ROME — The ancient Knights of Malta religious order on Saturday elected a temporary leader during a period of reform after the last grand master was effectively ousted by Pope Francis.

The secret ballot by 56 knights eligible to vote means the order will continue a period of Vatican-mandated reform before electing a grand master to replace Fra’ Matthew Festing, who resigned in January in a dispute with the pope over the attempted forced resignation of an official of the order.

The new temporary leader is Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre with the title of lieutenant of the grand master. He most recently has been the grand prior in charge of the order’s Rome chapter.

Knights garbed in black robes gathered for a Mass inside the order’s Villa Magistrale on Rome’s Aventine Hill ahead of the secret balloting. Knights eligible to cast ballots must choose a leader from a pool of people who, according to the order’s rules, must have taken religious vows of poverty, obedience and chastity and hail from noble lineage.

The planned reforms are expected to broaden eligibility in the next election.

On December 6, Festing asked the Grand Chancellor of the order, Albrecht Von Boeselager, to resign. His refusal and eventual sacking on grounds of disobedience led to a weeks’ long row with the Vatican, who demanded he be reinstated.

Festing accused the Vatican of interfering with the order’s sovereignty.

After Francis demanded Festing to resign on January 24, the Sovereign Council reinstated Boeselager and named Hoffmann von Rumerstein the Knights’ Lieutenant ad interim. 

The pretext for Boeselager’s sacking was that the German reformer had years earlier been in charge of the order’s humanitarian arm, Malteser International, which for a time funded organizations that used condoms in Aids prevention projects among the very poor. Boeselager said he ended the project when he found out about it.

The Knights of Malta are considered sovereign under international law, and have bilateral relations with 106 countries. 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.

Crux staff contributed to this report.