ROME—Pope Francis has appointed a personal delegate to the Sovereign Order of Malta to serve as the sole liaison between the embattled order and the Vatican, virtually replacing American Cardinal Raymond Burke.
The man tapped for the job is Archbishop Angelo Becciu, the Vatican’s deputy Secretariat of State (known as the “substitute”). The decision was announced by the Vatican on Saturday, through a letter from Francis to Becciu.
As “sole spokesperson in all matters relating to relations” between the Vatican and the order, the pope writes, Becciu will have “all the necessary powers to decide any issues that may arise concerning the implementation of the mandate entrusted to you.”
Becciu’s assignment as papal delegate will last until a new Grand Master for the order is elected, which could take place in April after the group’s Sovereign Council is summoned, according to what was announced by the Knights of Malta in a recent press conference.
Technically, Burke is the papal envoy to the order. He assumed that role in November 2014, after leaving the post of head of the Vatican’s Supreme Court.
Becciu will in the meantime work closely with Ludwing Hoffmann von Rumerstein, currently the Lieutenant ad interim of the order, appointed last Saturday, after former Grand Master Matthew Festing presented his resignation at the pope’s request.
Festing’s resignation marked the end of a power struggle between the Order of Malta and the Vatican, which began with the dismissal of Albrecht Boeselager from his position as Grand Chancellor in early December. The month-long spat included Francis’s creating a committee to examine the order’s situation, which the now former Grand Master had declared “legally irrelevant.”
As papal delegate, Becciu will “join and support” the lieutenant ad interim in the preparation of the process to choose a new leader, and together they will study a possible renovation of the Order’s constitution and statutes.
The “Council Complete of State” to elect a new Grand Master must be held within three months of the former’s resignation or death. Though the Grand Master is a life-long position, Festing’s resignation is not unprecedented.
Becciu will take care “of all matters relating to the spiritual and moral renewal of the order, especially of the professed members,” Francis writes. Though the order has 13,500 members, only some 50 of them are professed knights. It is they who will be tasked with choosing a new Grand Master.
Quoting the order’s constitution, Francis says that the papal delegate will also aim to help the order “fully realize its aim of ‘promoting the glory of God through the sanctification of its members, at the service of Faith and the Holy Father and helping others.’”
Becciu, an Italian, was appointed to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State by emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, after serving as papal representative (nuncio) in Cuba and Angola.
His official title in the Secretariat is that of Substitute for General Affairs, a role with some parallel to that of a White House chief of staff. He meets with the pope regularly- if not daily- and reports directly to Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the actual Secretary of State.
As the Vatican’s second top-diplomat, he’s accompanied Francis on virtually all of his foreign trips, often sharing some pictures from his VIP seating in the papal plane.
Che ci protegga! pic.twitter.com/VQdApElSp2
— Angelo Becciu (@AngeloBecciu) April 16, 2016
Beyond his native Italian, he’s reportedly fluent in French, English, Spanish and Portuguese.
The Knights of Malta have bilateral relations with 106 countries, and have United Nations permanent observer status. It issues its own passports, currency and postage stamps with the Maltese cross insignia.
According to their website, the organization has 13,500 members, 80,000 permanent volunteers and a qualified staff of 25,000 professionals – most of whom are doctors and paramedics.
In Thursday’s press conference, Dominque de La Rochefoucauld, Grand Hospitaller of the order, meaning the man who coordinates the charitable programs of the Knights in 120 countries, said that they will not “allow the recent distractions in the government of the order to jeopardize our humanitarian and socio-medical work.”