di Gerusalemme di Rodi e di Malta
Motto"Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum"  (Latin)
"Defence of the faith and assistance to the poor"
Anthem"Ave Crux Alba"  (Latin)
"Hail, thou White Cross"

Capital Magistral Palace, Rome
Official language(s) Italian
 -  Prince & Grand Master Fra' Matthew Festing
 -  Grand Chancellor Jean-Pierre Mazery
 -  Established c. 1099 
 -  Loss of Malta 1798 
 -  New Headquarters in Rome 1834 
 -   estimate 12,500 members, 80,000 volunteers[1] 
Currency Euro (officially the scudo)

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta (Italian: Sovrano Militare Ordine Ospedaliero di San Giovanni di Gerusalemme di Rodi e di Malta) (known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta [SMOM], Order of Malta or Knights of Malta for short) is a Roman Catholic order based in Rome, Italy. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is a sovereign subject of international law.[2]

It takes its origins from the Knights Hospitaller, an organization founded in Jerusalem in 1050 as an Amalfitan hospital to provide care for poor and sick pilgrims to the Holy Land. After the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade, it became a Catholic military order under its own charter. Following the loss of Christian held territories of the Holy Land to Muslims, the Order operated from Rhodes (1310–1523), and later from Malta (1530–1798), over which it was sovereign.

Although this state came to an end with the ejection of the Order from Malta by Napoleon, the Order as such survived. It retains its claims of sovereignty under international law and has been granted permanent observer status at the United Nations. SMOM is considered to be the main successor to the medieval Knights Hospitaller.

Today the order has 12,500 members; 80,000 permanent volunteers; and 20,000 medical personnel including doctors, nurses, auxiliaries and paramedics. The goal is to assist the elderly, the handicapped, refugees, children, the homeless, those with terminal illness and leprosy in five continents of the world, without distinction of race or religion.[3] In several countries—including France, Germany and Ireland—the local associations of the Order are important providers of first aid training, first aid services and emergency medical services. Through its worldwide relief corps—Malteser International—the Order is also engaged to aid victims of natural disasters, epidemics and armed conflicts.


Name and insignia

The Order has a large number of local priories and associations around the world but there also exist a number of organizations with similar-sounding names that are unrelated, including numerous fraudulent (self-styled) orders seeking to capitalize on the name.[4]

Coat of Arms of the Knights, from the facade of the church of San Giovannino dei Cavalieri, Florence

In the ecclesiastical heraldry of the Roman Catholic church, the Order of Malta is one of only two orders (along with the Order of the Holy Sepulchre) whose insignia may be displayed in a clerical coat of arms. (Laypersons have no such restriction.) The shield is surrounded with a silver rosary for professed knights, or for others the ribbon of their rank. Members may also display the Maltese Cross behind their shield instead of the ribbon.[5]

International status of the Order

With its unique history and unusual present circumstances, the exact status of the Order in international law has been the subject of debate: it claims to be a traditional example of a sovereign entity other than a state. Its two headquarters in Rome—the Palazzo Malta in Via dei Condotti 68, where the Grand Master resides and Government Bodies meet and the Villa Malta on the Aventine, which hosts the Grand Priory of Rome, the Embassy of the Order to Holy See and the Embassy of the Order to Italy—are granted extraterritoriality.

Flags of Knights Hospitaller in St. Peter's Castle, Bodrum, Turkey
From left to right : Fabrizio Carretto (1513–1514); Amaury d'Amboise (1503–1512); Pierre d'Aubusson (1476–1503); Jacques de Milly (1454–1451)

However, unlike the Holy See—which is sovereign over the Vatican City—SMOM has had no sovereign territory (other than a few properties in Italy with extraterritoriality only) since the loss of the island of Malta in 1798. The United Nations does not classify it as a "non-member state" but as one of the "entities and intergovernmental organizations having received a standing invitation to participate as observers." For instance, while the International Telecommunication Union has granted radio identification prefixes to such quasi-sovereign jurisdictions as the United Nations and the Palestinian Authority, SMOM has never received one. For awards purposes, amateur radio operators consider SMOM to be a separate "entity", but stations transmitting from there use an entirely unofficial callsign, starting with the prefix "1A".[6] Likewise, for internet identification, the SMOM has neither sought nor been granted a top-level domain, while Vatican City uses its own domain (.va).[7]

There are differing opinions as to whether a claim to sovereign status has been recognized. Ian Brownlie, Helmut Steinberger, and Wilhelm Wengler are among the experts who say that the claim has not been recognized. Even taking into account the Order's ambassadorial status among many nations, a claim to sovereign status is sometimes rejected. The Order maintains diplomatic missions around the world and many of the states reciprocate by accrediting ambassadors to the Order.

