Pope Francis met with the Order of Malta on Monday as the sovereign state and religious order turned a new page in its history.

On Jan. 25-29, 111 members of the Order of Malta assembled to elect new leadership in an extraordinary chapter general convened by Pope Francis last year.

“You have written a very important page of history for the Order of Malta; thank you, you can be proud of it,” the pope told the capitulars in a Jan. 30 audience at the Vatican.

The Order of Malta held elections to choose nine councilors of the Sovereign Council as well as the four High Offices: grand commander, grand chancellor, grand hospitaller, and receiver of the common treasure.

The leader of the Order of Malta remains Lt. Grand Master Fra’ John Dunlap, who was appointed by Pope Francis after the sudden death of his predecessor, Fra’ Marco Luzzago.

This month’s chapter general was overseen by Fra’ Dunlap, the pope’s special delegate Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, and the interim Sovereign Council appointed by Pope Francis last year.

Francis had also approved the order’s new constitutional charter and regulations last year.

With the Sovereign Council elections completed, the Order of Malta can now hold The Council Complete of State to elect the 81st grand master.

The position of grand master of the Order of Malta has been vacant since the death in 2020 of Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto.

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

Concerns have been raised throughout the reform process that some of Pope Francis’ actions threaten the Order of Malta’s sovereignty.

Pope Francis addressed the topic of the order’s sovereignty in the Jan. 30 meeting, noting that it “is an entirely singular sovereignty, assumed over the centuries and confirmed by the will of the popes.”

“It enables you to make generous and demanding gestures of solidarity, putting yourselves close to those most in need, under international diplomatic legal protection,” he added.

Francis also commented on the forthcoming election of the grand master, in whom, he said, “you will find a sure guide, a guarantor of the unity of the whole order in fidelity to the successor of Peter and the Church.”

Pope Francis also sent a written message to the Order of Malta on Jan. 25 at the opening of the extraordinary chapter general in which he referred to the group’s challenges during the last few years’ reform process.

The reform was a necessary, if at times “arduous,” journey, the pope said.

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“Forgive the offenses!” he urged. “I heartily ask you to come to sincere mutual forgiveness, reconciliation, after the moments of tension and difficulties you have experienced in the recent past.”

He also encouraged the Order of Malta to strengthen its unity in order not to compromise the fulfillment of the group’s charitable mission.

“The Evil One” encourages division, he said. “Let us be careful not to compromise with the tempter, even unintentionally. He often deceives under the guise of good, and what may appear to be for the glory of God may turn out to be our own vainglory.”

“Conflicts and opposition harm your mission. Lust for power and other worldly attachments turn you away from Christ; they are temptations to be rejected,” Pope Francis said. “Let us remember the ‘rich young man’ in the Gospel, who, though moved by good intentions, failed to follow Jesus because he was attached to his own things and interests.”

The Order of Malta’s sovereignty must also be at the service of works of mercy, he said.

“It is necessary to be vigilant that it may not be distorted by a worldly mentality.”