The Knights of Malta met with Pope Francis Monday after concluding their extraordinary chapter general, the first after years of internal division over their future.
They were also meeting for the first chapter since Francis imposed a new constitution on the near-millennial sovereign institution, and forced through a changing of the guard among its senior leadership.
Given the pope’s decisive intervention in the order’s government last year, and his moves to replace its entire senior leadership, many wondered how the chapter would proceed, and if divisions among the knights would resurface.
Francis himself appeared to joke on Monday about the tensions his involvement with the order have caused in recent years. He opened his own remarks by thanking the knights’ interim leader, Fra’ John Dunlap for his “expressions of faithfulness” and added his “hope that he addressed me on behalf of you all.”
The pope went on to praise the decisions of the knights’ professed class to reopen their novitiate, bring in measures to ensure common life for new professed knights, and put new emphasis on the religious vow of poverty while continuing the order’s global charitable and diplomatic work.
“You have inscribed a very important page in the history of the Order of Malta,” said Francis. “You can be proud of this.”
But, papal humor notwithstanding, several knights told The Pillar, the meeting proceeded in a “truly fraternal atmosphere,” with all sides of a previously deep internal divide committed to the order’s future.
“It was quite affecting at times,” one of the 111 delegates gathered in Rome for the chapter told The Pillar. “There was a real sense that we are a religious order, gathered for a religious purpose, and not a political assembly or corporate board meeting.”
Another delegate told The Pillar that there was a “striking” change in tone among the knights after years of sometimes personal feuding. “There was none of that — no tension in the hall, no mutterings, or groups pulling each other aside to complain about one another. We acted like an order, a Christian order.”
The extraordinary chapter general opened Wednesday when the knights received a letter of encouragement from Pope Francis, who praised the order’s centuries-old work of service to the poor.
“Jesus proclaimed, and above all lived, that love of God requires love of neighbor,” Francis wrote to the knights, in a message which could easily have been interpreted as an exhortation to internal fraternity as much as rededication to the service of the poor.
Last year, after already appointing a new interim leader for the knights, Francis imposed a new constitution on the order, and replaced the four most senior serving officers in order’s internal government as well as the membership of its Sovereign Council.
That extraordinary papal intervention was the culmination of five years of internal reforming stalemate, which began when the former grand master of the order, Fra’ Matthew Festing, dismissed the order’s influential Grand Chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, having first tried to compel his resignation under religious obedience.
What began as an attempt by the grand master to hold the chancellor responsible for contraceptives being distributed by one of the order’s many global charitable and relief projects ended in appeals to Pope Francis, who in turn compelled Festing’s abdication as grand master, reinstated Boeselager, and ordered a reform of the orders constitution and religious life.
There then followed a tumultuous period in which a new grand master was elected, only to die in office in 2020, with the reform process mired in internal debate over the future role in the order’s governance of the first class knights, who profess religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
That process was made more complicated by the decision of Pope Francis to appoint a special cardinal delegate to oversee the reform process, raising questions about the knights’ governing independence in international law — the Order of Malta is recognized as a sovereign entity, issuing its own passports, maintaining diplomatic relations with nation states, and enjoying the same observer status at the UN as the Holy See.
At several points during the reforming process, questions were raised by senior figures in the order about the pope’s interventions in the order’s internal governance, and voiced concern about the possible effects on its diplomatic relationships.
The reforming deadlock often pitted the cardinal delegate, Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, and one wing of the knights’ membership against the serving leadership of the order, usually associated with the order’s influential German association.
After months of increasingly public disagreement between the two sides, Francis declared he would personally settle the knights’ constitutional future, first installing the Canadian Fra’ John Dunlap as lieutenant to the grand master and interim leader of the order, and then promulgating on his own authority a new constitution and leadership team for the knights in September last year.
Francis’ direct interventions in the knights’ internal affairs became the focus of considerable internal dispute for the knights, as much or even more than the actual direction of constitutional reforms being debated.
But as the extraordinary chapter general closed on Sunday, the knights’ issued an effective vote of confidence in the pope’s interventions, electing the full slate of his appointees to four of the order’s most senior offices for six year terms.
The order has yet to choose a new grand master, who is elected by a separate body among the knights - the Council Complete of State.
But several knights told The Pillar that there was universal expectation that Dunlap would be named the order’s permanent head in due course.
“I think it is settled that Fra’ John is the only name being seriously considered,” one knight delegate told The Pillar. “The only real question is if he wants to be grand master — and I think the sense is he is willing to serve.”
The consensus to back Pope Francis’ chosen candidates extended even among the supporters of those the pope forced from office.
One senior member of the order’s German association told The Pillar that “the desire now, the real desire, is to move forward.”
“We cannot forget the work that was done for the order in the last years, and the friends who served the order with great dedication,” he said.
“The new government has the confidence of everyone and it is most important that they have unanimous support from everyone.”