The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta (Latin: Supremus Ordo Militaris Hospitalis Sancti Ioannis Hierosolymitani Rhodius et Melitensis), also known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM) or the Order of Malta, is a Catholic lay religious order traditionally of military, chivalrous and noble nature. It was founded as the Knights Hospitaller circa 1099 in Jerusalem, Kingdom of Jerusalem, by the Blessed Gerard, making it the world’s oldest surviving chivalric order. Headquartered in Palazzo Malta in Rome, its mission is summed up in its motto: Tuitio fidei et obsequium pauperum, “Defence of the (Catholic) faith and assistance to the poor”. The order is led by an elected Prince and Grand Master.
The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, now based in Rome, is the present-day continuation of the medieval Knights Hospitaller, with origins in the Fraternitas Hospitalaria hospital founded circa 1048 by merchants from the Duchy of Amalfi in the Muristan district of Jerusalem, Fatimid Caliphate, to provide medical care for pilgrims to the Holy Land. Following the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade and the subsequent loss of the Kingdom of Jerusalem to the Mamluk Sultanate, it became a military order to protect Christians against Islamic persecution and was recognised as sovereign in 1113 by Pope Paschal II. It operated from Cyprus (1291–1310), Rhodes (1310–1523), Malta (1530–1798), over which it was sovereign until the French occupation, and from Palazzo Malta in Rome from 1834 until the present. The order venerates as its patroness the Virgin Mary, under the title “Our Lady of Mount Philermos”.
Widely considered a sovereign subject of international law, the order maintains diplomatic relations with 107 states. It has United Nations permanent observer status, enters into treaties, and issues its own passports, coins, and postage stamps. Its two headquarters buildings in Rome enjoy extraterritoriality, similar to embassies, and it maintains embassies in other countries. The three principal officers are counted as citizens. Though its sovereignty is disputed by some legal scholars, it is often given as the only remaining example of a sovereign entity which entirely lacks territory.
The Order has 13,500 Knights, Dames and auxiliary members. A few dozen of these are professed religious. Until the 1990s, the highest classes of membership, including officers, required proof of noble lineage. More recently, a path was created for Knights and Dames of the lowest class (of whom proof of aristocratic lineage is not required) to be specially elevated to the highest class, making them eligible for office in the order.
The order employs about 42,000 doctors, nurses, auxiliaries and paramedics assisted by 80,000 volunteers in more than 120 countries, assisting children, homeless, handicapped, refugees, elders, terminally ill and lepers around the world without distinction of ethnicity or religion. Through its worldwide relief corps, Malteser International, the order aids victims of natural disasters, epidemics and war. In several countries, including France, Germany and Ireland, local associations of the order are important providers of medical emergency services and training. Its annual budget is on the order of 1.5 billion Euros, largely funded by European governments, the U.N., and the European Union, foundations and public donors.