Pope Francis has directly intervened to end an impasse between the Vatican and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta over controversial reforms. The Holy Father told the leaders of the Vatican delegation that they must include senior knights nominated by the Order to take part in any crisis talks, not only those hand-picked by themselves.
He has suspended the talks between the Order and the Vatican and asked to meet a group of knights picked by the Grand Chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, to hear personally their concerns about the reforms proposed by the commission of Cardinal Silvano Tomasi.
The Catholic Herald learned that Pope Francis announced his decision at a meeting with Cardinal Tomasi, his Special Delegate, about the talks with the Order, and Fr Gianfranco Ghirlanda, the Jesuit former rector of the Gregorian University and expert on canon law who is advising him, and instructed them to be more accommodating.
In a letter to the knights, Cardinal Tomasi told them that the Pope “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”.
The Pope, he said, has “decided to suspend all other activities until this meeting takes place, following which he will make a final decision”.
Boeselager is expected to propose a group of seven or eight knights, which will include the Lieutenant of the Grand Master, to meet the Pope in person. The meeting was due to take place possibly before the end of February.
Cardinal Tomasi told the knights that “any other activity before the meeting with the Pope will be considered an act of disobedience to the Holy Father”.
The cardinal had previously refused to accept the appointment of Marwan Sehnaoui, the Order’s Sovereign Council-nominated leader and President of the Order’s Lebanese Association, and invited Riccardo Patternò, the President of the Italian Association, to take his place instead.
Sehnaoui said in a letter that the response from Cardinal Tomasi was “clearly a direct attack on the sovereignty of our Order”.
The cardinal’s refusal to meet him angered many members of the Order who were already grievously troubled by the prospect of a possible Vatican takeover and the subsequent loss of their sovereign independence for the first time in 900 years, arising from the terms of a proposed revised constitution. It left three days of talks on the verge of breaking down instead of ending nearly four years of wrangling which followed the intervention into the leadership of the Order by Pope Francis in 2017.
A source said a meeting of the “old commission” appointed by Cardinal Tomasi to finalise a new draft constitution for the Order, which was due to take place in February, has now been cancelled so that the position can be reviewed.
“The new commission will meet with the Holy Father and present proposals,” a source told the Herald.
In a letter to members of the Order, Boeselager, a German, signalled that the impasse was over, with the threat to the Order’s sovereignty also directly addressed.
He said he was “particularly delighted” by the intervention of Pope Francis.
“God has listened to your prayers,” he told the knights. “Over the past week, we were able to open up and strengthen our communications at the highest levels of the Holy See, receiving important assurances from the Holy Father.”
“The misunderstandings that have prevailed between the working group of the Special Delegate, His Eminence Cardinal Tomasi and representatives of the Order are now beginning to subside.”
He added: “We have received satisfactory assurances that there is no intention to infringe in any way upon the sovereignty and the right of self-governance of the Order of Malta and, as a result, certain articles in the proposed draft constitution have been amended accordingly.”
The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is the world’s oldest Christian charity and has been a lay religious military order since the 11th century.
As well as being a lay religious order, the Order is also a sovereign state, exchanging ambassadors with some 112 countries and with Permanent Observer status at the United Nations. Under the initial proposed reforms, the Vatican sought to grant an expanded but controversial governing role to the Professed Knights (or Knights of Justice) – under the spiritual authority of the Pope.
Many members felt the proposed reforms would have also stripped the Order of its sovereignty via the terms of the draft constitution which would have explicitly rendered it a “subject” of the Holy See.
The new designation would effectively have meant the loss of the Order’s sovereign status recognised in international law and by the United Nations, with an impact on its relations with more than a hundred countries in which it carries out relief and charitable work and also upon its finances and cash flow.
The Pope first intervened in the governance of the Order when he demanded the abdication of Fra’ Matthew Festing, the British-born former Grand Master who died in November last year, because of Festing’s dismissal of Boeselager as Grand Chancellor.
Boeselager was reinstated and the Holy Father appointed Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, who is at present standing trial at the Vatican on corruption charges, as his Special Delegate to oversee reforms of the religious life of the solemnly professed members. The Pope replaced him with Cardinal Tomasi in 2020.
The proposed draft reforms caused concern among many members of the Order because they could have resulted in the transfer of power and administrative control to just a tiny band of professed knights – around 39 in total, who have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
The proposal has exasperated some of the lay members of the Order who believe it would effectively “downgrade the role of the laity” and make most lay knights and dames like “associate members”.
Boeselager announced he would step aside from the process after admitting that he could not accept the proposed reforms in good conscience and Marwan Sehnaoui took his place as chairman of the constitutional reform committee before he was subsequently “disinvited”.
Sehnaoui made the case that some members of Tomasi’s council did not properly understand the history and unique “charism” of the Order and that his removal from the process was “clearly a direct attack on the sovereignty of our Order”.
Members of the Order were gravely worried about the impact of the proposed reforms upon their charitable work.
The Order delivers over £1 billion worth of aid a year, via around 42,000 medical personnel and another 80,000 volunteers, and its membership of 13,500, covering everything from soup kitchens to maternity hospitals. In Britain alone there are over 60 care homes run by the Order.
Although some professed knights see the reforms as their chance to sit again at the Order’s highest table, most have no wish or desire or the physical energy to take up the “burden” of the administrative and charitable duties that would be required.
In effect, if the proposed changes were to be implemented, power and access to the Order’s bank accounts, capital and revenue would reside with the Vatican.
Any new designation which resulted in the loss of the Order’s sovereign status would alter its relations with more than a hundred countries in which it carries out charitable work and could dramatically affect its finances.
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