Thursday, 20 March 2014

Sovereign Military Order of Malta

There is a small gate in a wall on the Aventine Hill. When you open it you can see down a long alley of trees which form a spectacular frame for the dome of St. Peters in the far distance. Tourists hang around in the hope that the gate will open so that they can catch the brief photo opportunity. The better informed tourists know that the view encompasses three sovereign territories: the Italian Republic, the Vatican City and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

We had the extraordinary honour of being shown around by His Sovereign Highness, Fra' Matthew Festing, Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta because long ago he was at school with the elder brother of one of my colleagues.

You might think that it would be difficult to imagine a Prince of the Church as a schoolboy but you would be wrong because His Sovereign Highness has an irreverent sense of humour and a wonderful chuckle.

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is ancient and has its origins in the work of the Knights Hospitallers who looked after crusaders and pilgrims in the Holy Land.

It might seem that an Order with such history and pageantry would be irrelevant today but it has a very serious role with thousands of volunteers working all over the world providing first aid services, emergency medical care and specialist hospitals for maternity, leprosy sufferers and those with terminal illness.

Inside the gate there is a tranquil garden with views over Rome and an imposing palazzo which is used for diplomatic purposes. There is another palazzo in the centre of Rome which houses the archive of the Order.

The hidden gem is the chapel of the Knights of Malta, a masterpiece by Piranesi.

It was a place of beauty and history and Fra' Matthew talked of these with great affection but his responsibility is to the sick, regardless of colour or creed, and this takes priority over buildings and gardens.

If you are very fortunate you will meet a few people in your life who really make an impression - not because of their wealth or their position but because of the power of their personality. I only met Fra' Matthew briefly but it was an unforgettable privilege to listen to his commitment to the humanitarian mission of this historic Order.


  1. OK, now I am jealous! This is a great honour you had here. Feel free to let me know when you plan such visits and I'll tag along. I swear I'll be polite and won't embarass you.


  2. You do get to visit some amazing places, what a great visit! xx

  3. This post makes me love this blog even more and I can't put my finger on what precisely it is. Is it the things that I get to see and know through your blog, the words you use, the pictures you take? I don't know. Your blog is like a really, really good book and the amazing thing is that it is one that goes on and on and entertains, educates and sometimes just makes me laugh my head off (in a good way). Thank you x

  4. Big privilege being taken there - Aventine and the archives - and especially tour with Fra' Matthew who is a top man with a wicked sense of humour. SMOM is a big outfit with 98,000 people involved and large budget prioritised on care and medical support rather than building improvements and maintenance. They do a lot of work with migrants in Lampedusa for example.

  5. PS worth mentioning that SMOM very early on decided that women should be allocated an individual bed when sick on the same basis as men.

  6. That is a new one on me, having never heard of it. You are a lucky girl!


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