A senior member of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta’s constitutional committee said his order’s leadership has failed to protect its sovereignty during a reform process and the nearly thousand-year-old order is on the brink of constitutional collapse.
Both expectations and tensions are running high among knights ahead of a meeting with Pope Francis next week on the future of the order.
Ahead of that meeting, Marwan Sehnaoui, president of the knights’ Lebanese association and chair of the order’s constitutional reform steering committee, wrote to senior members and leadership Friday, saying that “When I look at what we have become, I am ashamed.”
Sehnaoui warned the knights’ Sovereign Council in an Aug. 26 letter that the current “living nightmare” of division and constitutional crisis among the order has left it “on the verge of disintegration, breakup, even dissolution.”
The letter was sent one week before before a Sept. 3 meeting at which Pope Francis is expected to announce his plan for the constitutional renewal of the order, according to sources in the order.
Sehnaoui was asked earlier this year by the order’s leadership in Rome to represent the Grand Magistry in the constitutional reform process, after relations broke down between Cardinal Tomasi and the order’s leadership.
Sehnaoui is a friend of Tomasi’s, and is known to have a positive personal relationship with Pope Francis.
He was asked to replace the order’s Grand Chancellor in talks with the Vatican, in the hopes of resetting what had become an acrimonious reform process. Instead, Pope Francis announced he would decide personally on the shape of the order’s constitutional reform.
But the president of the order’s Lebanese Association told The Pillar that however receptive the knights are to Francis’ vision, the order’s unique character may not survive the reform process.
In his Friday letter, Sehnaoui accused Tomasi and the order’s governing council of “trampling” the sovereignty of the order and “abusing” the trust of the pope in the order’s reforming process — the latest development in a debate over the future of the order which has bitterly divided its members.
The letter was likely discussed at a Saturday morning meeting between Pope Francis, Tomasi, and Fra’ John Dunlap, the order’s Lieutenant of the Grand Master and its current leader.
The Order of Malta is a Catholic religious order dating back to 1048. It also has a unique status in international law, with the ability to maintain full diplomatic relations with nations, and a seat as a permanent observer at the United Nations. The order engages humanitarian relief efforts around the world.
The group has been in a protracted process of constitutional reform since 2017. Last October, after years of gridlock, Pope Francis gave Tomasi sweeping powers to change the knights’ religious life and internal governance, despite concerns that this could violate the order’s sovereign status in international law.
In his letter, Sehnaoui referenced recent controversial changes to the knights’ senior leadership, which critics within the order say go against its current constitution and legal code.
Sehnaoui singled out the pope’s decision to appoint Dunlap as Lieutenant of the Grand Master by decree, without reference to the order’s Sovereign Council or constitutional process, saying that the Sovereign Council had “failed” in its responsibility to protect the order’s constitutional sovereignty.
“As a group, you are divided, incapable even of leading by example and of showing the unity and brotherly love that the Order so much needs at this time,” he said, and charged them with failing to “safeguard the dignity” of the order’s Grand Commander, Fra’ Ruy de Villas-Boas.
According to the order’s constitution, Villas-Boas should have assumed temporary charge of the order following the sudden death of the previous Lieutenant of the Grand Master, Fra' Marco Luzzago in June. Instead, Pope Francis acted unilaterally to install Fra’ John Dunlap as Lieutenant of the Grand Master, informing the Sovereign Council of the fact at the same time as the appointment was made public — something Sehnaoui charged the council with failing to prevent.
Sehnaoui also took aim at a recent decree, signed by Dunlap and Tomasi, reordering the leadership of the order’s Grand Priories around the world, saying that the cardinal — a personal friend of Sehnaoui’s — “is only dividing the Order further” and that “the Holy Father would never have acted in this way and cannot have intended for His Special Delegate to abuse his position in such a way.”
“Let us pray that His Eminence will rediscover a sense of fraternity, conciliation, and true understanding of the identity and fundamental requirements of the Order of Malta,” he said.
Sehnaoui’s letter on Friday has drawn both support and criticism from within the order, with some knights applauding what they see as a frank assessment of the crisis and others distancing themselves from his pointed criticism of Tomasi and, they say, by extension the pope.
Fra’ Ruy de Villas-Boas, the Grand Commander, responded to Sehnaoui directly in a letter dated Aug. 27, saying he was “surprised” by the Lebanese knight’s intervention. “It is one thing to receive a personal letter,” he said, “it is a very different thing to receive one that has been shared with a very long list of confreres.”
Distancing himself from Sehnaoui’s criticisms of the papal decision to appoint a Lieutenant of the Grand Master, Villas-Boas said: “I remain LOYAL to HIs Holiness Pope Francis and to his Special Delegate His Eminence Cardinal Silvano Tomasi.”
The Grand Commander went on to say that, following the death of the previous Lieutenant to the Grand Master, “there was no time to spare,” and the order needed a stable leader as soon as possible, rather than allowing himself to fill the role temporarily while a formal election was held.
“I welcomed the nomination of His Excellency Fra’ John Dunlap,” Villas-Boas said, “and I am happy to serve both him and our beloved Order.”
