Pope Francis issued a decree on Saturday making sweeping changes to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
In the decree issued Sept. 3, the pope approved a new constitutional charter and code for the almost 1,000-year-old institution, which will enter into effect immediately.
The pope announced an Extraordinary Chapter General of the order, to be held on Jan. 25, 2023, the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, with the goal of electing a new Grand Master, or permanent leader.
He said that the meeting would be held according to new regulations personally approved by him and prepared by his delegate to the order, Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, and the order’s new Lieutenant of the Grand Master, Fra’ John T. Dunlap.
The pope extended the faculties previously given to Cardinal Tomasi to the end of the Extraordinary Chapter General, which will be co-chaired by the cardinal and Dunlap.
In the decree, Pope Francis also dismissed the current holders of the order’s four High Offices: Ruy Gonçalo do Valle Peixoto de Villas-Boas (Grand Commander), Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager (Grand Chancellor), Dominique Prince de La Rochefoucauld-Montbel (Grand Hospitaller), and János Graf Esterházy de Galántha (Receiver of the Common Treasure).
He dissolved the current Sovereign Council, which helps to oversee the order’s governance, and established a new, provisional Sovereign Council.
The pope appointed new holders of the four High Offices: Brother Emmanuel Rousseau (Grand Commander), Riccardo Paternò di Montecupo (Grand Chancellor), Fra’ Alessandro de Franciscis (Grand Hospitaller), and Fabrizio Colonna (Receiver of the Common Treasure.)
He also named new members of the provisional Sovereign Council: Fra’ Roberto Viazzo, Fra’ Richard Wolff, Fra’ John Eidinow, Fra’ João Augusto Esquivel Freire de Andrade, Fra’ Mathieu Dupont, Antonio Zanardi Landi, Michael Grace, Francis Joseph McCarthy, and Mariano Hugo Windisch-Graetz.
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 order has been in a protracted process of constitutional reform since 2017. After years of gridlock, Pope Francis gave Tomasi new powers last October to change the knights’ religious life and internal governance, despite concerns that this could violate the order’s sovereign status in international law.
After a public breakdown of negotiations between Tomasi’s team and the order’s leadership, Pope Francis announced earlier this year that he would make a final decision on the reform of the knights himself, and held a series of listening sessions with Tomasi’s delegation and representatives from the knights.
The days before the papal decree was issued saw a flurry of activity within the order as members made last-minute efforts to influence the reform.
The interventions included a letter by Marwan Sehnaoui, president of the knights’ Lebanese association and chair of the order’s constitutional reform steering committee, who said he feared the institution was “on the verge of disintegration, breakup, even dissolution.”
The papal decree began with a preamble asserting that the sovereign institution had “always enjoyed special protection from the Apostolic See.” It recalled historic instances of papal interventions in the order.
It also noted that as the organization is a religious order, “it depends, in its various articulations, on the Holy See.”
The pope said that he had followed the reform process “with paternal solicitude and concern.” He underlined his appreciation for its humanitarian work worldwide.
He added that the whole order required a “profound spiritual, moral and institutional renewal,” and not only the order’s small number of professed knights, who have made vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Pope Francis said that the reform had progressed under Tomasi, who oversaw the revision of the constitutional charter and code, preparing the way for for the Extraordinary Chapter General.
But he also recalled that there were “many impediments and difficulties” during the process - a possible allusion to the unexpected deaths of the order’s Grand Master Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto in 2020 and of the Lieutenant of the Grand Master Fra’ Marco Luzzago in June this year.
The pope stepped in after Luzzago’s death to appoint Dunlap as the new Lieutenant of the Grand Master.
Pope Francis wrote in the decree that “having listened to and engaged in dialogue with various representatives of the Order, the time has come to complete the renewal process initiated, in fidelity to the original charism.”
Dunlap said in a Sept. 3 statement that the order welcomed Pope Francis’ decisions.
He said: “The Order of Malta welcomes the paternal actions of His Holiness which demonstrate the great love the Pontiff has for our Order. In his careful review of the various proposals put before Him these last months, the Pope has determined a path forward that promises to ensure the Order’s future both as a Religious Institute and a Sovereign Entity.
“The Pope’s decision to empower a Provisional Government is the first step in a clear blueprint for more efficient, streamlined governance for the Order. We now have the long-awaited schedule for the important Chapter General which will enable the Order to move beyond the Provisional Government to a regularized Government in conformity with its new Constitution.”
“The involvement of a variety of accomplished and talented Knights in the Order’s governance has opened the door to new blood and fresh thinking in confronting today’s obstacles and challenges. The new Constitution is a carefully crafted document that speaks to the complexity and nature of a thousand-year-old religious order.”
“On behalf of the entire Order, I extend my heartfelt thanks to His Holiness Pope Francis and his Special Delegate, Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, for the care, thoroughness, and love they have exhibited for our Order.”