The Sovereign Military Order of Malta elected a new Grand Master Wednesday, drawing to a close an extraordinary period of internal reform for the millennial religious order which included, at times, deep division among its leadership.
Canadian-born Fra’ John Dunlap was elected May 3 by an absolute majority of the order’s Council Complete of State, communicating his own election to Pope Francis in a handwritten letter before being sworn into office in the evening.
The council, which comprises 99 voting members from around the world, returned Dunlap as the knights’ new head for a term of ten years, in line with a new constitution for the international order which was imposed on the order by Pope Francis last year. Previously, Grand masters were required to be of noble lineage and served for life.
He was elected from a binding list of three possible candidates drawn up by the order’s first class knights, who take religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
While there was the possibility that one of the other two candidates could have been elected, in January, as the order met for an extraordinary chapter general in Rome, senior knights from around the world all told The Pillar that there was virtually no expectation anyone but Dunlap would be elected when the Council Complete of State met.
“I think it is settled that Fra’ John is the only name being seriously considered,” one knight delegate told The Pillar at the time of the chapter general. “The only real question is if he wants to be grand master — and I think the sense is he is willing to serve.”
Dunlap said Wednesday that he accepted the election in “a profound spirit of service and with a solemn promise of a constant commitment,” in a statement released by the order following his election.
The new grand master had previously served as the order’s ad interim leader, after Pope Francis installed him as Lieutenant of the Grand Master last year following the unexpected deaths of the order’s last Grand Master, Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto in 2020 and then of the previous Lieutenant of the Grand Master, Fra’ Marco Luzzago in June last year.
In addition to installing Dunlap as interim leader of the order, last year Francis also promulgated 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.
Those extraordinary acts of papal intervention in the internal governance of the religious order, which has sovereign status in international law, issuing its own passports and maintaining its own diplomatic relations with nation states and the UN, capped a 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 in international law.
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.
However, while some of the knights’ leadership questioned the legality of the papal intervention, others, including many of the order’s own membership, Cardinal Tomasi, and senior canon lawyers, argued that because the reform process directly concerned the knights’ character as a Catholic religious order, Francis had legal right to step in — especially since the constitutional controversy began with Grand Master Festing’s attempt to coerce the resignation of the then grand chancellor through the promise of religious obedience.
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, led by the initially reinstated Boeselager.
After months of increasingly public disagreement between the two sides, Francis declared he would personally settle the knights’ constitutional future, first installing Dunlap as interim leader of the order, and then promulgating on his own authority the 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.
After a fractious series of public exchanges between senior knights in 2022, tensions appeared to have broadly subsided by the beginning of 2023 and the convening of the extraordinary chapter general.
At the close of the chapter, 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.
At the time, one of the of the delegates 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.”
Another said that, after years of internal wrangling, the knights had decided to united behind the pope’s reform of the order, calling the change in tone “quite affecting at times.”
“There was a real sense that we are a religious order,” he said, “gathered for a religious purpose, and not a political assembly or corporate board meeting.”