VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - Knights across the world are considering leaving the Catholic Church because of Pope Francis' reforms, the former grand chancellor of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta revealed.
In a confidential letter obtained by Church Militant, Albrecht von Boeselager lamented that many confreres had expressed to him "their great disappointment in the Holy Father — they could no longer regard him as the father he promised to be for the order."
Boeselager sent the letter to an elite group of knights after Pope Francis issued a Sept. 3 decree that makes sweeping changes to the Order of Malta and undermines the ancient order's sovereignty.
The Associated Press described the papal action as tantamount to "one sovereign country annexing another, if on a very small scale."
In his decree, the pope ordered the dismissal of the order's four highest-ranking officers, including Boeselager. Invoking papal authority, Francis also dissolved the order's Sovereign Council and established a provisional council to oversee governance.
Francis also approved a new constitutional charter and code, while appointing his own men to the highest offices and the provisional council. These actions triggered questions about the sovereignty of the institution, founded in 1048.
The Sovereign Order of Malta is an elite religious order recognized as an independent entity under international law. Granted papal recognition in 1113, the order also functions as an aid organization and is one of the oldest institutions of Western and Christian civilization.
As a mark of its sovereignty, the order issues its own passports and stamps, maintains full diplomatic relations with nation-states and has the same status as the Holy See at the United Nations.
The order's independence has been a major sticking point in Francis' restructuring process. Observers have questioned the pope's right to interfere in the order's governance, even though the previous constitution required the knights to pledge religious obedience to the pope through the grand master.
"I cannot imagine that the new constitution issued by the Holy Father will be helpful for the development of our order's charism, the strengthening of our spirituality and the growth of the order's works," Boeselager wrote in his confidential letter.
"I have received many messages from members of the order who are questioning their continued membership after the recent decisions," Boeselager noted. "I would like to ask everyone to stay. The order will survive this crisis, as it has many others. I cannot imagine that the new constitution issued by the Holy Father will be helpful for the development of our order's charism."
Boeselager insisted that leaving the Church or the order "cannot be the right reaction," even though "the Holy Father's decision may be unjustified and unhelpful to the order."
Even if Pope Francis' "individual decisions are wrong," this "does not alter the fact that he, as the successor of Peter, is the rock upon which God continues to build the Church," the senior knight's letter exhorted.
However, he lamented that "the foreseeable future will not be easy for the order and for us as members," due to the "decision of the Holy Father and the way it was carried out."
The former grand chancellor expressed gratitude to the knights Francis deposed, including Grand Commander Fra' Ruy Villas Boas, Grand Hospitaller Dominique de La Rochefoucauld and Receiver of the Common Treasure Janos Esterhazy.
Despite his rhetoric on synodality, listening and participation, Francis did not offer a draft for the order to approve. Instead, he drafted a new constitution for the knights, with no provision for the knights to approve it through a vote before they were forced to adopt it.
In October 2021, Francis handed sweeping powers to Cdl. Silvano Tomasi, his special delegate to the Order of Malta, to take charge of the reforms and govern the order himself under a papal mandate.