“He had not followed the course before the Sovereign Council because he would not have had a majority. So, Festing had to resign because he had broken his religious obligations.”
Festing resigned on Jan. 28, 2017. Odendall said that “the pope did not sanction a political decision, which Festing would have taken as the head of the sovereign order.” But the pope firmly took over the religious reform at the Order of Malta.
Pope Francis appointed a delegate to keep tabs on the reform process: Cardinal Angelo Becciu, then an archbishop and serving as the “sostituto” of the Vatican Secretariat of State.
The order elected the Italian Fra’ Giacomo dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto as Lieutenant in 2017 and Grand Master in 2018. Dalla Torre promoted workshops and a comprehensive consultation among the knights to collect proposals for reforming the order’s constitution.
But on April 29, 2020, Dalla Torre died, at the age of 75. The order was led briefly by an interim head, before Luzzago was elected Lieutenant of the Grand Master on Nov. 8, 2020. The lieutenancy lasts for a year, and then there must be a new election, which can either confirm the lieutenancy or elect the Grand Master.
In the meantime, Pope Francis replaced the demoted Becciu with Tomasi as his delegate to the order. In a letter sent to the delegate last October, the pope himself confirmed Luzzago as Lieutenant until the election of a Grand Master and granted Tomasi the right to reform the entire constitution — not only the religious part.
In particular, the pope gave the delegate the power to summon an Extraordinary General Chapter and co-chair it; outline an ad hoc regulation for the composition and procedures of the Chapter; approve the order’s constitutional charter and code; carry on a renewal of the Sovereign Council according to the new regulations; and summon the Council Complete of State to elect a new Grand Master.
In the end, the pope intervened not only in the religious part of the order, but also granted powers for a general reform of the order, which necessarily affects its sovereignty and government.
Currently, a working group is overseeing the reform. It is composed of Tomasi, Father Ghirlanda, Msgr. Brian Ferme (secretary of the Vatican’s Council for the Economy), Maurizio Tagliaferri, Federico Marti, and Gualtiero Ventura.
On Jan. 25, this group will be enlarged with the addition of a few senior members of the order and at least one Professed Knight. They are supposed to reach an agreement by Jan. 26, so that the delegate can distribute the draft reform: a challenging task, no doubt.
The fundamental issues
Why is reform of the Order of Malta necessary? Odendall suggested two main reasons.
“The first: the religious life of the professed needs to be reformed. Most of them have a dispensation for not honoring the vow of poverty. The second: if the Grand Master needs to be a religious, which we all agree on, we would like to be able to elect all of the pool of 55 professed and drop the nobility requirements, as only a handful of very old professed qualify today,” he said.
But the discussion within the working group is also about the nature of the office of Grand Master. Odendall shares an opinion that arose during the various debates.
“Unlike others,” he affirmed, “we believe that the Grand Master should be a non-governing head of state, elected for a fixed period and not an absolute monarch for life.”
“He should be completely devoted to the order’s religious role and let the 14,000 Catholic members, of the three classes, together continue to develop the order spiritually and professionally at the service of the poor and the sick.”
He added that a “$2 billion turnover, 45,000 employees, 100,000 volunteers in the world cannot be managed by 19 professed who are under 70 and have no professional qualifications.”
In the end, Odendall believes that “national associations cannot accept their success and future developments being compromised by the notion that only full religious members should be decision-makers.”
But, he noted, “if the sovereignty disappears, then national associations do not need to stay in a subsidiary of the Holy See managed by the professed, and they will likely quit and stay a Catholic organization with their chaplains and no interference against the mission to the poor and the sick.”
The state of the reform process
The draft of the constitutional charter has not been released publicly. But CNA has learned of its general outlines.
First, the order would become a lay institute, subject to the Holy See, ruled by canon law. This reform might jeopardize the diplomatic ties of the Order of Malta — which is a sovereign entity in international law.
The reform would also allow the Holy See to intervene in the works of the associations beyond what is spelled out in the constitutional charter and code.
National associations have until now been distinct from the order’s priories: they were not governed by canon law and the Holy See played no role in them.
According to the draft, power within the associations will reside with the professed and members in obedience. Moreover, the top offices will only be elected for six-year terms.
This provision reflects Pope Francis’ reform of the Roman Curia, as the pope has made known that top positions will be held for no more than two consecutive five-year terms.
But observers note that these measures can limit the effectiveness of senior officials’ work, according to a principle considered valid both for the Order of Malta and the Roman Curia.
Another notable change would be that the order’s focus would increasingly be on offering relief amid conflicts and disasters, which might imply that Malteser International will be transferred to the Grand Magistry in Rome.
Also, the Grand Magistry can dismiss members of all high offices of the association. The Grand Master alone can initiate disciplinary measures against the lay president of an association, and the Grand Hospitalier supervises the works of the association.
Further, the Grand Magistry would be able to stipulate unilaterally the financial contributions it receives from the associations (currently this applies only to priories). The Grand Magistry also would be able to give rules for the conduct of the associations’ daily business.
The high stakes of reform
If tailored this way, the reform will touch the very nature of the Order of Malta, on the one hand, enhancing the powers of the Grand Magistry and, on the other, threatening the sovereignty of the order in a combination of religious and secular issues.
But Tomasi has written in the past days to the order’s regional leadership, stressing that the draft is “provisional” and that it can be changed. Thus, Tomasi addressed the heated debate that has arisen within the order.
To clarify things, Odendall suggested it was necessary to “leave the present working group to focus on religious matters and add another commission with senior members of the government and members of the Secretariat of State, experts in international law, to evaluate how to protect the sovereignty and independence of the order as a distinctively internationally recognized body while we achieve a real religious reform of the First Class.”
Odendall added that “the delegate should also chair this institutional commission and the result of this combined work would help the order, the Church and, more than everything else, the poor and the sick, migrants and the abandoned, to be helped on an even bigger scale in the future.”
In the end, reform needs to pass. But the kind of reform currently considered, Odendall noted, “could probably result in the secession of the biggest associations, leaving a few professed and non-active associations having a purely worldly representation. This cannot be the objective of Pope Francis as we know him.”
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