VATICAN CITY —
During its heyday, would-be members had to prove nobility through all eight great-grandparents. Such requirements are now largely relaxed except in some European countries. Still, the order's members are drawn from some of the world's wealthiest Catholics, who fund its health clinics, homeless shelters and old folks' homes in 120 countries and rally for special appeals when disasters strike.
Sixty of the 13,500 members are so-called "professed knights," who make vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and live like monks, albeit without being ordained priests.
The order's international legal status is entirely unique, a sovereign entity that prints its own stamps, coins, license plates and passports, yet has no territory over which it rules. Its forces once occupied Cyprus, Rhodes and Malta, but Napoleon expelled the order from Malta in 1798, depriving it of the final patch of land ove it ruled.
Nevertheless, the order still enjoys many of the trappings of a small country: U.N. observer status and diplomatic relations with 104 countries, most of them in the developing world where such ties can smooth the delivery of humanitarian aid. But the United States, for one, has no relations, precisely because it's a stateless state.
In his speech Saturday, Benedict affirmed the sovereign status that the order enjoys. He acknowledged its peculiar nature, saying the order's guiding spirit "aims not to exercise power and influence of a worldly character, but in complete freedom to accomplish its own mission for the integral good of man, spirit and body ... with special regard for those whose need of hope and love is greater."