‘Our Future Is in Danger’: 1,000-Year-Old Order of Malta in Turmoil Amid Crunch Talks

In 2017, Pope Francis ordered reforms of both the order’s religious life and its constitution.

Cardinal Silvano Maria Tomasi.
Cardinal Silvano Maria Tomasi. (photo: Martin Micallef / Maltese Association Order of Malta via Flickr.)

ROME — In a turn of events described as a “direct attack” on the Order of Malta’s sovereignty, Pope Francis’ delegate refused to permit a representative of one of the order’s highest-ranking officials to attend a meeting discussing sweeping changes to the 1,000-year-old institution.

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, as it is officially known, is both a lay religious order of the Catholic Church and a subject of international law. In 2017, Pope Francis ordered reforms of both the order’s religious life and its constitution.

That reform was supposed to enter a decisive stage at a Jan. 25-26 meeting in Rome, where the order, which also operates a worldwide relief agency, has its base. 

But in a Jan. 18 letter, Albrecht von Boeselager, the order’s Grand Chancellor, announced that he would not join the working group overseeing the drafting of a new constitution. In his place, he appointed Marwan Senahoui, the leader of the order’s vibrant Lebanese association.

The working group included Cardinal Silvano Maria Tomasi, papal delegate to the order, Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, a canon law expert, Msgr. Brian Ferme, secretary of the Vatican’s Council for the Economy, Maurizio Tagliaferri, Federico Marti, and Gualtiero Ventura.

On Jan. 25, the group was expanded to incorporate senior members of the order. Boeselager was included, but he stepped aside. Senahoui did not participate in the meeting as Boeselager’s replacement, as Cardinal Tomasi refused his appointment. 

Beyond Boeselager, the expanded working group also included Mauro Bertero Gutiérrez, Peter Szabadhegÿ de Csallöközmegyercs, and Fra’ Alessandro de Franciscis. 

Riccardo Paternò, president of the Italian association of the Order of Malta, took part in the meeting, although he was not officially included in the working group. 

In a circular letter delivered to all the order’s top officials, Kristóf Szabadhegÿ, president of the Hungarian association, criticized Paternò’s presence at the Jan. 25 meeting. 

Addressing him directly, Szabadhegÿ wrote: “Your presence there leads me to believe that you have been in regular contact with the commission of the papal delegate and were intimately involved in behind-the-scenes coordination of activities of the papal delegate and his working group.” 

Szabadhegÿ suggested that “the fact you did not inform your legal superior within the order that you were invited to participate in the joint commission meeting could in and of itself be subject to disciplinary procedures.” 

He challenged Paternò to explain his “actions and motives in our constitutional reform process.”

In a letter sent to the order’s top officials, Senahoui explained that “the decree issued by the Lieutenant of the Grand Master on Jan. 18, 2022, appointing me as chairman of the steering committee with our confrére Péter Szabadhegÿ at my side, has been rejected by His Eminence Cardinal Tomasi." 

Cardinal Tomasi, he added, “requested our Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager to have the Lieutenant of the Grand Master overturn [the decree], threatening to intervene personally.” Senahoui described this as “a direct attack on the sovereignty of our order.”

Senahoui noted that, while Cardinal Tomasi had refused to invite him to the Jan. 25 meeting, he had a “cordial” private audience with Pope Francis on the morning of Jan. 24, lasting 25 minutes.

Senahoui recalled that he asked the Pope to “consider requesting the postponing of the meetings scheduled on Jan. 25 and 26 to a later date, as these will be held in an unhealthy and insufficiently prepared environment.”

He argued that “the majority of the people involved in the current commission do not have a thorough knowledge and understanding of the specificities of our order and activities.” So it was necessary “to provide the commission with additional information, necessary for the success of these reforms, after gathering the inputs of all our leaders around the world.”

When invitations to the two-day meeting were issued on the afternoon of Jan. 24, Senahoui was not among those invited. Szabadhegÿ attended the meeting, where he complained about Senahoui’s absence.

In his letter, Senahoui expressed astonishment at Paternò’s presence at the gathering and questioned “how and on what basis” the president of the Italian association was able to attend “without an official invitation.”

Szabadhegÿ left the meeting in protest at the refusal to invite Senahoui. The Lebanese official stressed in his letter that “under these circumstances, I consider that our order is not respected, that our dignity is violated and that our future is in danger.”

Despite initially announcing that he was going to step aside, Boeselager ultimately took part in the Jan. 25 meeting, thus accepting the delegate’s request. 

The draft of the order’s constitution was due to be discussed at the Jan. 26 meeting. Leaks revealed that the new constitution would make the order a subject of the Holy See. Such a provision might jeopardize the order’s sovereignty and put at risk its bilateral relations with 112 states, as well as its permanent observer status at the United Nations.

Cardinal Tomasi has insisted that the draft was not definitive and could be changed.

In a Jan. 24 letter that Cardinal Tomasi wrote to convene the working group, he said he “thought it appropriate to reflect on some articles, which I have modified.” 

He added: “I, therefore, share with you the text on which we will be discussing today, confirming that, once further reflections have been gathered over these two days, a new draft will finally be sent to you, exclusively by this office, on which I await your comments and suggestions.”

Flag of the Works of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta flying over the Villa del Priorato di Malta.

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Fra’ Luzzago, whose official title is Lieutenant of the Grand Master, added that “this sovereignty has enabled the Order of Malta to build up its vast network of international relations through its diplomacy committed to the constant support of its centuries-old humanitarian mission.”