Cardinal Tomasi Discusses the Reforms to the Order of Malta

The papal delegate, appointed in 2020, spoke with the Register prior to a two-day meeting of leadership that is overseeing the reforms.

Cardinal Silvano Tomasi is the papal delegate assigned to Order of Malta's process of reform.
Cardinal Silvano Tomasi is the papal delegate assigned to Order of Malta's process of reform. (photo: Edward Pentin)

ROME — Pope Francis’ special delegate to the Order of Malta has told the Register that contrary to recent reports, the sovereignty of the ancient lay religious order is not up for discussion, and that moves are afoot to give greater representation of members, such as those in the United States, on the Sovereign Council, the order’s main governing body. 

In a Jan. 23 interview, Cardinal Silvano Tomasi explained some of the reforms to the order’s constitution and code being drawn up at a two-day meeting this week. The participants of the Jan. 25-26 meeting, who included Cardinal Tomasi and other members of a working group overseeing reform, are now to circulate their proposals to the religious of the order, presidents of its country associations, its sovereign council, and others for further input. 

Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Tomasi special delegate to the Order of Malta in November 2020, giving him the specific responsibility to act as interlocutor for the order’s government in the reform process of its constitutional charter and code. The Pope gave him “all powers necessary” to see through the reform in a letter last October, permitting him to dissolve the order’s sovereign council — its governing body — and convoking an extraordinary chapter general, with delegates chosen according to new criteria. 

On Jan. 26, internal disputes emerged after Marwan Senahoui, the leader of the order’s Lebanese association wrote to the leadership of the order complaining that Cardinal Tomasi had shut him out of this week’s meeting — a move Senahoui said was a “direct attack” on the order’s sovereignty. 

He and other knights are uneasy with Cardinal Tomasi’s plans for a new constitution and believe the Pope gave him too many powers last October. The cardinal told the Register Jan. 28 that he had since spoken with Senahoui but matters complicated further because of an intervention from the Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager. “The story is an ongoing saga,” he said. “Every few hours there is a change of panorama.” 

In his interview with the Register, Cardinal Tomasi discussed various aspects of reform, including steps being made to retain and enhance the religious element of the order, changes in the eligibility of candidates to be grand master, as well as two issues that have drawn criticism in recent years: faithfulness to Church teaching in the order following a dispute over contraception in the 2010s, and a mysterious multi-million dollar Swiss fund that was initially unknown to former Grand Master Fra Matthew Festing.


Your Eminence, what is the current plan for reform, what stage have we reached?

We’re coming close to the end of the process. The main test was the reform of the constitution and the code, the two legal instruments that the order has in order to organize and coordinate its internal life. 

As far as the commission is concerned — the group created by the Pope to work on this topic — we’re coming close to concluding our effort. This meeting of Jan. 25-26 was scheduled long ago and was planned in order to listen to government objections, contributions and desires, and avoid polemics that have been happening without interruption. A significant part of the polemics were caused by a copy of the commission’s draft being circulated without our knowledge and permission. 


One particular aspect of that draft you mention regards the order’s sovereignty, and a line that says it will become a “subject” of the Holy See that will jeopardize its status in international law. Are you able to reassure members that the order’s sovereign status will remain precisely the same? 

That was the old draft. It has already been eliminated. We didn’t keep that expression and it’s not going to be in the text of the constitution that we’re going to circulate. In a letter to the order I said that, when we would be finished with the work under the constitution, government and working group of the special delegate, we would send the text to the “fras” — the religious — to the presidents of the associations, to the sovereign council and the members of the government so that we have everybody’s input and objections — if there were aspects of the constitution or the text that weren’t acceptable or considered objectionable. This is to prevent confusion because, as I said, unfortunately the preliminary draft was circulated and wasn’t considered by the government and ourselves together.


Why was this question of sovereignty raised in the first place in the earlier draft? Is it perhaps something you have been considering?

The phrase that you read was already in the cardinals’ decision of 1953 [after Cardinal Nicola Canali’s failed attempt to remove the order’s sovereign character]. But we didn’t want to rely on that source for this, knowing how sensitive everyone is about the sovereignty and autonomy of the order. 

On the other hand, the independence of the sovereignty of the order has to be understood according to its function in relation to its religious objective. The goal of the order is charity, assistance to the sick and leading a good Christian life first of all. The sovereignty that the order enjoys is in order to achieve, in a more effective way, the goals that are the charism of the order, but the Holy See wants to strengthen and to support the sovereign prerogatives of the order. Regarding some of the reactions that I have seen, we never said that there should be a control of the order or the imposition of the Holy See. The order will have its own government and will function according to its own constitution, but the constitution is always approved by the Pope, as in the past. 


