The Vatican

The Order of Malta renews itself: new Constitutional Charter is promulgated

Following the crisis that originated in 2016 within the Order of Malta, Pope Francis has just promulgated the new constitution, while waiting for the General Chapter next January 2023 to confirm the normality of this long process.

Giovanni Tridente-September 6, 2022-Reading time: 5 minutes

Photo: John T. Dunlap, Lieutenant to the Acting Grand Master of the Order of Malta. ©CNS/Order of Malta

Translation of the article into English

The first phase of an intricate affair involving the historic and widespread Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta (S.M.O.M.), known simply as the "Order of Malta" for several years, at least since 2016, has come to an end these days.

Pope Francis, in fact, with his own Decree that came into force on September 3, promulgated the new constitutional charter of the order and the corresponding Melitense Code, revoking at the same time the high offices and dissolving the Sovereign Council. The document is already available on the website of the organism.

Now begins the second phase that will lead the S.M.O.M. to an internal renewal that has taken at least seven years, and numerous vicissitudes, to identify the modalities 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 13 members has been constituted to assist the Pope's special delegate (Cardinal Silvano Maria Tomasi) and the Grand Master's lieutenant (Fra' John T. Dunlap), who is still in office, in the preparation of the General Chapter, which will be co-chaired by the latter.

The history of the Order

The Order of Malta has a secular history dating back to the first century of the second millennium. Since 1113 it has been recognized as a subject of international law and maintains diplomatic relations with more than 100 States, 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 "Opitalieri of St. John of Jerusalem" with the document Pie Postulatio Voluntatis, giving a weight of sovereignty and independence to that first monastic community that since half a century earlier (1048) had been caring for poor pilgrims in a hospital in Jerusalem, 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 attention to the poor and the suffering "in the service of the Holy Father". Its members are led "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

On several occasions, the Holy See has intervened with the Knights of Malta to affirm their identity and help them overcome crises, as Pope Francis reports in his latest decree. And 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 initial defenestration of one of the previous grand chancellors (Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager) in December 2016.

At that time, the patronage of the order was entrusted to Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke (appointed by Pope Francis on November 8, 2014), who had already been a member since 2011. The purpose of this position 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, which would then lead in the following years to various measures of the Pontiff for a complete reorganization of the order and its relations with the Apostolic See.

The origin of the 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 has 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 Patronus had informed the Pope, probably to obtain his support for the decision to dismiss Grand Chancellor Boaselager, but it seems that in a letter addressed to Burke and the order, the Pontiff, while stressing the moral relevance of the question, had asked for a "dialogical" resolution to understand the reasons for the incident, without any particular shock. But this practice was not carried out. Then, a couple of missives 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 on how 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, of which the then Monsignor Silvano Maria Tomasi and the Jesuit canonist Gianfranco Ghirlanda, among others, were members, both now cardinals.

January 2017 saw a new stage in the affair, with the resignation of Grand Master Festing, a position usually for life, requested by 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 is to elect the new grand master" of the S.M.O.M., appoints as special delegate the then substitute for general affairs of the Secretariat of State, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, called to collaborate with the interim lieutenant "for the greater good of the order and reconciliation among all its components, religious and laity".

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 process was interrupted by his resignation following the notorious "Palace of London" 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 the new lieutenant grand master, Fra' Marco Luzzago, who also 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 is "living a new moment of consternation and uncertainty."

Months later, the order has concluded the constitutional reform process and is preparing to celebrate the extraordinary general chapter on January 25, with the hope of Pope Francis that the unity "and the greater good" of the S.M.O.M. can finally be safeguarded.

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