Papal Orders are bestowed upon people who have been honored by the Holy Father for service in some way to the Church and/or to the Holy See.
This is much like monarchs bestowing knighthood or other different orders, such as the Order of the Garter in England upon worthy subjects. There are quite a few honors in the Catholic Church: the Supreme Order of Christ, the Grand Cross of the Pontifical Order of Saint Gregory the Great, the Order of Christ and the Order of the Golden Spur, the Order of Pope Pius IX, the Order of Saint Sylvester, the Cross Pro-Ecclesia et Pontifice, and the Benemerenti Medal. When Catholics receive these awards from his holiness, they receive the rank of knight.
The Supreme Order of Christ is the highest order of knighthood that the Vatican bestows. This is reserved for Catholic male heads of state and sovereigns and was founded in 1318 AD by the king and queen of Portugal. The Order of the Golden Spur is the second highest honor the Holy See awards. It is awarded by the pope on Catholic and non-Catholic heads of state. The Order of Pope Pius IX is the third of the Vatican orders but the highest to have more than one class and was founded in 1847. There are five classes: Grand Collar, Knight and Dame Grand Cross, Knight and Dame Commander, Knight and Dame.
It is awarded to Catholic laymen at the request of the local ordinary, and is commonly bestowed upon diplomats appointed to the Holy See. The Order of Saint Gregory the Great was instituted in 1831 by Pope Gregory XVI. It was founded with two divisions, military and civil. It has three classes: Grand Cross, Knight and Dame Commander, and Knight and Dame. It is usually bestowed upon people (Catholics or non-Catholics) who serve the Catholic Church or society. The Equestrian Order of Pope Saint Sylvester was established by Pope Gregory XVI in 1841. It too is awarded in three classes: Grand Cross, Knight and Dame Commander, and Knight and Dame. It is awarded to Catholic and non-Catholic laymen/women who, by their examples in business, the professions, the military, and society, have lived exemplary lives.
The Cross Pro Ecclesia is a papal award founded by Pope Leo XIII in 1888. It is bestowed upon both lay and clerical people who have given service to the Church. The Benemerenti Medal was established by Pope Pius VI in 1791 as an award for military courage in the defense of the Papal States. In 1925, it was updated and is usually given during the Holy Year celebrations or special jubilees given to persons in service to the Church civil, military, lay, and clergy.
The Order of Malta and the Order of the Holy Sepulcher are two other grand honors. Knights of Malta date back to 1070 AD during the time of the Crusades. The Order of Malta is a sovereign power and is recognized as an independent nation-state. The habit of the Order of Malta has remained the same since 1125 AD. It is distinguished by the Maltese cross. The Order of Merit of the Order of Malta is bestowed by the Prince Grand Master. It is usually bestowed to special sovereigns and heads of state. There are three classes of the Order of Merit: the special Civil Class for Gentlemen, the Military Class of Merit, and the Class of Merit for Ladies.
The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem can trace its roots to the First Crusade. Unlike the Order of Malta, the Holy Sepulcher is governed by the Church. The head is the pope. Appointed by the pope is a cardinal, who serves for life as the appointed Grand Master. Laymen and clergy may be members of this Order. For clergy they have to be recommended by the local ordinary. Laymen have to be recommended by another member.
The Knights of Columbus is an organization of Catholic men founded by Friar Francis McGiveny in the nineteenth century in order help them financially. Membership is not a papal honor or award. Presently, Friar McGiveny’s case is being opened for possible canonization. The Knights of Columbus is one of the largest Catholic fraternal orders in the world. It also maintains one of the largest insurance programs for knights, offering life insurance and retirement plans.