After years of internal efforts aimed at producing a new constitution, the reform of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta is now squarely in the hands of Pope Francis.
The future of the thousand-year old religious order and international body has proven a difficult course to chart as its leaders and the Holy See worked, for years, to balance the order’s Catholic identity with its unique sovereign status in international law and its global diplomatic and humanitarian work.
After a public breakdown in negotiations earlier this year, Pope Francis made the decision to intervene personally in the reforming process, meeting recently with representatives of the knights’ own government, as well as with his own delegation to the order.
Cardinal Silvano Tomasi has served as the pope’s special delegate to the order since 2020, and has been a central player in all discussions regarding the order’s reform.
Ahead of a second session with Pope Francis, scheduled to take place this month, the cardinal spoke with The Pillar about the order’s reform process, its history, and the balance between its character as a religious order and status as a sovereign entity.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your Eminence, the order is both a sovereign entity in law and also - first - a Catholic religious order.
How difficult is the division between its spiritual dependency on the Holy See and diplomatic independence to maintain in the reform process?
As regards the subjectivity, or juridical personality, recognized in the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, and from which the order benefits at an international level, it is somewhat peculiar compared to the juridical personality enjoyed by other states.
The order’s lack of territory and citizens is well known, and it is also known that, unlike all other states, the order pursues exclusively a well-circumscribed purpose limited by its founding charism: that is, to participate in the mission of the Church, announcing the Gospel through charitable and humanitarian works.
Well, precisely because of its charism and its action, it is a fact of history, and present practice, that the order is sovereign and that it has an international juridical personality.
It is equally a fact that the existence of this international subjectivity has its roots in the past — so much so that the order had ambassadors to the [different] states of Italy, even before Italy’s unification.
Therefore, the order has a consolidated and strong international subjectivity, and with its diplomatic network, it makes its humanitarian mission fully operational, as we are seeing in these dramatic days in Ukraine, where the presence of the order is consistent, and extremely useful, because to all the countries where the order is present, aid of every kind and extent arrives.
But how does this sovereignty work, practically, when the Holy See is so closely involved with the order’s internal reform?
With regard to the Holy See, it should be remembered that the Order of Malta is a religious order as a whole and, as such, is not independent from the Holy Father, and so it is organically connected to the Holy See.
However, the interventions of the Holy See in the life of the order - interventions that have been numerous in history - have never had the profile of an intervention aimed at undermining the sovereignty of the order, which remains such and which the Holy Father absolutely wants to protect.
These interventions only have the aim of realigning, where necessary, the guidelines of the governance of the order when it is recognized that these guidelines could undermine the religious nature of the order.
The international legal personality of the Order of Malta, as far as the Holy See is concerned, therefore does not extend to its legal system and its governance structure, so much so that Pope Leo XIII, with the apostolic letter Solemne semper nominated directly as Grand Master Fra Giovanni Ceschi of Santa Croce (1879-1905), and it does not seem to me that anyone questioned the international subjectivity of the order. And there we are talking about the appointment of a Grand Master!
Returning to current events, the sovereignty of the order is always protected in the proposed constitution. However, those corrective measures of the order's governance and organization of life aim to re-emphasize the religious nature of the order, and it is inevitable that these corrective measures ultimately, and somewhat transversally, concern the whole life of the order.
We are therefore talking about an intervention by the Holy See to protect the founding charism of the Order of Malta — framing this as something that touches the sovereignty of the order would be to assume that the religious essence of the order is just something collateral to its life. It would mean assuming that if the Holy See wants to reaffirm the religious essence of the order, it can do so, but it cannot touch the governance profile of the order, because this would affect its sovereignty.
Instead, the religious essence of the order must pervade the whole life of the order, so its religious essence and its governance are a “whole,” and it is not possible to intervene on one front, without intervening on the other one.
But the intervention by the Holy See on this “whole” can only reinforce the sovereignty of the order, because the international dimension of the order, as I said, is linked precisely to its charism and its charitable and humanitarian works.
The current reform process for the Order of Malta began with a specific leadership crisis in 2017.
More broadly, there seems to be an understanding within the order that the role of the first class of knights, the Fras, who make religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, must be reformed.
But there seems to be a significant division within the order about the direction that reform should take. When you arrived as cardinal delegate, how did he assess the health and merits of this internal debate?
