The Order of Malta has been a religious order since 1113, the year it was recognized by Pope Paschal II. As a religious order, it is linked to the Holy See, but at the same time it is independent as a sovereign subject of international law.
In this respect the religious character of the Order of Malta coexists with its full sovereignty. The Grand Master is at the same time head of a sovereign entity and head of a religious order. In this second capacity the Holy Roman Church gives him the rank of cardinal.
The Order of Malta is a lay religious order according to Canon Law, where some of its members are religious – they have professed the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience – and others have taken a special promise of obedience, pledging to follow Christian principles more profoundly while living in society.
The great majority of the knights and dames are lay members. The Grand Master of the Order of Malta is elected from among the Professed Knights of Perpetual Vows.
The eight-pointed cross which symbolizes the Order represents the eight Beatitudes and is thus a visual memento of its spirituality.