Speaking to The Pillar, Sehnaoui acknowledged Villas-Boas response, but said he never meant to question the Grand Commander’s loyalty to the pope, or his own.
“The Grand Commander says that he's devoted to the pope, but I want to be clear, it's very important to say it, that I am too devoted to the pope.” “But,” he said, “being devoted to the pope does not mean walking over our code and constitution.”
“The point is that I do understand that the Holy Father wants to finish with all this mess [of constitutional reform], but finishing does not mean destroying the order. And I'm sure that the Holy Father does not want to destroy the order — I am witness to this. I have witnessed, in fact many times, that he said ‘I don't want to touch the sovereignty of the order.’”
“But,” Sehnaoui said, “I think that the first thing in not touching the sovereignty of the order is not to walk all over its rules, constitution, and code. And this is where I think that, intentionally or not, there is a very sad error.”
Senhaoui told The Pillar that he decided to write to the order’s global leadership out of a sense of “conscience and duty,” and said that without its sovereign international status, the order would be reduced to the level of “an NGO,” and unable to perform much of its humanitarian work.
Despite his criticism of Tomasi’s recent interventions in the order’s internal structures, Sehnaoui told The Pillar that he still considers the cardinal a friend and insisted that he had “no position” on individual appointments or reform proposals. Instead, he said, he is concerned that the reform process has become “theoretical” and not linked to supporting the order’s humanitarian work.
“Our priority needs to be the Lord’s sick and poor,” Sehnaoui said, “we are called to be peacemakers and instead everyone [in the order] is fighting.”
“It's very easy to sit around a table and to solve the questions of the order, it is also easy when you are sitting around that table to forget that you're just an instrument of peace,” he said.
Emphasizing that he believes all sides of the knights’ reforming debate have “good intentions,” Sehnaoui said that “I don't want to say that people are bad or people are good.”
But, he said, it is a question of “humility battling ego” for everyone involved in the discussions.
“Anybody can be convinced of what he believes if his interests go before those of the order, before serving the poor. We have forgotten the sense, the pleasure, of fighting for such a wonderful cause. It is not a privilege to be a knight. It's a duty to accomplish.”
In discussions about preserving the order’s sovereignty, Sehnaoui said there is a failure in some of the reforming efforts to appreciate how crucial it is for the order’s humanitarian work, and a tendency to take its status in international law for granted.
Pointing to the Order of Malta’s work in his own country, the Lebanese Association president said that it is “a country where there are 18 different [ethnic and religious] communities and where very often it's fashionable to accept that communities cannot live together.”
“The work of the order, under the sign of the cross, is respected everywhere, and by all communities — the sovereignty of the order as an international subject, with international rights, makes it much more easy to develop in an intelligent way, and in a convincing way, this, capacity of other to trust us and, I think, each other.”
“Today, the cross of the order can go in some Arabic or Islamic countries,and our sovereignty plays a very big role in making that possible,” Sehnaoui said. “We can do something that other ministries and organizations cannot.”
“I think being an NGO, you could do wonderful things,” Sehnaoui said, “but being sovereign, you can even go further.”
“When you have a sovereignty to help you out in spreading your Christian values, it is easier to serve the poor, and more helpful to the mission. The reality of sovereignty isn’t about status and uniforms — it's a beautiful, a unique instrument of service.”
Much of the reforming debate among the order’s leaders, membership, and the Vatican has centered around the future role of the professed knights, those who make religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Pope Francis has stressed that he wants to see the spiritual life of those knights, as professed religious, reformed, while keeping them at the heart of the order’s life. The order’s most senior governance roles, including Grand Master, are reserved to the professed knights, though there are currently fewer than 40 in full vows.
But, Sehnaoui said, even the spiritual reform of the professed should be informed by the order’s frontline works serving the poor and the sick.
“The order is not a convent,” he said but vocation of service to the world’s poor and sick, one that is, according to Sehnaoui, “functioning superbly.”
“Why should we disturb this capacity that the order has of acting to serve what we call our Lord’s poor at the sick, where Christ resides?” he asked.
On Saturday, the same day that he opened the current consistory of the College of Cardinals, the Holy See confirmed that Pope Francis met with Fra’ John Dunlap and Cardinal Tomasi. Sehnaoui said he was unaware if his letter was discussed, but told The Pillar that he knew both Tomasi and Dunlap had received it.
Asked if he had sent his letter to Pope Francis as well, he said that while he did not include the pope on his own distribution list, he believes a copy was given to him. “I have a tendency to believe that he has read the letter,” Sehnaoui said, and expressed hope it might spark discussion among Francis, Tomasi, and Dunlap, ahead of a second audience with the pope, scheduled for next week.
“For myself, for the little I know the Holy Father, I respect him, and it's difficult for me to believe he has been well informed [about the constitutional implications of recent actions].”
It's difficult for me to believe the Holy Father would choose a disconnection of our spirituality from our service,” Sehnaoui said, while stressing his intention to abide by whatever decision Francis eventually announces.
“You cannot disconnect the spirituality of the order from its works of service, then it's no longer the order. If you do, it becomes something else, maybe better than the order, but not the order.”