Currently there are about 60 professed knights and Festing hopes to increase their numbers as he seeks to expand the rank-and-file base to a younger generation of equally Catholic but not necessarily noble classes around the globe.
"It's not exactly out of date, but you can't maintain that in the 21st century," he says. "In general terms, in the old countries of Europe, we maintain the nobiliary requirement to an extent. But only to an extent. But in places like Australia, Central America, North America, Southeast Asia, it's all done on a different basis."
Members are still expected to chip in when natural disasters strike or wars erupt. Contributions in the tens of thousands of dollars are not unusual. Members also volunteer, bringing the sick to the shrine at Lourdes or pitching in at a one of the order's clinics, like the maternity hospital it runs in Bethlehem just a few steps from Jesus' traditional birthplace, where most of the patients are Muslim.
Even though it's a Catholic aid group — whose origins date from the Crusades — the order works in several Muslim countries, including Pakistan and Syria. "We do not hide that we are Christian, but we do not proselytize. That is impossible," said the order's health minister, Albrecht von Boeselager.
One perk of membership in the top ranks, reserved for men only, is the fabulous uniform: bright-red military-style jacket, with sword, spurs and epaulettes for official duties, a dark cloak with a white, eight-pointed Maltese Cross on the front for religious services.
All told, members, employees and volunteers who total 118,500 work in aid projects in 120 countries; the overall annual operating budget can run to euro 200 million, Festing says.
"We certainly don't want to be, and in fact we're not a sort of rich man's club," Festing insists. "To a sort of an extent you could say, 'Well maybe they are, slightly.' But that's not the basis of it. Otherwise I wouldn't have gotten in."
That elite reputation, however, combined with the order's neutral and apolitical relief work, has earned it a level of prestige that few organizations can match. Governments, the European Union and U.N. agencies finance the order's humanitarian operations; it has observer status at the United Nations and diplomatic relations with 104 countries — many in the developing world where such ties can help smooth the delivery of aid.
But the prestige has come with a price: Copycat orders have sprung up claiming to be the Knights of Malta or an offshoot that may or may not legitimately trace its origins to the group. These "false orders" prey on people eager to contribute to a Catholic charity thinking it's sanctioned by the Holy See.
The con jobs are sometimes so good that even the Vatican has been fooled. In October, the Vatican issued a public reminder that it recognizes only two ancient equestrian orders — the Order of Malta and the Equestrian Order of the Holy See Sepulcher of Jerusalem — after a group purporting to be the knights obtained approval to host a ceremony within the Vatican walls, Festing said.
"It was entirely innocent," on the part of the Vatican, said Festing. "But it wasn't actually us. It was somebody else."
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