VATICAN CITY (LifeSiteNews) –– Pope Francis has announced a new cardinal patron of the Order of Malta, thus replacing Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has held the position since 2014, but having been replaced in all but name since 2017.
As announced in the Holy See’s daily press bulletin of June 19, Pope Francis has appointed fellow Jesuit Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda as the new patron of the Sovereign Military Order of the Knights of Malta. The news was issued shortly after Francis met with recently elected Grand Master Fra’ John Dunlap at the Vatican.
Ghirlanda – a long time professor and former rector at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University – was made a cardinal in the August 2022 consistory.
According to Francis’ recent constitutions, the cardinal patron “as a sign of the Holy Father’s solicitude toward the Order, has the task of promoting the spiritual good of the Order and its members as well as the relations between the Holy See and the Order.”
The appointment of Ghirlanda as patron to the Order – while generally seen as a largely ceremonial role – is notable due to its finalization of Burke’s removal from his role with the Order.
Burke was appointed as patron in November 2014 when Francis removed him from his position as prefect of the Apostolic Signature, in a move widely seen as a punishment for Burke’s criticism of elements of Francis’ pontificate. Francis denied such claims, stating the move to the Order was because “we needed a smart American who would know how to get around and I thought of him for that position.”
But Burke’s tenure even at the Order of Malta was curtailed, since he was effectively replaced in all but name in early 2017, due to the contraceptive scandal which engulfed the Order.
In December 2016, then-Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing dismissed Grand Chancellor Baron Albrecht von Boeselager for his involvement in a program that distributed condoms. However, Francis and Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin then intervened, with Francis directly ordering Fra’ Matthew to resign in January 2017 after von Boeselager complained to Parolin.
The National Catholic Register’s Vatican correspondent Edward Pentin reported that Francis asked Fra’ Matthew to write up a letter of resignation on the spot in which Festing included – by request – that the Grand Master had asked for Boeselager’s dismissal as “pushed for” by Burke, the patronus of the Order.
Such an action by Burke would have been an overstepping of his authority – had it taken place – and subsequently Burke was falsely implicated in an apparent underhanded system of actions by the Vatican and individuals within the Order itself. The American cardinal has also directly denied asking von Boeselager to resign, stating:
I simply stated that the person who knowingly permitted the distribution of contraceptives in the Order’s works should take responsibility, and then the Grand Master once again asked the Grand Chancellor to resign, which he refused to do. Then the Grand Master proceeded to his dismissal without my involvement at all. The account of the Grand Master and myself stands.
Francis then appointed the now disgraced Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu as the Holy See’s special delegate to the Order, assuming Burke’s responsibilities.
“For the moment, I am completely removed from any involvement with the Order of Malta,” Burke said in 2017. “While I retain the title of the cardinal patron, the pope has made clear that the only person who can treat questions of the Order of Malta in the name of the Holy Father is Archbishop Becciu. So I don’t know.”
Cardinal Silvano Tomasi replaced Becciu as papal delegate to the Order in 2020, with Burke still technically listed as the patron, but nevertheless removed from his duties and responsibilities.
In September last year, Francis dissolved the existing leadership and constitution of the Order, and promulgated not only a new Constitution and Code of the Order but also a new Sovereign Council. Ghirlanda was involved as an “expert” in drawing up the new constitution for the Order.
The years-long power struggle centered on the Order came to somewhat of a conclusion earlier this year, with Fra’ John Dunlap elected as the new Prince and Grand Master of the Order. Speaking to LifeSiteNews about the election and its import, former Knight Henry Sire expressed the hope that Fra’ John, whom he knows well, would restore the Order in its “primarily religious nature.”
“Fra’ John is well qualified to take the Order of Malta on the path of restoring its primarily religious nature, the cause that was dear to the heart of the late Grand Master Matthew Festing,” said Sire, revealing a more hopeful future for the Order which has been so embattled.