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‘Papa’ steps in: Francis to decide personally on Order of Malta reforms

Pope Francis has suspended talks between the Vatican and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, after weeks of tense negotiations over a new constitution for the order. The pope notified members that he has decided to settle the question of future reform for the Order of Malta himself.

Pope Francis at the Sanctuary of Fatima, 2017. Credit: WENN US / Alamy


The pope’s decision was communicated Sunday to the order’s senior members in an email from Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, the pope’s special delegate to the order, and in a Monday letter from the order’s Grand Chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager. 

The papal intervention suspends the constitutional reform talks which were set to resume later this month, and will require both sides of the negotiation to make reform proposals directly to the pope. 

Tomasi met privately Saturday with Pope Francis, bringing to the meeting Fr. ​​Gianfranco Ghirlanda, SJ, the canon lawyer who helped the cardinal draw up a draft constitution for the order, which is both a Catholic religious order and a sovereign entity in international law.

In his Sunday email to senior knights, a copy of which was obtained by The Pillar, Tomasi informed the knights that Francis, to whom he referred using the informal “Il Papa,” had decided to assume direct control of the reforming process.

“He wants to meet the Mixed Working Group with some members representing the Professed, the Government of the Order, the Procurators of the Priories and the Presidents of the Associations, to present to him concrete reform projects,” Tomasi wrote, and “therefore [has] decided to suspend all other activities until this meeting is takes place, following which he will make a final decision.”

The cardinal explained that the pope had suspended scheduled meetings of a working group made up of representatives from the order and from the Vatican, and meetings of the knights’ own internal steering committee on constitutional reform. 

Tomasi added that he would ask Boeselager to propose seven or eight knights, including the Lieutenant of the Grand Master — presently the most senior figure in the order — to represent the knights before the pope.

“Any other activity before the meeting with the Pope will be considered an act of disobedience to the Holy Father,” Tomasi wrote. 

His note has prompted speculation among some senior leaders  within the order that discussion of proposed constitutional reforms among the knights themselves, in preparation for meeting with Francis, could be treated as a violation of religious vows or promises of obedience.

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Boeselager’s Monday letter to the order’s leadership, also obtained by The Pillar, did not explicitly reference Tomasi’s email of the previous day; Boeselager wrote that he was “particularly delighted” that the pope had decided to hear proposals from both the knights’ leadership and from Cardinal Tomasi’s team directly “in the near future.” 

“We understand from H. Em. Cardinal Tomasi that there shall be for the time being no further meetings between the Order of Malta and the Special Delegate and his working group.”

Tomasi’s apparent prohibition of “any other activity” prior to a papal audience notwithstanding, Boeselager said that preparations of “concrete proposals” for the order’s reform for presentation to the pope would be handled by the chairman and vice chairman of the knights’ constitutional steering committee, Marwan Sehnaoui and Peter Szabadhegy.

“From an internal organizational perspective and to avoid any conflicting messages with respect to the Order’s official positions during this delicate period, all internal and external communications with regard to the Constitutional Reform will go through Marwan and Peter until further notice,” said the Grand Chancellor.

Pope Francis’s decision to assume personal responsibility for deciding the direction of future reforms for the order follows a crisis in the relations between the order’s government and Cardinal Tomasi in recent weeks.

Central to the public dispute between the order’s Grand Magistry and Tomasi’s team was the circulation of a draft constitution for the order which would have made it an explicit “subject” of the Holy See, despite repeated promises from Tomasi and the Vatican that there was no intention to undermine the order’s sovereign status in international law.

In response, Boeselager announced he was stepping down as chair of the order’s internal constitutional steering committee, and nominating Sehnaoui, the president of the order’s Lebanese association in his stead.

After the text was circulated, Tomasi affirmed publicly that the intention to preserve the order’s status as sovereign remained absolute, and that problematic articles in the proposed draft would be rewritten. At the same time, he made pointed criticisms of some sections of the order’s leadership for circulating the text in the first place.

Conflict between the order’s official leadership and Tomasi reached a further low shortly thereafter.

 When Sehnaoui arrived in Rome, he met in a private audience with Pope Francis but was subsequently not invited by Tomasi to a scheduled meeting of the mixed working group. Instead, the cardinal brought in the president of the order’s Italian association, despite his not having any official designation by the order’s government to represent the knights in talks with Tomasi.

As the conflict teetered on a full blown diplomatic crisis, with many within the order predicting Tomasi was about to act to dissolve the order’s government, both sides announced that the question of sovereignty in the draft text had been resolved and new meetings scheduled, in an apparently mutual de-escalation.

When both sides meet to present the pope with their proposals for a new constitution for the order, the main topic of dispute will be the role of the professed first class knights, who make religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. 

The role of the professed knights, called Fras, has been at the heart of the stalled constitutional reform process since the Vatican first became involved with the order’s internal governance in 2017, when the pope demanded the abdication of the then Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing.

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Among the knights themselves, there is fierce disagreement about the future role of the Fras in the order’s day-to-day governance, diplomatic work, and global humanitarian relief projects.

One side of the order, most commonly identified with Boeselager and the order’s German association, has proposed a more ceremonial role for the Fras in senior governing positions in an arrangement closer to that of a constitutional monarchy, with more day-to-day governing power delegated to roles open to the second class of knights, like that of Grand Chancellor. 

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

The draft constitution proposed by Tomasi would, by contrast, 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 currently only 38 Fras in vows, with fewer than twenty of them under the age of 70.

With no apparent via media agreeable to both sides of the order’s internal debate, the situation has resolved into an effective stalemate, with one side controlling the order’s governing bodies and the other supported by Tomasi, but neither able to force through their vision without triggering both an internal constitutional crisis and an external diplomatic incident which could jeopardize the international status of the order.

Given the impasse, and increasingly obvious mutual suspicion on both sides, the intervention of Pope Francis to decide the future direction of a future constitution presents the last, and possibly only remaining viable option for the order’s reform.

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