What the New Leader of the Order of Malta Means for the Church

The history and work of the SMOM reveals that there is much to lose if the current crisis is not resolved by its new leader.

(photo: Credit: Eric Bézine, CC BY-SA 3.0, Fotopedia via Wikimedia Commons)

Soon after his resignation announcement in Feb. 2013, then-Pope Benedict XVI met with the members of the venerable and respected chivalric Sovereign Military Order of Malta and urged them to remain faithful to their traditions and their service to the Church. “Your Order, from its earliest days,” the Pope said, “has been marked by fidelity to the Church and to the Successor of Peter, and also for its unrenounceable spiritual identity, characterized by high religious ideals… Your esteemed and beneficent activity, carried out in a variety of fields and in different parts of the world, and particularly focused on care of the sick through hospitals and health-care institutes, is not mere philanthropy, but an effective expression and a living testimony of evangelical love.”

Four years on, Benedict’s plea remains even more pressing as the Order of Malta – known in full as the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta – has elected its new temporary leader and continues to grapple with one of the greatest crises in its 900 year history.

In a communiqué on April 29, the Knights announced that the Council Complete of State, the Order’s formal constitutional body, had elected Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto Lieutenant of the Grand Master. He succeeds the 79th Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing, who was asked to resign from his office by Pope Francis at the end of January.

The 73-year-old Dalla Torre had served since 2008 as the Grand Prior of the Knights in Rome, has been a member of the Order since 1985 and a professed knight since 1993. Notably, he was chosen Lieutenant of the Grand Master and not Grand Master. He has been given a one-year term to bring reform but he must also reconvene the Council Complete of State at year’s end.

In that span, he will have full authority to bring about both the constitutional reform of the Order and its spiritual renewal after what has been a difficult ordeal for the institution and its 13,500 members across the world.


Resignations and Interventions

As Register Vatican correspondent Edward Pentin has documented, the crisis began on Dec. 6 with the removal of Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager from his post of Grand Chancellor (the order’s third-ranking official) in the face of accusations that under his leadership contraceptives, including abortifacients, were distributed through the Order’s humanitarian agency, Malteser International.

Within days of the removal, the Holy See intervened directly in what were generally considered the internal affairs of the Sovereign Order. Pope Francis appointed a special commission to investigate the dismissal, and Fra’ Festing submitted his resignation soon after that. Days later, Pope Francis named Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu, the Substitute Secretary of State (Sostituto) of the Holy See, as his Special Delegate to the Order. His appointment came with a mandate to serve as exclusive spokesman of the Holy See in all matters relating to relations between the Holy See and the Knights; work closely with the leadership to carry out the appropriate renewal of the Order's Constitution; oversee all matters relating to the spiritual and moral renewal of the Order, particularly its professed members; and promote the greater good of the Order and reconciliation between all its members, religious and lay.

The Vatican commission, the intervention of the pope and the appointment of Archbishop Becciu have all caused concern in many quarters as to whether the acts constituted the de facto annexation of an internationally independent state by the Vatican and what might happen to the esteemed Order’s traditions and its worldwide humanitarian role. Both were the chief concern of a statement on the priorities for the Order issued on Feb. 2 in the aftermath of Festing’s resignation. The plans stressed both a spiritual renewal for the Order and a continued commitment to its global humanitarian diplomacy.

Nevertheless, some fear that the rich legacy of the Order might be abandoned by a call to “modernize” and that the important Catholic charity work of the Knights might become little more than an exercise in international philanthropy. There is much to lose.


An ancient Order

Fidelity to the Church (and to the pope especially) and a deep commitment to service and charity have characterized the work of the Order since its earliest days. In fact, the Order traces itself to the middle of the 11th century when Blessed Gerard (feast day Oct. 13) established a hospice for pilgrims and the sick in Jerusalem, next to the Church of St. John. Others joined Gerard in his ministry, and the members embraced community life in accordance with the Rule of St. Augustine. On Feb. 15, 1113, Pope Paschal II solemnly approved the new Order, with an apostolic letter addressed to “Gerard, Founder and Warden of the hospice at Jerusalem and to his lawful successors.” After Gerard’s death in 1120, the Order’s work continued as a religious order — the Hospitallers of St. John — but with growing military duties as allowed by the pope. The Crusader States in the Holy Land that had been established after the First Crusade recaptured Jerusalem in 1099 were under constant threat from the surrounding Muslim states, and the members pledged their lives to protecting the Christian presence. The Order’s headquarters were located in the Holy Land until around 1291 when the last of the great Crusader strongholds fell to Islamic armies.

