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.”
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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.