Vatican celebrates Knights of Malta's 900 years
VATICAN CITY (AP) - The Knights of Malta, one of the most peculiar organisations in the world, marked its 900th birthday on Saturday with a colourful procession through St Peter's Square, a mass in the basilica and an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, himself a member of the one-time chivalrous order drawn from Europe's nobility.
The Knights are at once a Roman Catholic religious order, an aid group that runs soup kitchens, hospitals and ambulance services around the globe, and a sovereign entity that prints its own passports and enjoys diplomatic relations with 104 countries - yet has no country to call its own.
Some 4,000 people - volunteers in neon orange civil protection suits, children in red berets and members each draped in a black cloak with a white, eight-pointed Maltese Cross on the front - processed through St Peter's Square and into the basilica for the mass marking the 900th anniversary of the order's recognition by the Holy See.
After the mass, which was celebrated by the Vatican No. 2, Pope Benedict came to the basilica for an audience during which he thanked the order for its service and urged it to continue providing health care for the world's neediest while staying true to its Christian ideals.