‘Between believers, we have a better understanding of each other,” the Grand Hospitaller of the Order of Malta tells me. He is characteristically French, a confident man and the face of the order.

The Sovereign Order of Malta (full name: The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta) is the oldest Catholic lay order, dating back more than a thousand years. It has been described as “a nation without territory”. Yet despite its vast scope – today, the order is active in 120 countries and employs over 27,000 medical and paramedical personnel, as well as a further 100,000 volunteers – the Order of Malta is not as well known as many smaller organisations operating in the same fields.

Dominique Prince de La Rochefoucauld-Montbel has been involved in the order since 1982: a former president of the order’s French association, he was elected to his current senior role two years ago. His Excellency, as he is addressed, holds the medieval title of Grand Hospitaller, which equates to being minister of health, social affairs, humanitarian action and international cooperation. Inspired by his grandfather, who served as a member of the order, he was attracted to the organisation because it was a “possibility to be hands-on and to be helpful, while following the Catholic Church”.

The Grand Hospitaller is a busy man: the week that we speak he is travelling to London, Armenia and Serbia from the order’s headquarters in Rome. “There is no average day,” he tells me. “Three weeks ago I addressed the United Nations with three speeches in one day. Today I’m in Rome and I have three meetings.” Work varies according to the country and mission.

And what a mammoth organisation the Order of Malta is. It is surprisingly global – boasting bilateral relations with 106 countries (two more than Switzerland). Despite the impressive numbers, the nature of the order’s work is what makes it so impressive. It seems as if there is no corner of the globe that the order cannot reach, no crisis that the order shies away from, no ethical issue that the order ignores.

The issues that the order confronts are largely categorised as humanitarian or climate crises (examples include the tsunami of 2004, the Yolanda typhoon of 2013 and more recently the central Italian earthquake this summer) or local campaigns, such as helping the homeless. Furthermore, the order is working closely with refugees across Europe and the Middle East, is in a partnership with the Blue Cross in Turkey and Syria and runs a hospital in Palestine. “Every crisis is worthy of our assistance. I wish we could go everywhere,” the Grand Hospitaller tells me.

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