ROME (RNS) The nearly thousand-year-old Order of Malta is bracing for major reforms in the wake of the election of an Italian nobleman to lead the Catholic chivalric order that carries out charitable works around the globe.
The election of Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto came in a closed-door vote in a Roman villa on Saturday (April 29) and followed a bitter internal clash that led Pope Francis to oust the previous leader.
That dispute — ostensibly sparked by disagreements over the inadvertent distribution of contraceptives through an aid program in Myanmar — set up a proxy battle between traditionalists opposed to Francis and reformers who want to see the church take a more flexible approach.
It also proved to be a classic Vatican soap opera that featured out-sized personalities while casting a harsh light on a quietly influential church charity — one which is also a bastion of clerical and aristocratic privilege.
Dalla Torre — who is known as Fra’ Giacomo — was elected as “lieutenant” of the Grand Master, a temporary position with a one-year term instead of the long-standing custom in which a Grand Master held the job for life.
The 72-year-old Roman was chosen from a list of 12 candidates by the order’s council in a secret ballot held at its 14th century villa on a hill in Rome that has a stunning view of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica across the Tiber River.
Some 56 “professed knights” from European nobility — men who are not clerics but take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the pope — were eligible to vote.
Dalla Torre replaces the former Grand Master, Matthew Festing, who resigned from his position in January after open conflict with the Holy See over Festing’s removal of a senior deputy, Albrecht von Boeselager.
Festing and conservative U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, the group’s chaplain and a frequent critic of the pope, had accused von Boeselager of violating church rules by turning a blind eye to the use of condoms in aid projects in the developing world when he was in a previous post.
But the pope and his allies thought von Boeselager, who is German, had been railroaded and directly intervened in the governance of an order that jealously guards its own sovereignty.
Festing, who is British, resigned at the pope’s behest and Francis sidelined Burke by naming an archbishop to oversee the order through the period of reform.
The papal delegate, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, had ordered Festing not to come to Rome for the election to avoid a scene and prevent any chance that he would be re-elected.
But Festing defied the Vatican order and came anyway, though his camp apparently lost the vote.
“Fra Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto was this morning elected lieutenant of the Grand Master of the Sovereign Order of Malta,” the order said in a statement.
It said that Francis, who was returning from a brief but closely-watched visit to Egypt, was “informed of the election…