Wengler—a German professor of international law—addresses this point in his book Völkerrecht, and rejects the notion that recognition of the Order by some states can make it a subject of international law. Conversely, professor Rebecca Wallace—writing more recently in her book International Law—explains that a sovereign entity does not have to be a country, and that SMOM is an example of this.[8] This position appears to be supported by the number of nations extending diplomatic relations to the Order, which more than doubled from 49 to 100 in the 20-year period to 2008.[9] In 1953, the Holy See proclaimed "in the Lord's name" that the Order of Malta was only a "functional sovereignty"—due to the fact that it did not have all that pertained to true sovereignty, such as territory.

Foreign relations with the SMOM      diplomatic relations      other relations

SMOM has formal diplomatic relations with 104 states[10] and has official relations with another six countries, non-state subjects of international law like the European Community and International Committee of the Red Cross, and a number of international organizations.[11] Its international nature is useful in enabling it to pursue its humanitarian activities without being seen as an operative of any particular nation. Its claimed sovereignty is also expressed in the issuance of passports, licence plates,[12] stamps,[13] and coins.[14] The coincidence of Rome being the capital of the Italian Republic, the Holy See and the Order of Malta leads to a high density of diplomatic instances in the city.

The coins are appreciated more for their subject matter rather than for use as currency, however, their postage stamps have been gaining acceptances among Universal Postal Union member nations.

The SMOM began issuing euro-denominated postage stamps in 2005, although the scudo remains the official currency of the SMOM. Also in 2005, the Italian post agreed with the SMOM to deliver internationally most classes of mail other than registered, insured, and special-delivery mail; before this agreement, the following countries recognized SMOM stamps for franking purposes:[15]

Argentina, Austria, Benin, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Canada, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Chile, Comoros, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cuba, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Gabon, Georgia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Honduras, Hungary, Italy, Ivory Coast, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Liberia, Lithuania, Madagascar, Mali, Montenegro, Nicaragua, Niger, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Russia. San Marino, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Slovakia, Slovenia, Somalia, Togo, Uruguay, Vatican City.

Governance of the Order

A Knight of Grace and Devotion in 21st century habit

The proceedings of the Order are governed by its Constitutional Charter and the Order's Code. It is divided internationally into six territorial Grand Priories, six Sub-Priories, and 47 national associations.

The supreme head of the Order is the Grand Master, who is elected for life by the Council Complete of State. Fra' Matthew Festing was elected by the Council as 79th Grand Master on 11 March 2008, succeeding Fra' Andrew Bertie, who was Grand Master until his death on 7 February 2008. Electors in the Council include the members of the Sovereign Council, other office-holders and representatives of the members of the Order. The Grand Master is aided by the Sovereign Council (the government of the Order), which is elected by the Chapter General, the legislative body of the Order. The Chapter General meets every five years; at each meeting, all seats of the Sovereign Council are up for election. The Sovereign Council includes six members and four High Officers: the Grand Commander, the Grand Chancellor, the Grand Hospitaller and the Receiver of the Common Treasure. The Grand Commander is the chief religious officer of the Order and serves as "Interim Lieutenant" during a vacancy in the office of Grand Master. The Grand Chancellor, whose office includes those of the Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is the head of the executive branch; he is responsible for the Diplomatic Missions of the Order and relations with the national Associations. The Grand Hospitaller's responsibilities include the offices of Minister for Humanitarian Action and Minister for International Cooperation; he coordinates the Order's humanitarian and charitable activities. Finally, the Receiver of the Common Treasure is the Minister of Finance and Budget; he directs the administration of the finances and property of the Order.

Membership in the order is divided into the following classes: knights of justice or "profess knights" who take religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and form what amounts to a religious order (until the 1990s membership in this class was restricted to members of families with noble titles); knights of obedience (similarly restricted, these knights make a promise, rather than a vow, of obedience); knights of honor and devotion, knights of grace and devotion and knights of magistral grace, all of these classes made up of members who take no vows, and who had to show a decreasingly extensive history of nobility (knights of magistral grace do not have to prove any noble lineage, and are the most common form of knights in the United States). Within each class of knights there are ranks ranging from bailiff grand cross (the highest) through knights grand cross, knights commanders, knights officers and knights—thus one could be a "knight commander of grace and devotion," or a "bailiff grand cross of justice." A final rank of "donat" is offered to some who join the order in the class of "justice" but who are not knights.

Prior to the 1990s, all officers of the Order had to be of noble birth (i.e., armigerous for at least 100 years), as they were all knights of justice or of obedience; however, Knights of Magistral Grace (i.e. those without noble proofs) may now make the Promise of Obedience and may, at the discretion of the Grand Master and Sovereign Council, enter the novitiate to become professed Knights of Justice.

Worldwide, there are over 12,500 knights and dames, a small minority of whom are professed religious. Membership of the Order is by invitation only and solicitations are not entertained.

The Order's finances are audited by a Board of Auditors, which includes a President and four Councillors, all elected by the Chapter General. The Order's judicial powers are exercised by a group of Magistral Courts, whose judges are appointed by the Grand Master and Sovereign Council.

Military Corps of the Order


Ground Forces

The Order states that it was the hospitaller role that enabled the Order to survive the end of the crusading era; nonetheless, it retains its military title and function. As a sovereign body, it has the right to maintain a military force and does so at its Rome headquarters.

