By Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — As the Knights of Malta move toward re-establishing their normal means of governance under a papally-ordered new constitution, Pope Francis told members of the order’s general chapter not to be afraid of lively debates, but to seek unity for the sake of their witness and service to the poor.
Meeting new officers of the Sovereign Order of Malta and members of the new Sovereign Council Jan. 30, Pope Francis also looked forward to the election of a new grand master, an office that has been vacant since the death in 2020 of Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre.
“Debates will not be lacking,” the pope said, but he asked the knights to be “ever more united to bear witness to your faith and membership in the order, ever more coherent with the octagonal cross you proudly wear.”
“I am sure that with the election of the grand master you will find a sure guide, a guarantor of the unity of the whole order, in fidelity to the successor of Peter and to the church,” the pope said. A date for the election has not been announced, but it is expected to take place within the next four months.
The Knights of Malta — a historic chivalric order with some professed members taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and thousands of volunteers who run massive aid programs around the globe — has been involved in a process to revise its constitution and to promote its spiritual renewal since 2017.
The life and spirituality of the professed members, currently numbering fewer than 40, was a particular focus of Pope Francis’ remarks to the group. He thanked them for looking at ways to return to foster “community life and the full observance of the solemn vow of poverty.”
The chapter of professed members, he said, have decided those who already are professed will not be obliged to live in community, but will be “invited to embrace it,” while “those who make solemn profession from now on, knowing that it entails community life, will assume the obligation with full freedom.”
Pope Francis told the knights that their sovereignty — an issue hotly debated when the pope ordered the reform of the order — is something that has been and must continue to be “confirmed by the will of the popes. It enables you to make generous and demanding gestures of solidarity, making you close to those most in need, under international diplomatic legal protection.”
For centuries, the knights had a military role in defending pilgrims and pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land.
“Today those deeds give way to interreligious dialogue,” the pope said. “Moreover, faith in Christ and the following of him commit you to the witness of the Gospel and the struggle against all that opposes it.”
The order also historically has been referred to as a “hospitaller” order, focusing on its provision of medical care to pilgrims who became ill and later expanding to global programs of medical care for the poor and for victims of humanitarian disasters.
“By caring for the sick, you recognize in each of them the suffering face of Christ, whatever their origin, nationality or religious belief,” the pope said. “The works must be well organized and well managed, but above all they must be a sign of Christ’s charity, which is like a mold you must have for all the works performed.”