Fra’ John T. Dunlap CNS photo/Order of Malta

Change allows Knights of Malta to better serve poor

  • September 22, 2022

After years of internal struggle and uncertainty, the Knights of Malta have a new papal mandate, a new constitution, a new legal code and a Canadian lawyer seeing the whole process to completion at an extraordinary general chapter of the sovereign lay religious order in the new year.

Ottawa-born Master of the Knights Fra John T. Dunlap, in an exclusive email interview with The Catholic Register, said Pope Francis’ intention in setting up a new provisional government for the order is to bring stability that will free up the Knights of Malta to better serve the poor around the world.

“I’m not sure that I was chosen either because I am Canadian or because I am a lawyer,” Dunlap said. “Perhaps it is because the Pope and his special delegate, Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, were seeking someone with experience in the governance of the order who firmly supported both its religious nature and its sovereignty.”

Dunlap has been Grand Master of the Knights of Malta since June 13 and was made head of the provisional government by a Sept. 3 papal decree. The decree put in place a new constitution and legal code for the order, appointed the new provisional government and changed the post of grand master, traditionally an office held for life, to an elected 10-year term, renewable just once and ending automatically at the age of 85.

For most of the last decade there have been disputes in the order over its most senior leadership positions, accompanied by appeals to Pope Francis to resolve the crisis. In 2017, Pope Francis appointed Tomasi to try to sort things out. Francis and Tomasi have answered questions over the sovereignty of the order, which maintains ambassadors to over 100 countries, by defining the Knights of Malta sovereignty as “intimately connected” to its existence as a Catholic religious order with traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

The purpose of the Knights of Malta’s sovereignty is to enable the order to provide humanitarian and charitable assistance around the world, the Pope wrote in his decree. This sovereignty depends upon the Church, Francis said.

The military and religious order was founded in Jerusalem in the 11th century. In the 16th century the Knights governed the island of Malta. The order commanded its own navy, which defeated the Ottomans at the battle of Lepanto in 1571. They were run out of Malta by Napoleon and since the early 1800s have found themselves headquartered in Rome — sovereign under international law but with no territory.

The order’s medieval founding assumed both rights and responsibilities that accrued to the landed, titled aristocracy of Europe. The new constitution completes a process of democratizing the order that began in the 20th century. But breaking down the distinctions between nobility and untitled volunteers isn’t the main accomplishment of the new regime, said Dunlap.

“It is true that reserving offices for the nobility was neither practical nor desirable in a religious order,” said Dunlap. “But the key issue was to re-establish the order as a religious institute, led by professed knights of justice.”

The end result will be a renewed sense of purpose behind the Knights charitable work, particularly its Malteser International humanitarian relief and development agency headquartered in Germany.

“With major institutional questions now resolved, we can concentrate even more intensely on our international interventions on behalf of the poor and the sick,” said Dunlap.

“In fact, Malteser stands to benefit from a renewed focus by former members of the order’s government who now, for the first time in decades, have more free time to devote to the care of the poor and sick.”

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