The defining mission of the Order of Malta for the nine centuries of its existence has been "Defence of the Faith" and service to "our lords the poor and the sick". While its origins can be traced to a hospital for pilgrims in Jerusalem as early as 1048, it is from Pope Pascal II's endorsement by papal bull in 1113 that the Order dates itself.
The story of the Order (or, to give it its full name, the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta) is something of a cycle.
Following the success of the First Crusade, the "Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem" swiftly morphed into a fighting force capable of protecting pilgrims and assisting the defence of the Holy Land. After the last Christian stronghold of Acre fell in 1291, the Order moved gradually westward, first to Rhodes (1310-1523) and then, following a fierce six-month siege, to Malta, which it ruled from 1530 to 1798.
From Malta, the Knights maintained a naval force which did much to curb the influence of the Barbary pirates. They also contributed galleys to the combined Christian fleet at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
Perhaps the greatest military feat of the knights, however, was their victory against the odds in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. Led by their Grand Master, Jean de Valette (after whom Valetta, the capital of Malta, was later named), the knights withstood a ferocious three-month siege ordered by Ottoman Sultan Suleiman.
Outnumbered almost eight to one (6,100 to 48,000), the 500 knights and their allies employed scorched-earth tactics and made use of their massive fortifications in order to slow the Ottomans. Heavy artillery was employed by both armies - seeing some of the largest bombardments in history at that time - as well as gruesome acts of war which would doubtless fail every aspect of the modern laws of armed conflict. But, for the knights, this was a fight for their very survival.
Led by de Valette, the knights remarkably kept up the fight for months until relief forces from Europe arrived and the Ottoman forces fled. Both sides suffered terrible casualties, but the conflict impressed upon European leaders the importance of forming coalitions, leading to combined efforts at Lepanto just a few years later.
Ultimately, the Order was expelled from Malta by the invading Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 and, after some years of wandering, made its home in Rome where its Grand Master and government remain to the present with extraterritorial status. This is how the modern Sovereign Military Order of Malta acquires its name and how the cycle from assistance to the Faith, the poor and the sick comes full circle to its origins.
Today, the Order maintains formal diplomatic relations with over 100 countries and official relations with many others including the EU and the UN. Sadly, it does not yet enjoy relations with Australia.
The Order is currently led by Englishman Fra' Matthew Festing, elected for life in 2008. Accorded the title "Prince and Grand Master", he ranks in the Church's order of precedence as the lowest of the cardinals and carries the telling title "Most Humble Guardian of the Poor of Jesus Christ."
While there are today numerous grades of knight, dames, donats and chaplains, at the core of the Order remain the Knights of Justice, who take perpetual vows and become, in effect, religious knights like their predecessors of old.
The Order has grown significantly in recent decades, now claiming about 14,000 members, with 80,000 volunteers and 20,000 medical staff in over 120 countries worldwide. This last category is worth noting as in a number of countries, mainly in Europe, the Order continues to run the main ambulance and paramedic services.
Charitable works extend from permanent missions in developing nations to rapid disaster relief. The latter has seen the Order provide assistance in locations as diverse as New Orleans, following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and some of the many nations devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
The Australian Branch of the Order undertakes a number of charitable activities, both in Australia and in neighbouring countries. These range from the nationwide purchase and distribution of warm, waterproof coats and food for the homeless to the medical support to East Timor (such as the support of local clinics and the provision of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment).
To contrast its very relevant and much-needed work against its maintenance of ancient titles, rituals and vestments, the Order probably seems, to many, an anachronism - a remnant of a bygone era. But, much like the Church itself, therein lies one of its great strengths. Being timeless and not subject to the trends and fancies of an ever-changing world, the Order simply continues its task without interruption in an increasingly secular world.
Many charities and societies have come and gone, but 900 years on the Order of Malta appears stronger than ever.
To support the charitable works of the Order or find out more, please visit: orderofmalta.org.au