On Saturday, Pope Francis dissolved the leadership of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, an internationally recognized charitable order, and installed provisional governance until such time as new elections are held in early 2023.
The Catholic lay organization, based in Rome since 1834, has diplomatic relations with 110 countries, United Nations observer status, and is a legally sovereign entity with its own passports and license plates.
Living up to their origin as the crusading Knights Hospitaller, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta has “13,500 members, 95,000 volunteers and 52,000 medical staff running refugee camps, drug treatment centers, disaster relief programs and clinics around the world,” according to Reuters.
The order has faced a protracted constitutional crisis, especially after the previous Grand Master Giacomo Dalla Torre died in April 2020. As such, the Pope has called for a new election to begin on Jan. 25, 2023.
In a decree, Pope Francis wrote of the “need to initiate a profound spiritual, moral and institutional renewal of the entire Order.”
Furthermore, the order’s constitution has been replaced. Future Grand Masters will have a maximum of two ten-year terms and will be forced to step down once reaching 85 years of age.
The rule that only those of noble blood were allowed to serve in the top leadership or as Grand Master has also been eliminated.
“It will be more democratic. The question of nobility has now become secondary,” Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, the Papal special delegate to the order, said to Reuters.
In a statement, Fra’ John Dunlap, head of the provisional government of the organization, said “The Pope’s decision to empower a Provisional Government is the first step in a clear blueprint for more efficient, streamlined governance for the Order… The involvement of a variety of accomplished and talented Knights in the Order’s governance has opened the door to new blood and fresh thinking in confronting today’s obstacles and challenges.”
Despite the name, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta is no longer a military organization. The order, after the fall of the Crusader states in what is now Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, controlled the now-Greek island of Rhodes from 1310 to 1522, before being ejected by the Ottoman Empire.
From there, they moved to Malta, which they governed from 1530 until being conquered and ejected by Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition in 1798.