Knights of Malta leaders recommend election of temporary head of order

Vatican City — The leadership of the Knights of Malta has recommended that the members of the order voting to elect its new leader decline to appoint a new permanent head of the group. It has asked instead that they consider electing a temporary leader with a one-year appointment.

Knights were informed of the recommendation Tuesday in an email from the order’s headquarters, which was obtained by NCR. The email included a lengthy opinion from the order’s juridical council that the members voting in the election have the possibility of deciding to elect only a temporary leader.

The Knights of Malta, a prestigious chivalric order founded in the 11th century, is holding an election for its new leader Saturday. The order’s previous leader, Briton Matthew Festing, resigned Jan. 25 following months of tension between the order and the Vatican.

The leader of the order is known as its Grand Master and is normally given a life appointment.

Several Italian language reports indicate that Pope Francis asked the order to consider the possibility of electing a temporary leader. Website Faro di Roma reports that Francis will be meeting at the Vatican Wednesday afternoon with some of the members taking part in the election.

Tensions between the Vatican and the order mounted in late December after Festing fired the order's Grand Chancellor, German Albrecht von Boeselager.

The firing sparked a two-month dispute, with Francis creating a commission to investigate the move and Festing originally pledging non-cooperation with that commission, saying it did not respect his group's historic status as a sovereign entity.

Following Festing’s resignation, the order’s governing council appointed Austrian Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein as its interim leader until Saturday’s election. Von Boeselager was subsequently reinstated in his role.

Tuesday’s email informed Knights that the order’s current governing council had recommended to the members voting for the new leader that they elect a leader with a one-year mandate, known as a Lieutenant of the Grandmaster.

The opinion from the juridical council says that von Rumerstein, who will be acting as the chairman of the meeting electing the new leader, can open a discussion before the election on the idea of electing a temporary leader. It says he can then call for a simple majority vote on the matter among the electors.

The opinion is 17 pages long, dated March 25 and was signed by five Knights.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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