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Head of Order of Malta dies unexpectedly

The Lieutenant of the Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, Fra' Marco Luzzago, has died, the order confirmed June 7. Fra’ Marco was the senior governing figure of the thousand-year-old religious order.

An official communique from the order’s Grand Magistry in Rome announced the death of Fra’ Marco “with great sorrow” Tuesday morning.

His Excellency the Lieutenant of the Grand Master, Fra’ Marco Luzzago. Credit: Sovereign Military Order of Malta

According to sources within the order, Fra’ Marco, 71, died unexpectedly at his home.

In line with the order’s requirements that senior positions be held by knights who can prove noble descent, Luzzago was born into a landed Italian family from Brescia, able to trace his lineal ancestors back 700 years. Although a trained medical doctor, Luzzago spent his early career helping to manage his family's extensive landholdings.

Luzzago joined the Order of Malta’s Grand Priory of Lombardy and Venice in 1975, making his solemn profession of religious vows in 2003. He was elected to serve as Lieutenant to the Grand Master, the order’s second most senior constitutional position in November 2020.

Because the office of Grand Master has been vacant since the April 2020 death of Fra’ Giacomo della Torre, Luzzago has been serving as the order’s senior officer for more than two years.

Fra’ Marco’s sudden death adds a new complication to the ongoing constitutional reform of the Order of Malta, and destabilizes the order’s internal leadership, after heads of the knights’ regional associations have repeatedly called for calm and unity during the reform process.

Under the terms of the current constitution, the death of Luzzago, and the vacancy of both the positions of Grand Master and Lieutenant to the Grand Master, means that formal leadership of the order now passes to the Grand Commander, Fra’ Ruy Gonçalo do Valle Peixoto de Villas-Boas, who will remain at the order’s head until the election of a new Grand Master.

It remains unclear when that election will take place, and under what terms.

Efforts to draft a new constitution and canonical code for the order have repeatedly stalled in recent years; there are conflicting reform agendas for the order among the knights themselves, and between the Vatican and the order’s headquarters in Rome.

The current reform process began in 2017, when Pope Francis ordered the abdication of Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing to resolve a dispute among the order’s leadership.

Francis then tasked a special cardinal delegate to the order with powers to oversee the drafting and adoption of a new constitution for the order. The constitutional reforming process has been complicated by the Vatican’s involvement: while subject to the spiritual authority of the pope as a Catholic religious order, the Order of Malta is a sovereign entity in international law, enjoying the same recognition from the United Nations and formal diplomatic relations with more than 100 sovereign states.

A special commission appointed by the pope, led by Cardinal Silvano Tomasi and cardinal-designate Gianfranco Ghirlanda, SJ, made efforts this year to see the order adopt a new Vatican-drafted constitution. But that plan met with furious internal resistance from the order’s leadership over language that would have compromised the knights’ diplomatic sovereignty.

After more negotiations stalled between the knights’ leadership and Tomasi’s papal commission, Pope Francis announced earlier this year that he would personally decide on the order’s future and new constitution. The pope has met with the order’s own delegation - led by Luzzago - and with delegates from his own special commission several times, to hear alternative proposals for future reform.

Although Pope Francis has said he will decide personally on the direction of constitutional reform for the order, he has also said there is “no urgency” to make a final decision, which would need to be drafted into a constitutional text and adopted by a Chapter General of the order’s membership after the pope’s decision.

The internal debate over the direction of reform primarily concerns the future role of the first class knights, who profess religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Under the current laws of the order, these knights, often called Fras, are eligible for holding the main leadership and governing offices of the order, which operates humanitarian relief efforts around the world.

The future role of the Fras has been a source of contention among the knights themselves, with some arguing for broadening the role of the second and third class knights, who do not take religious vows, and clearing the way for them to assume more leadership roles within the order while preserving the Fras as the central reference point for the order’s spiritual and religious identity.

Supporters of these proposals point to the small number of professed knights available to serve in senior positions, and argue that it would leave the Fras free to concentrate on leading the spiritual core of the order and its work.

Critics have said that change would effectively sideline the professed religious from the knights’ work, and with it the essential character of the order as  Catholic and religious.

Cardinal Tomasi’s draft constitution, on the other hand, would expand the role of the Fras in senior positions and internal governing bodies, and entrench their place at the head of the order, even though there are only 38 Fras in vows, with fewer than 20 of them younger than 70.

On the other side, many within the order see the Fras’ place at the head of governance as the necessary guarantee of the order’s Catholic religious character, and point out that a years-long freeze on new professions has prevented new and younger members from joining their ranks.

In an interview with The Pillar earlier this year, Tomasi said that “there is no debate about the role of the professed within the Order of Malta, since everyone agrees that they have the leadership because the order is a religious order.”

But despite Tomasi’s confidence that Pope Francis’ involvement will bring an end to internal disputes in the order, senior members both in favor and against the proposals have told The Pillar that divisions among the knights are only deepening as they await a papal decision, with rival proposals and arguments continuing to circulate among members.

Grand Commander Fra’ Ruy Gonçalo do Valle Peixoto de Villas-Boas, who is now the senior leader of the order at 82, will be expected to convene a Chapter General and oversee the implementation of whatever plan for reform Pope Francis decides to approve.

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