So to confirm, the sovereignty aspect of the order won’t be touched at all in these reforms?

It’s not under discussion, but it has to be understood what this sovereignty is. It’s a special sovereignty because the Order of Malta doesn’t have a territory, a population. It’s a “functional sovereignty” like the United Nations, a sovereign entity that prints stamps of its own, coins of its own, and so the order has recognized ambassadors. The purpose of this structure is to achieve its goal, its charism, the service of to the poor and sick. 


How will the religious aspect of the order be safeguarded in these reforms?

The reform maintains the order as a religious order. The religious dimension is wanted by the vast majority of members of the order, whether they’re professed or unprofessed, it doesn’t make any difference. They want to be part of a structure and organization that is fundamentally religious, so this is what majority of members want. The Pope wants this also. We’ve been working on this. The reforms don’t take anything away from the sovereignty, autonomy or special privileged traditions that the order has, and has received, over the centuries. 


Some in the order, especially in the German Association, would like to turn the order into more of a secular, humanitarian organization. Is this a concern of yours?

Yes, there are some in the order who see the value of the work of the order if its structure becomes secular — an NGO in all practical purposes, perhaps in line with the United Nations or whatever choice they want to opt for. If the order goes secular, it loses its identity and all the good reasons for the volunteers to be part of it, because the vast majority of the volunteers are good Catholics who want to serve their neighbor in a moment of need. This is the beauty of the order — this generosity expressed by all its members who have invested hours and hours of work for the benefit of people in need. We don’t want to lose this rich patrimony that the order has. 


What are the plans in the reform, therefore, to safeguard and protect that supernatural element of the order?

This will be reflected in the constitution, which will take into account the need of competence, that people taking some responsibility within the structure of the order are going to religious people if possible but if not, then people competent to give service with professional skills. This doesn’t go against any religious principle that the tradition of the order has and I don’t see a conflict between competence and religiosity. 


Will there be a change in the way the order is governed to foster this faith aspect? 

The new constitution balances this fact — on one side you have religious who should be the good example to other members of the order. That’s why the grand master is always going to be a religious, then the grand commander is going to be superior of the religious, but there will also be participation in the government of the order on the part of people in obedience and even others possibly, provided they have the quality, the qualifications to do a good job. 


What are your plans with regard to governance? In the past, a grand master has had to not only be religious but also come from six generations of nobility. Will that be changing?

We are proposing to leave aside six generations of nobility for the election of the grand master. We want to do away with that. We’ll respect the historical role the families of nobility have carried out and continue to carry out within the order. They have given a tremendous contribution to the order but now, to make the grand master a personality that responds to needs of all members of the order, we took away that requirement of the grand master, of being not only religious but having six generations of nobility. We say the nobility is the qualities of the man to be appointed grand master. 




Is this what the Holy Father wants, or is he leaving it to the order to decide?

I think the Holy Father is in agreement with these basic changes that create a tighter order, a more united, fraternal order, but the rest will be determined when the Holy Father approves the constitution which will be voted on by the sovereign council. It will then go for approval from the Pope, signed by the special delegate in the name of the Pope. 


Will you propose to the sovereign council that all members of the order will be eligible to for election? Who’s going to appoint all the names when the sovereign council dissolves?

An extraordinary general chapter will be held which will elect the members of the sovereign council, and will elect as well the members of the council complete of state [the body that meets to elect the grand master or the lieutenant of the grand master] that will elect the grand master. 


There has been talk about reforming the first class [professed knights who have made religious vows] to ensure they remain faithful to a vow of poverty — how is this being incorporated into the reform process?

There’s a big discussion about the vow of poverty and how to live it, especially in the conditions of life in today’s world. This discussion started already in the 18th century and continues. First of all, the order’s professed members — doctors, lawyers, some of them also in banking — are asked to live a simple lifestyle. The order will adjust to facilitate the practise of the vow of poverty by providing for the religious’ needs, so that they can put their resources in common. 

This is a challenge for the government of the order. This part of the reform will take some time and require further considerations. It takes time and patience. If they have to put everything in common for their work, then they have to earn from their work. These discussions have already started and, with the good will of everyone, the problem will be resolved. 


U.S. members are looking for increased representation on the sovereign council, because they feel they give a lot of money but don’t feel represented enough. Will this be addressed?

