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Why Cardinal Ghirlanda became patron of the Knights of Malta

Pope Francis on Monday named the Jesuit Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda as the new cardinal patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. The announcement followed a meeting that same morning between Pope Francis and the order’s Grand Master, Fra’ John Dunlap, who was elected last month. 

Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda

The cardinal patron is responsible for the spiritual welfare of the order, and can often serve as a kind of super-sized chaplain to the knights, touring the world visiting its global network of humanitarian and diplomatic missions, as well as its priories and associations.

In the past, the role has often been treated as a kind of early or semi-retirement position for a cardinal who has previously served as either a diocesan bishop or in a senior curial position. Ghirlanda’s immediate predecessor as cardinal patron, Cardinal Raymond Burke, was named to the role by Pope Francis in 2014, having previously served as the chief judge of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura.

In terms of age, Ghirlanda, who will turn 81 next month, seems an unlikely replacement for Burke, who is 74 and still a few days shy of the nominal episcopal retirement age. But the Jesuit’s appointment is likely a capstone to the five years of constitutional wrangling and reform for the Order of Malta, in which both cardinals played different roles at opposite ends of the process.

Ghirlanda’s nomination appears to be the final phase of the pope’s reform of the knights, and a return to something like “business as usual” for relations between the Vatican and the diplomatically independent but religiously dependent order after years of upheaval.

That upheaval, which saw the knights cycle through four leaders in four years, before Dunlap was asked by the pope to step in, first as interim leader by papal appointment and then as elected grand master from last month.

The period of unrest in the order began when the former grand master, 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 in 2017, reinstated Boeselager, and ordered a reform of the orders constitution and religious life.

Throughout that time, Cardinal Burke remained in post as cardinal patron, but senior sources within the order made it clear that he had been told by the pope to refrain from any contact with the knights, leaving him with the job in name only.

Instead, Francis created the post of cardinal delegate to the order, which assumed many of the functions of the cardinal patron but to whom Francis also granted sweeping legal powers to steer the order’s constitutional reform. 


Although Francis began by naming Cardinal Angelo Becciu to the role of papal delegate, Cardinal Silvano Tomasi was later asked to take over, following Becciu’s resignation of the rights and privileges as a cardinal in 2020 and his subsequent indictment on criminal charges in Vatican City.

The years of reform included tense, often openly hostile public exchanges between different factions within the knights, as well as debate over the legality of the pope’s interventions and how they could affect the international sovereign status of the thousand-year-old order which issues its own passports, has its own delegation at the UN and maintains bilateral diplomatic relations with nation states.

Many during that process noted that Cardinal Burke technically remained in post as patron of the order and noted that, as one of the Church’s most senior canonical minds, he would be uniquely placed to weigh in on the constitutional reform debate. 

However, Burke’s sidelining throughout came as no surprise to those familiar with the origins of the knights constitutional conflict. 

Many senior knights close to Burke, to the former grand master Matthew Festing (who died in 2021), and Albrecht von Boeselager, have stressed that Burke and Festing worked in close collaboration on the move to hold the former grand chancellor responsible for the contraceptives scandal and force him from office. 

In particular, Festing is known to have relied on Burke for both theological and canonical advice on the specific decision to order Boeselager to resign under religious obedience. The cardinal’s isolation from the order during everything that followed, then, was not unexpected, nor is his replacement now as the presumably last act of Francis to cap the reforming process.

And the choice of Ghirlanda to succeed Burke as patron, while unusual in some respects — his age and former career as a Jesuit academic — came as little surprise to those who have followed the last several years of the order’s reform. 

Indeed, the only real questions raised around the appointment have concerned the timing, with some wondering why Francis elected to leave Burke for years with an effectively hollow title, and others asking why the change would come now, just ten days shy of his 75th birthday.

While public interventions and (often acrimonious) face-to-face negotiations with the order’s leadership were left to Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, it was Ghirlanda, then plain “Father Ghirlanda” who emerged as the principal author of the order’s new constitution.

While Tomasi has remained in post as the special papal delegate, the cardinal is also known to have ongoing health issues and, following the successful conclusion of the knights’ extraordinary general chapter and Council Complete of State in recent months, isn’t expected to play any further active day-to-day role within the order. 

Ghirlanda’s installation as cardinal patron, then, is probably best interpreted as not just a reward for his work with the order so far, but a way of wrapping Tomasi’s work up into the traditional office of cardinal patron and informally-formalizing Ghirlanda’s position as the designated interpreter of the order’s new constitutional order as it beds in.

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A professor of canon law with decades of experience, Ghirlanda has become the intellectual powerhouse driving many of Francis’ institutional legal reforms in recent years. 

It was he to whom Francis turned for a legal philosophy for his reform of the Roman curia, one which offered a maximalist interpretation of the roles open to lay people, with Ghirlanda arguing that “the power of governance in the Church doesn't come from the sacrament of Holy Orders, but from the canonical mission.”

Although Ghirlanda’s legal theory caused a stir at the time — some theologians and canonists said they seemed to discount the teaching of Lumen Gentium and the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the intrinsic link between sacramental ordination and Church governance, and the emphasis of Vatican Council II on the nature and authority of the college of bishops — shortly thereafter, Francis nominated the then-79-year-old canonist to become a cardinal.

More recently, the same philosophy was visible in Francis’ constitutional reform of the Vatican City State. 

A new foundational legal text issued by Francis last month, similarly relied on the Ghirlanda school of thought in more directly rooting all governing authority in the territory in the pope personally, and not by stable delegation through any office within the Church’s governing hierarchy.

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