|Fra' Matthew Festing, the Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (Merton College Chapel, Oxford, UK) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Coat of Arms of the Knights, from the facade of the church of San Giovannino dei Cavalieri, Florence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
ROME (AP) — 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.
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 and with an Hermes boutique on the corner, 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. "I'm on the inside of it, so it doesn't seem to be contradictory to me, but maybe it is."
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 Feb. 9 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