29 April 2020, The Tablet

Knights of Malta Grand Master dies

Knights of Malta Grand Master dies

Frà Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto, 80th Grand Master of the Sovereign Order of Malta.

The leader of the Knights of Malta, who had set about reforming the 11th century military order after healing a rift between the order and the Vatican, has died.  

Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto was 75 and had been diagnosed with “an incurable disease” several months ago, the knights said in a statement

A Roman aristocrat who joined the order in 1985, Dalla Torre took over the leadership of the knights in 2017 following the resignation of Fra’ Matthew Festing. He was the first Grand Master in several centuries to step down as the position is usually held for life. 

Festing, only the third Englishman to be elected to lead the order, had become embroiled in a public battle with Pope Francis ostensibly over the distribution of condoms. In reality, it was a proxy war between traditionalists and the Francis pontificate.  

Dalla Torre was elected Grand Master in 2018 and was credited with improving links between the knights and the Holy See, and developing a good working relationship with Francis. 

He started a process to reform the knights’ constitution with the aim of improving governance and transparency in light of the growth of the order’s charitable works in recent decades. 

The knights are a religious order with a spiritual mission, dispensing over £1 billion in aid a year, with a staff of around 42,000 medical personnel and another 80,000 volunteers.

But leadership positions among the 13,500 knights and dames are concentrated among several dozen professed knights who take religious vows – similar to monks or friars - of poverty, chastity and obedience. They are also officially required to show noble lineage. It is from their ranks that the Grand Master is chosen. 

One of the reforms of the order requested by the Holy See focusses on overhauling the professed knights ensuring they follow the Church’s norms on religious life, particularly on the vow of poverty. Sources within the order say there have long been concerns about the quality of religious formation for some of the professed knights. 

Dalla Torre was a popular figure among the knights, described has having a “profound dedication to charitable work” of the knights who follow the motto: “Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum” (“Nurturing, witnessing, and protecting the faith; and serving the poor and the sick”).


The Grand Master in audience with Pope Francis


One insider in the order told The Tablet that although Dalla Torre was not one to push himself into the limelight, he had “come into his own as Grand Master.” His instinctive familiarity with Roman system had helped him, and it is believed that at one point he looked after Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s cat when the cardinal was away from Rome. 

Following the Grand Master’s death, Grand Commander Fra’ Ruy Gonçalo do Valle Peixoto de Villas Boas, has taken over as Lieutenant ad interim and will lead the order until a new leader is elected. 

It is, however, unclear when that will be given the Covid-19 pandemic. Grand Masters are elected in a conclave-style election with knights travelling to Rome from all over the world to cast their votes. Given travel restrictions, and the age profile of senior members of the order who are especially vulnerable should they contract coronavirus, an election could be many months away. 

In the meantime, the new Lieutenant has the powers to lead the order, and can continue the work of reforming the constitution, and taking advantage of remote working. 

The knights – officially the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta – was founded almost 1,000 years ago to offer medical care and protection for pilgrims in the Holy Land. At one point it governed Malta before being evicted by Napoleon in 1798.   

Today it is headquartered in a palace on Rome's Via dei Condotti and is a sovereign entity. It has diplomatic relations with 110 states and the European Union along with observer status at the United Nations. 




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