I would like to make it clear that there is no debate about the role of the professed within the Order of Malta, since everyone agrees that they have the leadership because the order is a religious order. The discussion arises instead when we move from the general principle to the concrete reality, that is, in what way and in what time frame this can realistically happen.
I believe that it is necessary to keep our feet firmly on the ground, and therefore take into account the small number of professed knights who are able to effectively run the entire order.
Naturally, and as you know, we await the indications and decisions from the Supreme Pontiff, and therefore we can only speak of the spirit of the proposed constitution and of its general outline. But with this proposed constitution we intend to set in motion the start of a virtuous path that will obviously take place over time, so much so that it already contains in itself transitional norms that take into account the current situation.
Therefore, this proposal, with the help of the Holy Spirit, aims to bring about a reinvigoration of the religious class that will be called upon, when fully operational, to take on the burden of the governance of the order, naturally assisted by the innumerable “lay” members of the order.
There is, of course, some resistance to this kind of change, especially with regard to the immediate effects on the front of governance, but pending the Holy Father's decisions, any assessment seems to me out of place.
I would also like to point out that not only the first class of professed religious knights needs reform, but also the second and third classes. Certainly, the most substantial reform concerns the first class, but the Order will not be able to function unless there is a spiritual renewal of the second class as well — with a deeper understanding of the spiritual and canonical meaning of the promise of obedience that the knights of the second class make, and a deepening of the spirit of service in which they must place themselves.
The original mandate of Pope Francis to the special delegate, as I understand it, was to provide for this spiritual and moral renewal of the order, but this seems to have evolved into becoming a guiding hand in the legal reform of the order.
How did this develop?
Precisely because, as I said before, the Order of Malta is a religious order: there is not, nor can there be, a clear break between the spiritual and the material, the moral and the legal, the spiritual government and the government of the works.
For this reason, the scope of the mandate received from the Holy Father has been general from the beginning. The spiritual renewal of the order goes hand in hand with its institutional renewal. For this reason, I have been entrusted with the task of presiding over the drafting of a project for the renewal of the constitutional charter and of the order's code.
I know you have complained that a draft constitution was circulated before it would have been appropriate.
But as I read that draft text, I notice much more of a focus on reforming - expanding even - the legal status of the professed Fras in the government of the order than on reform of their spiritual life.
How are you addressing the spiritual aspect of the reforms?
It is erroneous to read the proposal for reform from that perspective. In fact, the reform starts from restoring the full observance of the three evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience — and of the common life — providing for this purpose a structure of spiritual formation according to the common practice of religious life.
As a consequence of the restoration of the authenticity of religious life, and in the hope of new vocations, a commitment of the Fras in the government of the order is foreseen, but in a realistic vision that does not exclude the participation also of members of the second and third classes in the structures of government.
However, even in the present situation, there are numerous Fras that could already be called to important responsibilities in government, and it is surprising that it does not happen.
There has been a lot of talk about an impasse between the Grand Magistry and yourself regarding the order's representation in the constitutional drafting process.
How has that been addressed?
How can we speak of an impasse when we have already met with Pope Francis - my committee and representatives of the order's government - on the 26th February and we are meeting again on 19th March?
But it certainly seems there has been division between your committee and the Grand Magistry, and then further division among the knights themselves about the future direction of reform.
Is there a reasonable expectation that a unifying result can be produced, or is it now the case that one side must accept it cannot have its way?
It is completely misleading and therefore unacceptable to project a parliamentarian mentality.
What we must seek is to live a synodal dimension in the Order of Malta as well; that is, to seek a convergence of opinions and decisions.
This is the profound and, at the same time, concrete sense of the decision taken by the Holy Father to hold the meeting of Saturday February 26th, with the intention of holding another meeting very soon, to establish what should be the project that will be taken by all sides as the basic text for the subsequent work. Then it will be about obedience in faith and love to the will of God manifested by the Pope who represents Him on earth.
Therefore, it will not be a matter of the submission of one party to the other, but more simply of applying in this concrete matter that faith, hope and charity which, as Christians, we all profess.
Finally, I would like to point out that these are my personal reflections, the result of the experience gained in recent months.
Having said that, I myself, along with those who lead their Christian vocation according to the Melitense charism, we are all deeply grateful to the Holy Father for the paternal concern with which he is following the path of the reform, and we confidently await his definitive pronouncement on what will be the future of Order of St. John of Jerusalem.