The idea that the Sovereign Military Order of Malta would lose its religious character is out of the question as its dual mission to defend the faith and serve the poor cannot be separated, Pope Francis’ special delegate to the ancient chivalric institution has said.

In May 5 comments to the Register following last week’s election of Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto as the Order’s new interim leader, Archbishop Angelo Becciu said “for a thousand years the Order of Malta has been considered ‘religious’” and so the idea it “would not be religious is unthinkable.”

“From the very foundation of the Order, the tuitio Fidei [defense of the faith] and the obsequium pauperum [service to the poor], its two pillars, were never separate, nor can they be separated,” Archbishop Becciu said.

“This was the desire of Blessed Gérard [the Order’s 12th century founder] and has always been the tradition of the Knights of Malta,” he added.

The comments of the Italian archbishop, whom Pope Francis appointed in February as his representative to the Order, will reassure those who feared that a faction of knights, led by its German members and Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager, wanted to lead the ancient institution into becoming a quasi-secular non-governmental organization, possibly splitting it into religious and humanitarian branches.

Many of the Order’s professed members, who take an oath of poverty, chastity and obedience, were also reassured last week when Archbishop Becciu spent a whole day listening to their concerns individually, including those of the former Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing. They were additionally impressed by his speech, delivered just ahead of the April 29 election, which further set them at ease.

Numbering just 55 in total, only the professed members can currently rise to the rank of Grand Master and lead the organization. None of the Order’s German members is professed, but are allegedly keen to “modernize” it and so are trying to change this rule in order to take over the reins of the Order.

 

Fra' Giacomo's challenges

This will be a key challenge facing seventy-three year old Fra’ Giacomo, a classics, archaeology and art history scholar. Elected for one year to lead the Order of Malta, he will assume all the powers of the Grand Master, although his official title is “Lieutenant”.

The sovereign institution, which dates back to the Crusades, has diplomatic relations with 106 countries, 13,500 members, and more than 100,000 volunteers and employees serving the poor and the sick around the world.

Fra’ Giacomo’s first engagement will be leading the Order’s 59th pilgrimage to Lourdes May 5-9, one of the Order’s most significant moments in its spiritual life, during which 7,000 members and volunteers from all over the world will assist around 1,500 sick and disabled pilgrims.

As well as advancing its diplomatic, social and humanitarian activities, one of Fra’ Giacomo’s main tasks will be to reform the Order’s Constitution and Code, addressing “potential institutional weaknesses,” according to an April 29 statement.

Referring to the dismissal and later reinstatement of Von Boeselager and the forced resignation of Fra’ Matthew as Grand Master, the statement said the recent crisis had “shown some weaknesses in the checks and balances in governance” and the reform “will take this into consideration.”

These weaknesses are also said to include aspects of Fra’ Matthew’s governance which some critics deemed authoritarian and violated the Order’s constitution. But that aside, reforms were widely seen as needed, and Fra’ Matthew had wanted to make them himself.   

“The reform will also focus on strengthening the Order’s spiritual life and to increase the number of its professed members,” the statement added, saying consultations on these matters had “already begun.” Any changes will have to be voted on and ratified.

Various concerns remain within the Order, however. These include how a key factor in Von Boeselager’s dismissal —the proven distribution of contraceptives and abortifacients by the Order’s humanitarian arm, Malteser International — appears to have been relegated to having little importance, also by the Vatican.

Von Boeselager denied responsibility, saying he ended the distribution as quickly as he could. His allies have also claimed he had been set up through the doctoring of an Order-commissioned report on the affair, although at least two members have gone on record saying Von Boeselager told them privately that he approved of such distribution with the words: "We have to give contraceptives to the poor, or they will die."

 

Cardinal Parolin's role

Other concerns relate to the Order’s loss of sovereignty following a Holy See commission set up by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin in December to look into Von Boeselager’s dismissal. The Vatican cardinal and Von Boeselager are old acquaintances. The commission’s unpublished findings led to the Pope’s removal of Fra’ Matthew as Grand Master — a position usually held for life — and Von Boeselager’s controversial reinstatement as Grand Chancellor. There is also concern about the dominance of Archbishop Becciu in the running of the sovereign institution, and that its humanitarian work has taken precedence over its defence of the faith and orthodoxy.

A further point of contention has been a Swiss-based trust worth 120 million euros, some of which was bequeathed to the Order, and questions over where the money originated and where it ultimately has, or will, end up. Three members of the five-member Holy See commission set up in December were closely involved in the trust.  

But sources involved in the fund, called Caritas Pro Vitae Gradu (CPVG), strenuously deny any wrongdoing and an “independent” due diligence report allegedly showing the funds are clean with “no fiscal liabilities” is expected to be published soon. However, at this stage it remains unclear who commissioned the report and just how independent it is.

For his part, Archbishop Becciu stressed in his May 5 comments that “financial transparency is required of every institution” and that the Order is “committed to such transparency and to examining all aspects of its life and operation.”

Asked whether, according to some reports, at least 30 million euros of the CPVG trust were being syphoned off to the Vatican because the Holy See was suffering from liquidity problems, the Pope’s special delegate said such allegations were “completely unfounded.”  

Regarding the election of Fra’ Giacomo, the Order’s new leader is seen as a good and decent man who will likely soothe much of tension that has arisen over the past months. But he is also viewed as one of the choices of those who wish to modernize the Order and make it more secular because he is seen as “malleable.” Those concerned about this are hoping that Archbishop Becciu will have heard plenty of alternative views from those seeking to preserve its religious nature, and therefore enable the Order to retain its identity. 

The archbishop himself remains optimistic for the future. “I am confident for two reasons,” he told the Register. “First, because, on the basis of my meetings with many members of the Order I saw a clear desire and commitment to overcome difficulties and to deepen the Order’s gifts and strengths.

“Second, because whenever there is a crisis in the Church, providence intervenes for the good of all and I am convinced that the spirit of renewal will assist the Order as it considers the path of reform ahead, according to its own means and discernment.”