This is one point we’ve debated in updating the constitution — to have a better system of representation based on the number of members and on the number of charitable institutions available in a country or region. Already we set down some criteria so that there would be more participation on the part of everyone. 


Are the goals of the German Association of concern to you — that they want to centralize the properties of the order and control them?

We feel that the center of the government of the order has a right to support the different entities of the order, but the different entities that are legally recognized in their own countries can own and administer property themselves, as a part not only of decentralization but part of giving responsibility to local members of the order, which is very important. There is another additional factor: That locally, there are competent members of the order — lawyers, engineers, real estate managers. The local president or prior of the association can choose these. Rome has the duty to keep an eye on this, and the local association that owns the property has a duty to give a percentage of the income to Rome for the service of the whole order.  


The order has always been historically known for defending the faith, but what will these reforms do to help the order become a better defender of the faith, especially now when the faith is being so attacked from inside the Church?

One of the important points of the reform that the Pope asked for is the formation of the individual, of members who become religious, first class, knights, and the formation of the second and third class. Because the task and duty of the priest members of the order, the chaplains, conventual chaplains, is to become available to communicate Christian formation in a more complete way to the rest of the members of the order. That was their role within the order. There are a couple of thousand priest members of the order. We need to create a mentality and work together and develop in a more systematic way so that the resources available within the order for Christian individuals may be used in the best way possible. 


Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager said recently that he has been cut off from direct contact with the Vatican — is this true? 

This is not true, and in a very clear way I say this. The ambassador of the order to the Holy See is available for any consultation and has to be the channel. From the Vatican side I have received every member of the government, other national presidents, whoever has asked to see me and discuss some issues. None has been refused. He can go through the ambassador — the grand chancellor has to go through the ambassador. I spoke with the ambassador after this concern was expressed publicly and he said, “I’m available, they just have to tell me what I have to do.” I had some business to deal with the order’s government, I called the ambassador and said please tell this and this to the grand chancellor and let me know what he thinks. We have to use the structures that are in place and trust the structure. 


These structures will remain the same under these reforms?



There has been a lot of talk over the past six years or so about the financing of the order, and in particular a Swiss Fund bequest of $118 million that the late Grand Master Fra Matthew Festing was initially unaware of. What is the latest on that?

When we gave the final report of the commission that the Pope had established in 2016/2017, I never went back to the question of this fund, but I thought we’d given all the answers and responded clearly to the court in Geneva, explaining the money. The question mark is where did this money come from? How did this person come to have so much money? Apparently he had started many years earlier, investing in stocks and bonds. This man died in our lifetime and made a fortune through the stock market. I remember Festing and I were discussing this issue. I said to Festing, “Look at where this money comes from. I don’t see any problems at this point, the money was clean.” 


The Swiss Fund was run by Ariane Slinger, a Swiss broker, who threatened tough legal action against anyone who named her in connection with this fund. You were mentioned in correspondence, and you had direct contact with her regarding this fund in 2015-2016. Can you tell us about her?

I know Ariane very well. She’s a good administrator. She took that action because she didn’t want her name associated with some illegal activity. She’s the administrator of several funds. She lives in Geneva, and she’s from New Zealand. She’s been faithful in carrying out the will of the trust she was responsible for. 


What will be done to uphold the order’s reputation of being an orthodox religious order in full communion with Rome? 

That’s why it’s so urgent to close this process of reform of the order because it has been going on for seven or eight years. Basta (Enough). We need a normal government, to reopen the novitiate, work for vocations and there is progress being made. Contrary to what people say there are some good vocations to the order, to the first class. 


Would you agree that because of the attitude of some senior members of the order who, for example, had a position on contraception at odds with the Church’s teaching, many of these recent problems have happened? If so, what will be done to try to prevent that sort of thing happening again, so that the Church’s teaching is upheld by the order and its agencies?

There is the prelate of the order who should be overseeing not only the priest members but that the order moves along a path faithful to the teaching of the Church. This is another discussion, another chapter, but there are provisions that have to be applied and carried out. 


When Cardinal Raymond Burke tried to press that point, to uphold the Church’s teaching within the order, much went haywire within the order because some leading knights did not follow the Church’s teaching on contraception. Members, especially in the U.S. and UK, want clarity on these aspects of Church teaching and the order’s position on them but they’re not getting it. What is the direction?

The answer is very clear, very simple. I follow what the Holy Father says, what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says, and it’s very clear, there’s no compromise on some issues. 

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.”