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Order of Malta to elect new Grand Master amid constitutional clash

CNA Tuesday, 27 October 2020
Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Oct 27, 2020 / 05:00 am (CNA).- On October 23, CNA interviewed HE Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, Grand Chancellor of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, about the religious order’s international work and ongoing process of constitutional reform. This is part two of that interview.

On November 7, the professed knights of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta are scheduled to gather in Rome for a Council Complete of State, the gathering at which they will elect a new Grand Master to lead an ongoing constitutional reform effort of the nearly one-thousand-year-old order.

In normal times, the election of a new Grand Master would be a fascinating enough event. The religious order is also a major international health and aid organization, and a sovereign entity under international law – with its own passports, diplomatic relationships, and permanent observer status at the United Nations.

But these are not normal times for the order.

This week, CNA spoke to the order’s Grand Chancellor – effectively its chief operating officer - Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, about a crucial period for the historic order and its work.

The order has been in a slow-moving constitutional crisis since Pope Francis compelled the resignation of a previous Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing in 2017. That decision came after Festing himself had compelled the resignation of Boeselager in 2016, after it became known that an aid project of the order in Myanmar had distributed thousands of condoms. Boselager insisted that he had not known about the distribution of condoms, and that he had put a stop to it as soon as he became aware.

In 2017, Boeselager was reinstated as Grand Chancellor. At the same time, Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Angelo Becciu to serve as his personal delegate to oversee the “spiritual and moral” reform of the order, effectively supplanting the role of the order’s Cardinal Patron, Cardinal Raymond Burke, who remains in post only nominally.

Becciu was to work with Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre, who was elected to succeed Festing, first on an interim basis and later permanently, as the order moved towards a revision of its governing code and constitution, including a revision of the roles and rights of its three levels of knights from around the world.

Dalla Torre died in May, and, on Sept. 24, Pope Francis commanded the resignation of Becciu from the rights and privileges of a cardinal, as well as his position as head of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, leaving the order without a Grand Master, papal delegate, or Cardinal Patron.

This month, Boeselager told CNA that the present vacuum at the top of the order’s leadership needed to be addressed, and soon, but the charitable work of the order remained uninterrupted.

“The papal delegate is not part of the structure of the order,” Boeselager said. “He is a representative of the Holy Father, but he is not involved directly in the governance or work of the order.”

“In the intermediate phase, the order is led by a Lieutenant ad interim, which is normally the order’s Grand Commander, who chairs the Council Complete of State.”

That council, due to be held in two weeks’ time, will elect the new Grand Master, who is likely to play a determining role in the future direction and structure of the order, and the way in which it is governed.

Key among the proposed reforms are changes to the office of Grand Master itself, and the role of the 1st degree of professed knights – those who make perpetual religious vows – in the governance of the order, as opposed to the second and third degrees, who do not.

“The old Grand Master had named a small commission of experts on canon law to make proposals for changes which are necessary to the order’s constitution and code,” Boeselager said.

“In early 2018, we organized an international seminar to collect different ideas for the reform of the order, we had working groups on different topics, these presented to the seminar which made recommendations to the specialist commission as well.”

But, Boeselager said, “regarding the professed, the Holy Father has demanded especially that the regulations dealing with the first class of the order are revisited.”

He noted to CNA that the order’s current constitution and code, while revised in 1997, substantially date back to 1961, before Vatican Council II. “All the new elements which came in canon law regarding religious life [since the council] have not yet made it into the constitution of the order.”

Reform of the professed religious is a sensitive issue for the order, since it is the knights of the first degree who form the Council Complete of State and are eligible to serve as Grand Master and other senior governing roles.

Changing the nature and function of the order’s religious life is, Boeselager conceded, inseparable from reforming its governance. “These are two sides of the same coin,” he said.

After the 2018 seminar, a draft of a new constitution was prepared and sent to Cardinal Becciu to be presented to the pope. That process, Boeselager said, is now on hold until there is a new Grand Master and papal delegate.

The most contentious aspect of reform concerns the role of professed religious in the governance of the order. The professed, first degree knights number fewer than 50, and are advancing in age as a group. Some voices in the order favor allowing other members from different ranks to assume more duties, in order to secure the order’s future.

Another possible reform under discussion is the abolition of a requirement that certain high offices in the order be held only by knights of noble descent, in keeping with the order’s tradition of drawing membership from the ranks of European nobility. Today, the majority of members of the order, albeit those of the lower degree, do not come from noble families, or even countries with an aristocracy.

“There is great consensus that the requirement of nobility for the Grand Master should be abolished,” Boeselager said, noting that the order’s transition away from its strictly aristocratic history was part of its evolving character.

“How the order deals with the nobility in its history shows how we adapt in steps, not in revolution,” pointing to a 1997 reforms which opened the second class of knights to non-nobles.

However, despite apparent consensus around opening up the role of Grand Master, Boeselager was more hesitant about similar reforms for other offices, including his own, at least in the immediate term.

“I think there will be changes,” he said, “but, without specifying certain offices, perhaps there will be a quorum for noble members, but this is under discussion.”

Discussion on the direction of reform remains a tense topic within the order, especially among the professed knights of the first class. In September, 25 of the most senior professed knights circulated a letter to the order’s leadership and the Holy See, which objected to the direction of the proposed reforms. The knights said they felt they were being marginalized from the process and the governance of the order.

“The future of the first class is of great concern,” Boeselager said. “It is not a question of removing them from leading offices, it is a question of having enough to fill the offices reserved to them.”

Boeselager noted that many priories – national and regional branches of the order – were in special administrative measures because of a lack of professed members to fill leadership roles.

In their September letter, the 25 professed knights suggested 10 principles to guide the reform of the order. Key among their recommendations was that the professed religious give the final approval to their own reform, as a safeguard against “the undue influence of those who are not [professed] knights” on the process.

Asked directly if the professed religious would have the final say on the reforms of the order, Boeselager said that “we have to distinguish between the final decision and the way to approach this decision.”

“We have to, of course, seek, as far as possible, consent – we will never have total consent because there will always be different opinions – at the end it has to be decided and compromises have to be found.”

In the interim, the selection of the new Grand Master may prove to be the single most important indicator of the direction reforms will take, and according to whose principles. But how many of the professed knights will make it to Rome for the election remains an open question.

The council to elect the new Grand Master next month comes as Italy appears to be entering a new wave of coronavirus infections – and restrictions – bringing an added layer of uncertainty to an already tumultuous time for the knights.

Boeselager told CNA that it was important to proceed with the election if at all possible, noting that the council had already been delayed once, and the order had been without a Grand Master for six months and unable to pass a budget.

“We have to adapt to the situation,” said Boeselager, to “ensure the proper governance of the order in the current circumstances.” But he warned that the council could and would go ahead, even if many of the delegates were unable to attend.

“We still hope we will be able to hold the Council Complete of State [as planned], for the moment it still looks possible. It may be that some delegates cannot come, but the constitution does not foresee a quorum,” he said.

The constitution and code of the order does not permit for proxy or absentee voting during the council, so those unable to travel would be effectively excluded from participation.

“Legally its not in danger [of not going ahead]. Of course, if we were much less than half of the normal delegates, we would have to reconsider, but we have already postponed. I would not feel well [about it] if we had to postpone again.”

“We cannot continue in extraordinary administration,” Boeselager said.
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