The first phase of a complicated affair in which the historic and wideflung Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta (S.M.O.M.)—commonly known simply as the “Order of Malta”—has been embroiled for several years, at least since 2016, has just come to an end.
Pope Francis, with a Decree that came into force on September 3, has promulgated a new constitutional charter for the order and a corresponding Melitense Code, revoking at the same time the high offices and dissolving the present Sovereign Council. The document is now available on the Order’s website.
Now begins the second phase, which will lead the S.M.O.M. to an internal renewal. It has taken the Order at least seven years, and numerous vicissitudes, to identify the modalities of this renewal with the new Constitution. The Pontiff himself has set January 25, 2023, feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, as the date for the Extraordinary General Chapter, which is to appoint the new leadership of the Order, including the Grand Master—vacant since 2020 following the death of Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto—according to a Regulation approved by the Pope.
In the meantime, a provisional Sovereign Council of thirteen members has been set up to assist the Pope’s special delegate (Cardinal Silvano Maria Tomasi) and the previous Grand Master’s Lieutenant (Fra’ John T. Dunlap), who is still in office, as they prepare for the General Chapter, which they will co-chair.
The History of the Order
The Order of Malta has a multisecular history, dating back to the first century of the second millennium. It has been recognized as a subject of international law since 1113, and maintains diplomatic relations with more than 100 states and with the European Union, and is a permanent observer at the United Nations.
It is a Catholic lay religious order operating in 120 countries, where it is mainly engaged in charitable, medical, social and humanitarian activities. It is organized into 11 Priories, 48 National Associations, 133 diplomatic missions, 33 relief corps and 1 international aid agency, in addition to managing numerous hospitals, medical centers and specialized foundations.
It was Pope Paschal II who officially recognized the monastic community of the “Hopitallers of St. John of Jerusalem” with the document Pie postulatio voluntatis, giving a power of sovereignty and independence to that first monastic community that had been caring for poor pilgrims in a hostel in Jerusalem since half a century earlier (1048), and transforming it into a lay religious order. The first leader and Grand Master was Blessed Fra’ Gerard, a native of Scala, a few kilometers from Amalfi, in southern Italy.
The new Constitutional Charter incorporates the objectives of the Order, which refer mainly to the promotion of “the glory of God and the sanctification of its members” through the defense of the faith and the care of the poor and suffering “in the service of the Holy Father”. Its members are called “to be credible disciples of Christ” and the whole Order “bears witness to the Christian virtues of charity and fraternity”.
The events of recent years
The Holy See has intervened with the Knights of Malta on several occasions to affirm their identity and help them overcome crises, as Pope Francis mentions in his latest decree. This has also occurred during this pontificate, according to a series of vicissitudes that have represented an internal division of its members, which began with an expulsion of one of the previous Grand Chancellors (Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager) in December 2016.
At that time, the Order’s Cardinal Patron was Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke (appointed by Pope Francis on November 8, 2014), who had been a member since 2011. The purpose of the Cardinal Patron is to represent the Pontiff and promote the spiritual interests of the order, as well as to maintain relations with the Holy See. The Grand Master of the Order was Fra’ Matthew Festing.
At this juncture, between the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, the first disagreements occurred: these would then lead in the following years to various measures by the Pope for a complete reorganization of the Order and its relations with the Apostolic See.
The origin of these vicissitudes, as mentioned, goes back to the forced dismissal of Grand Chancellor Boaselager in early December 2016, accused of having distributed condoms during a humanitarian initiative in Myanmar in previous years. He defended himself by claiming that he was unaware of the matter, which was decided at the local level, and that he intervened as soon as he became aware of it.
The then Cardinal Patron informed the Pope, probably to obtain his endorsement of the decision to dismiss Grand Chancellor Boaselager, but it appears that in a letter to Burke and the Order, the Pontiff, while stressing the moral relevance of the issue, called for a “dialogued” resolution to understand the reasons for the incident, without any particular disturbance. But this proposal was not acted on. Then a couple of letters from the Secretariat of State, signed by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, were addressed to the Grand Master to underline what the Pope had asked for: “dialogue in order to address and resolve any problem.”
The Pope’s request
At this point, a few weeks later, on December 22, 2016, the Pontiff created a first commission of inquiry to clarify the matter; it included, among others, the then Monsignor Silvano Maria Tomasi and the Jesuit canonist Gianfranco Ghirlanda, both now cardinals.
January 2017 saw a new stage in the affair, with the resignation of Fra’ Matthew Festing as Grand Master—a position usually held for life—at the request of the Pope after the Order’s leader himself opposed the papal commission, claiming full autonomy for the Knights of Malta and denying any collaboration.
The following month Pope Francis, “in view of the Extraordinary Chapter that will have to elect the new Grand Master” of the S.M.O.M., appointed as Special Delegate the then Substitute for General Affairs of the Secretariat of State, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who was called to collaborate with the interim Lieutenant “for the greater good of the Order and reconciliation among all its components, religious and lay.”
On May 2, 2018, Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre, a balanced person and excellent mediator between sensitivities and internal conflicts, was elected Grand Master; but he died prematurely on April 29, 2020. In the meantime, the Pope had renewed Becciu’s appointment to continue “the path of spiritual and juridical renewal” of the Order, but this was interrupted by his resignation following the notorious London investment affair. He was succeeded on November 1, 2020 by Scalabrinian Silvano Maria Tomasi, with the task of continuing the office “until the conclusion of the process of updating the Constitutional Charter”.
On November 11, 2020, the Order elected by a large majority a new Lieutenant Grand Master, Fra’ Marco Luzzago, but he died of illness on June 8 of this year. The following week Pope Francis appointed the Canadian Fra’ John Dunlap as the new Lieutenant, acknowledging that the order was “living a new moment of consternation and uncertainty”.
Months later, the Order has concluded its constitutional reform process and is preparing to celebrate the Extraordinary General Chapter on January 25, with Pope Francis hoping that the unity “and the greater good” of the S.M.O.M. can finally be safeguarded.