Commonly referred to as The Military Corps of the Order, its members have medical or paramedical military functions. Its present form was raised in 1877 and has enjoyed a continuous existence since that date. Armed and uniformed members of the Corps attend grand ceremonials of the Order and stand guard around the coffins of high officers of the Order before and during funeral rites.[16] By agreement with the Italian Government in 1877, the Military Corps came into being under the official title of 'Auxiliary Military Corps of the Italian Army — Sovereign Military Order of Malta'[17] to assist the Italian army's injured or sick (in peace or war). In 1908, the agreement was modified so that the Corps, whilst remaining the official military unit of the Order and under the command of the Order, also became a fully integral part of the Italian army. Fausto Solaro del Borgo, President of the Italian Association of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, stated in a speech given in London in November 2007:[17]

I believe that it is a unique case in the world that a unit of the army of one country is supervised by a body of another sovereign country. Just think that whenever our staff (medical officers mainly) is engaged in a military mission abroad, there is the flag of the Order flying below the Italian flag.

Hospital trains

The Corps has become known in mainland Europe for its operation of hospital trains,[18] a service which was carried out intensively during both World Wars. These hospital trains may have functions from the purely practical (providing shelter to refugees in carriages) to the relatively technical (with minor surgical procedures carried out on board).

Military aircraft

As part of the post-World War Two peace treaty, 36 military aircraft of the Italian Air Force were transferred to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and flew under the Order's flag to allow the Military Corps to continue its medical function within the (then limited) Italian armed forces. One of these aircraft, still in Order colours, is preserved in the Italian Museum of Aeronautics, whilst the other 35 have been withdrawn from service. Today, the Order continues to operate aircraft through its Military Corps, and these carry the military roundel of the Order on their fuselage (a red circle with a white Maltese cross in the centre, its points reaching to, or almost to, the edge of the circle); however, these aircraft are usually loaned by or hired from the Italian Air Force.[19]

See also




  1. ^ "Italy: Knights of Malta rejects alleged link to military action - Adnkronos Religion". 2003-04-07. Retrieved 2010-03-17. 
  2. ^ Riley-Smith, 170
  3. ^ As the Order's website states here, "Its programmes include medical and social assistance, disaster relief in the case of armed conflicts and natural catastrophes, emergency services and first aid corps, help for the elderly, the handicapped and children in need and the provision of first aid training, and support for refugees and internally displaced persons regardless of race, origin or religion."
  4. ^ Pseudo Orden und ihr Auftreten in Österreich 1996-2008
  5. ^ Noonan 1996
  6. ^ "ARRLWeb: DXCC Entities List (Current, 1A0-9Z)". 2008-05-06. Retrieved 2010-03-17. 
  7. ^ "Internet Assigned Numbers Authority database of top level domains". Retrieved 2010-03-17. 
  8. ^ Wallace, Rebecca (1986). International law: a student introduction (2nd ed.). Sweet & Maxwell Ltd. ISBN 0421335009. 
  9. ^ "Mass commemorates knights leader". BBC News (BBC Online). 8 March 2008. Retrieved 2 May 2009. 
  10. ^ The Order's official website lists them in this table. Retrieved 2009-01-27.
  11. ^ "Sovereign Order of Malta - Official site". Retrieved 2010-03-17. 
  12. ^ "SMOM Plates". 1994-08-24. Retrieved 2010-03-17. 
  13. ^ "Sovereign Order of Malta - Official site". Retrieved 2010-03-17. 
  14. ^ "The Coins of the Sovereign Order of Malta". Retrieved 2010-03-17. 
  15. ^ [1] Sovereign Order of Malta — Associate Countries (Postal Agreements)
  16. ^ This photograph shows four members of the Corps standing guard at the coffin of a deceased Grand Master of the Order.
  17. ^ a b [2]
  18. ^ Ordine di Malta - Sito Ufficiale - Archivio Fotografico (Italian)
  19. ^ "Military Aircraft Insignia of the World" by John Cochrane and Stuart Elliott, published 1998 by Airlife Publishing Limited of Shrewsbury, England (illustrated). ISBN 1-85310-873-1


  • Riley-Smith, Jonathan, The Atlas of the Crusades. Facts On File, Oxford (1991)
  • Cohen, R. (2004-04-15) [1920]. Julie Barkley, Bill Hershey and PG Distributed Proofreaders. ed. Knights of Malta, 1523-1798. Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 2006-05-29. 
  • Noonan, Jr., James-Charles (1996). The Church Visible: The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman Catholic Church. Viking. p. 196. ISBN 0-670-86745-4. 
  • Read, Piers Paul (1999). The Templars. Imago. p. 118. ISBN 85-312-0735-5. 
  • Tyerman, Christopher (2006). God's War: A New History of the Crusades. Allen Lane. p. 253. ISBN 0-7139-9220-4. 
  • Wallace, R.M.M (1992). International Law. p. 76. 

External links


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