Forced to depart the Holy Land, the Knights eventually settled on Rhodes in 1308 (from which came the title, Knights of Rhodes). From this new base, the Order became a sovereign power like the maritime republics of Italy, flying its own flag, coining its own money, floating its own navy and maintaining diplomatic relations with many nations.

Over the next centuries, the Knights stood in the frontline of defending Christendom against the Islamic tide, especially the Ottoman Turks. Fending off repeated Ottoman sieges of the island, the Knights finally abandoned Rhodes in 1522 and soon settled on Malta. The island became a new fortress in the fight to save the Mediterranean from the Ottomans, and the Knights survived new onslaughts, including the legendary Great Siege of 1565 when a Turkish armada of 180 ships and some 30,000 soldiers were held off by 600 knights and 6,000 soldiers and volunteers under the command of the heroic Grand Master Jean de la Valette. The victory was especially important as it permitted the Order to take part six years later in the Battle of Lepanto, which shattered the ambitions of the Ottoman Turks to invade Christendom from the sea.

While the Knights long resisted the Ottoman Turks, they could not defeat Napoleon Bonaparte, who attacked Malta in 1798 while on his way to invade Egypt. On June 12 of that year, some 250 Knights surrendered Malta. The Order spent some time in Sicily, but in 1834 the Knights settled in Rome where they have been headquartered ever since.


“Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum”

Under the provisions of international law, the order maintains full diplomatic relations with nearly 100 countries throughout the world, including the Holy See — on which, in its double nature, it depends as a religious order, but from which, as a sovereign Order of Knighthood, it is independent. The Order also enjoys permanent observer status at the United Nations.

The Knights and Dames of the Order from around the world today are pledged to remain faithful to the motto “Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum” (“Nurturing, witnessing and protecting the faith and serving the poor and the sick”). Membership in the Order is by invitation only, and members serve the order within its six grand priories, three sub-priories and 47 national associations. Every Knight and Dame is expected to perform acts of mercy, proclaim and defend the Faith with dedication and develop their spiritual lives in accord with the ideals of the Order. Famously, Knights and Dames serve the sick (the malades) at Lourdes.

The main classes of members are: Knights of Justice, who are considered religious with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; Knights and Dames of Obedience, who make a promise to be dedicated to the principles of the Christian life and the Order; and Knights and Dames who are lay members and do not profess religious vows or make the promise, but who strive to live according to the principles of the Church and the Order.


Global Works of Mercy

While the fabled military exploits and heroism of the Knights and members have long captured the imagination of Catholics and historians, the Order’s most important function has never been abandoned — namely the care of the sick, the weak and the forgotten. Even as war raged across the Mediterranean in the 16th century, for example, the Order’s hospital on Malta could welcome more than 500 patients, and its medical school was renowned for training physicians, pharmacists and experts in anatomy.

That mandate for care continues today. The Order employs around 25,000 doctors, nurses, auxiliaries and paramedics, assisted by 80,000 volunteers in more than 120 countries. The works of mercy include the sick and terminally ill, children and the elderly, the homeless, the handicapped, refugees and lepers. The Order’s relief agency, Malteser International, oversees more than 100 projects in more than 20 countries, for the assistance of victims of natural disasters, pandemics and especially war and strife. 


Reform and Renewal

Given the traditions of the Order and the sheer drama of the last months, the election of a new leader, even with a one year term, assumed even greater importance. The tensions before the vote were not eased by the request – later reversed – that Fra’ Festing not attend the election of his successor.

The communiqué from the Order announcing Dalla Torre’s election stressed the object of reform. “The recent crisis,” the Knights announced, “has shown some weaknesses in the checks and balances in governance: the reform will take this into consideration. The reform will also focus on strengthening the Orders spiritual life and to increase the number of its Professed members.”

What that will entail remains an open question, but if the leadership is looking for direction, the words of Benedict XVI ought to be prominent in their thoughts. “Your Order,” he said, “compared with other organizations that are committed in the international arena to the care of the sick, to solidarity and to human promotion, is distinguished by the Christian inspiration that must constantly direct the social engagement of its members. Be sure to preserve and cultivate this your qualifying characteristic and work with renewed apostolic ardor, maintaining an attitude of profound harmony with the Magisterium of the Church.