The Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM), officially the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta (Italian: Sovrano Militare Ordine Ospedaliero di San Giovanni di Gerusalemme di Rodi e di Malta; Latin: Supremus Militaris Ordo Hospitalarius Sancti Ioannis Hierosolymitani Rhodiensis et Melitensis), commonly known as the Order of Malta or Knights of Malta, is a Catholic lay religious order, traditionally of military, chivalric and noble nature. The order has been called "the smallest sovereign state in the world".SMOM claims continuity with the Knights Hospitaller, a chivalric order that was founded c. 1099 by the Blessed Gerard in medieval Jerusalem. In terms of international law, it is an establishment of the 19th century, recognized at the Congress of Verona of 1822, and since 1834 headquartered in Palazzo Malta in Rome. The order is led by an elected Prince and Grand Master. Its motto is Tuitio fidei et obsequium pauperum ('defence of the faith and assistance to the poor'). The order venerates the Virgin Mary as its patroness, under the title of Our Lady of Mount Philermos.
The headquarters of the Order of Saint John had been located in Malta from 1530 until 1798. It was technically a vassal of the Kingdom of Sicily, holding Malta in exchange for a nominal fee, but declared independence in 1753.
It was expelled from Malta under the French occupation in 1798 and, from 1805 to 1812, many of its possessions in Protestant Europe were confiscated, resulting in the fragmentation of the order into a number of Protestant branches, since 1961 united under the umbrella of the Alliance of the Orders of Saint John of Jerusalem.
The Congress of Vienna of 1815 confirmed the loss of Malta, but the Congress of Verona in 1822 guaranteed the continued existence of the Catholic order as a sovereign entity.