Vatican City — Pope Francis met the new leader of the Knights of Malta Friday in a toned-down encounter in which the head of the historic chivalric order seemed to emphasize its loyalty to the pope after a period of tension with the Vatican earlier this year.
As Francis greeted Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto in the antechamber to the papal library, the head knight genuflected before the pope and kissed his ring. His face scrunched with emotion, Dalla Torre told Francis he was particularly moved by the encounter and had been following his papacy closely.
Dalla Torre, an Italian, was elected April 29 as the Knights’ Lieutenant of the Grand Master, an interim, one-year leadership post. The election came following months of tension between the Vatican and the order’s previous leader, Briton Matthew Festing.
Tensions initially 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. Festing resigned leadership Jan. 25.
Dalla Torre arrived at the Vatican June 23 with 12 people in his entourage, which appeared to include most of the order’s Sovereign Council. Among those in the group was von Boeselager, who is again serving as the order’s Grand Chancellor.
In a shift from previous papal encounters, the knights came to the Vatican dressed in suit and tie instead of the order’s formal military attire. Festing had worn that attire -- a red uniform with frilled gold epaulettes, normally accompanied by various medals -- in his June 2016 meeting with Francis.
Dalla Torre and Francis spoke privately Friday for 25 minutes. Francis then met each member of the head knight’s entourage one-by-one, with several of the other knights also pausing to genuflect and kiss the pope’s ring. The tone seemed jovial, with the pope appearing to joke at one point with a member of the entourage.
During the traditional exchange of gifts, Dalla Torre gave Francis a silver medal commemorating a recent visit to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in France. He also gave the pope a small envelope, which he said contained a “small thought.”
The pope gave the head knight a bronze medal he has given to many world leaders. It depicts an olive tree holding together two pieces of a fractured rock as a symbol of the work of peacemaking.
After the gift exchange, Francis returned back to the entire group of knights and said the Hail Mary prayer with them before offering an apostolic blessing.
U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, the Knights' spiritual patron, was not present for Friday's meeting. Italian Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, who Francis has appointed as his new special delegate to the order, was also not present.