Pope Francis names Cardinal Ghirlanda to succeed Cardinal Burke as Order of Malta patron

Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda, SJ, takes possession of his titular church in Rome, the Church of the Gesù, on Dec. 8, 2022. | Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA

Pope Francis on Monday appointed Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda, SJ, to succeed Cardinal Raymond Burke as the patron of the Order of Malta.

The Vatican announced June 19 that the 80-year-old Jesuit cardinal will take on the role as the “Cardinalis Patronus,” the papal representative to the sovereign order responsible for promoting the spiritual interests of the order and its 13,500 members.

Ghirlanda has already played an active role in the Order of Malta’s reform. He was part of the team that drafted the order’s new constitution and spoke with the pope at length about the process, along with Cardinal Silvano Maria Tomasi, the most recent special delegate to the order.

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. He approved the order’s new constitutional charter and regulations last year.

Burke, a 74-year-old American cardinal, had served as the Order of Malta’s cardinal patron since 2014. However, when then-Archbishop Angelo Becciu was appointed in 2017 as the pope’s special delegate to oversee the order’s reform, he effectively supplanted the role of the order’s cardinal patron, with Burke remaining in the post only nominally.

Pope Francis made Ghirlanda a cardinal in 2022, one of the few men to be given a red hat as a priest without being first a bishop. Ghirlanda was given the Jesuit Church of the Gesù as his titular church.

The Italian cardinal and canon lawyer is the former rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, having served on its faculty since 1975. 

The Jesuit priest spent 10 years as a judge on Vatican City’s Court of Appeal, from 1993 to 2003. He was dean of the Gregorian’s faculty of canon law from 1995 to 2004 and the rector of the university from 2004 to 2010. 

In 2014, Ghirlanda was named a pontifical adviser to the Legionaries of Christ amid its reform following the revelations of scandals involving its founder, Marcial Maciel, who was removed from public ministry by Pope Benedict XVI. 

Ghirlanda later served as the pontifical delegate for the lay association “Memores Domini,” linked to Communion and Liberation during its reform in 2020.

The announcement of Ghirlanda’s appointment came immediately after Pope Francis met with the Order of Malta’s new grand master on June 19.

In May, the Order of Malta elected Fra’ John Dunlap as prince and its 81st grand master. Dunlap is Canadian and the first professed knight from the Americas to lead the sovereign state and religious order in its 975-year-old history.

The Order of Malta said that the grand master’s audience with the pope “offered the opportunity to review the most important commitments, starting with aid for refugees and displaced persons, increasingly at the center of the Order of Malta’s humanitarian programs.”

“From the Ukraine to disasters in the Mediterranean Sea … Fra’ John Dunlap illustrated the main activities and initiatives of the Order of Malta’s Relief and Volunteer Corps, Associations and Grand Priories, present in 120 countries with a network of 95,000 volunteers and 52,000 doctors, nurses, and emergency response experts.”

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