Interim Leader Discusses the Order of Malta’s 5-Year Renewal Process

Fra’ John Dunlap said Pope Francis’ Sept. 3 decree will help the ancient order improve formation, build communities, and understand better its mission of faithfully serving the poor.

Fra’ John T. Dunlap, member of the Sovereign Council, was appointed by Pope Francis Lieutenant of the Grand Master of the Sovereign Order of Malta.
Fra’ John T. Dunlap, member of the Sovereign Council, was appointed by Pope Francis Lieutenant of the Grand Master of the Sovereign Order of Malta. (photo: Courtesy photos / Order of Malta)

Pope Francis' reform of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta puts an end to efforts by a “small clique” to obstruct a five-year reform process, and removes “any existential threat to the Order as a religious institute and sovereign entity,” the interim leader of the chivalric organization has said.

In an exclusive interview with the Register, Fra’ John Dunlap said the Pope’s Sept. 3 decree — which revoked the titles of the Order of Malta’s four high offices, established a provisional government with a new constitution and code, and convened an extraordinary general chapter for January 2023 — also prepares the way for a successful election of a new grand master. 

Dunlap, who has served as lieutenant grand master of the order since the sudden death in early June of his predecessor,  Fra’ Marco Luzzago, also reassured its members that the new constitution and code “speak to a spiritual renewal of all three classes of knights and dames.” 

The 65-year-old native of Canada also said it provides an emphasis on “understanding better what it means to be a lay religious order, on building communities, and on improved formation — all designed to support effectively our charism to defend the faith through service to the sick and poor.” 

The announcement of the Pope’s decree closes a difficult chapter for the ancient chivalric order after the acrimonious resignation, and then reinstatement, of former Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager five years ago, the forced resignation of the late former Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing, and frequent attempts to derail the reform process. 


Frà John, following Pope Francis’ recent changes to the Order of Malta, how much will it be a challenge for the order in the future to maintain both its sovereign independence from the Holy See and religious obedience to the Holy Father? Some canonists suggest that this balancing act has continually posed a challenge to the order's leadership. Now, in the wake of these recent tumultuous events, could this balancing act become more difficult?

This so-called “balancing act” is not new to the order, but it is unique, and this uniqueness often results in some confusion among outside observers. For almost 1,000 years, the order has been a religious order that has had its sovereignty recognized by the international community. When the order first arrived in Malta in 1530, it took possession of the island and ruled it by leave of the Emperor Charles upon whom, as a result, the grand master was a dependent vassal. Further, the Pope continued to exercise his rights on Malta as the ultimate religious superior of the knights. None of this impinged upon the sovereignty of the order. 

The new constitution and code state clearly the fact that the order is both a religious institute and a sovereign entity, putting an end to the speculation and scare tactics of the last five years.


Pope Francis himself promulgated the new constitution for the order but with no provision for the knights to vote in its favor before it came into legal force. Critics of this papal move have described it as an unprecedented intervention in the internal affairs of the order that could compromise its sovereign independence. They say no Pope has ever dreamed of treating any order like this, let alone one with sovereignty, and that it leaves the order’s sovereignty as no more than a polite fiction. What do you say to this?

Well, first I would say that these critics are very poor historians. In numerous instances, popes have intervened in religious orders, not just the Order of Malta. Just to take one memorable example: the Jesuits in 1981, whose constitution was suspended by Pope John Paul II who then hand-picked the new general, circumventing the Jesuit rules of succession. 

There are multiple examples through the centuries in which popes have intervened to assist or direct the Order of Malta in one way or another, including deciding if and when elections for grand master would be held. 

Pope Francis promulgated the new constitution and code only after a lengthy, deliberative, and analytic process that examined all of the submitted proposals for renewal. His decision to promulgate the new constitution and code was welcomed by the vast majority of members of the order who were increasingly frustrated by a five-year effort on the part of a small clique to stymie the renewal. 


Was this attempt to stymie the renewal the reason for the Pope dissolving the Sovereign Council and replacing almost every high officer? 

I am not privy to the Pope’s thoughts or motivations. I can only say that the provisional government that was established by papal decree must be free of factionalism if it is to successfully carry out its mandate to ready the entire order for the coming chapter general. 


How significant is it that the German Association and Albrecht von Boeselager, the former grand chancellor of the order, no longer have leadership positions in the organization? Does this put an end to speculation in recent years that the order would become akin to a secular nongovernmental organization (NGO)? And do the recent changes draw a line under the upheavals that began in 2016 and the forced departure of the late Frà Matthew Festing as grand master?

It is, in fact, the new constitution and code that put an end to any intentions that may have existed to turn the order from a religious institute into a secular NGO. There is still much to be done to complete the renewal, but I believe that any existential threat to the order as a religious institute and sovereign entity is now removed.

The provisional government was formed, in large measure, to prepare for a successful chapter general and, subsequently, the election of a new government under the new constitution. The members of the provisional government were chosen because of their contributions to the renewal process, their individual expertise, and their willingness to end the divisiveness of the last several years. Replacing almost the entire Sovereign Council was necessary to ensure a successful path forward to the chapter general and council complete.


As already mentioned, critics of that and other papal actions contend that the Holy Father went too far, and like popes in the past, should have signaled his concerns without directly intervening. Others argue that senior leaders who opposed the ousting of Albrecht von Boeselager in 2016 were the first to request Francis’ intervention to reinstate him, but now they no longer agree with his decisions and his actions. What are your thoughts on this?

There are many instances in our history of both overt interventions and quiet diplomatic maneuvering by the popes and the Vatican. Pope Francis did not depart from past papal practice, and one must remember that he did not foist himself upon the order. The order asked the Pope to become involved in its affairs and to act in its best interests. He has done so, and we are grateful.


Many third-class knights and dames of the order, particularly in the United States, do not understand what has happened, and have asked for transparency regarding the context and impact of Pope Francis’ actions. Will they receive this transparency soon?

Translations from Italian of the constitution and code are underway as we speak. Grand priors, priors, regents, and association presidents have been informed and will soon begin to brief their members on the new constitution and code.


How will these actions likely affect various classes of knights within the order — third-class knights and dames (the majority of the membership who manage outreach to the poor and needy through national associations, including three U.S.-based associations); second-class knights serving in diplomatic posts and on the sovereign and government councils; professed knights?

The changes that arise from the new constitution and code speak to a spiritual renewal of all three classes of knights and dames. There is an emphasis on understanding better what it means to be a lay religious order, on building communities, and on improved formation — all designed to support effectively our charism to defend the faith through service to the sick and poor. In addition, the changes in governance ensure that the order, in the foreseeable future, will remain a religious institute with internationally recognized sovereignty.


How should the new constitution be interpreted concerning issues of leadership? On the one hand, it says you must be in the first or second class to be an officer, but on the other hand it says that is preferred. Some national associations are large and others are small, with only 40 members. It could be difficult for one set of rules to apply to everyone and when there are exceptions to the rules, so where will it stop?

Right now, we are finishing translations from Italian into other major languages. Once these are completed and circulated, there will be communications outreaches to answer questions and clarify points about the constitution and code. Naturally, there may be questions of interpretation, as in any newly promulgated constitution or code, but we are confident that these documents will be well-received by the overwhelming majority of members.