VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis named a top Vatican archbishop as his new envoy to the troubled Knights of Malta and gave him "all necessary powers" to help the religious order reform its constitutions and elect a new leader, a clear sign he intends to continue exerting control over the sovereign organization in the near term.
In a letter Saturday, Francis tapped the No. 2 official of the secretariat of state, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, as his special delegate. He said Becciu would serve as his "exclusive spokesman" with the order and that his mandate would last until the election of the new grand master, expected within three months.
Becciu's mandate confirmed the marginalization of Cardinal Raymond Burke, the conservative American — and Francis critic — who until now had been the sole papal liaison with the ancient aristocratic order, which counts generations of Europe's Catholic nobility as its members and runs a vast humanitarian organization around the world.
Burke was instrumental in the crisis that has convulsed the Knights for the past three months, resulting in the resignation of the order's grand master, Fra' Matthew Festing, after he did public battle with Francis over a condom scandal and lost.
With Burke's support, Festing had sacked the Knights' grand chancellor, Albert von Boeselager. After learning that the ouster had been done in his name, Francis effectively took over the order, asking Festing to resign, restoring Boeselager to his position, declaring all the Knights' sovereign decisions on the matter "null and void" and appointing Becciu to help run the order.
The Vatican's heavy-handed intervention had raised alarm within the order, which prides itself on its sovereign status.
It also provided fuel for Francis' conservative critics: On Saturday, posters appeared around Rome featuring a stern-looking Francis and questioning "Where's your mercy?" It referenced the "decapitation" of the Knights, Burke's marginalization and other actions Francis has taken against conservative, tradition-minded groups.
At a press conference this week, Boeselager insisted the order's sovereignty was never in question during the standoff though he acknowledged the Vatican's strident statements had led to such misunderstanding that he planned to convene ambassadors accredited to the order to explain what happened.
In his letter Saturday, Francis said Becciu would work in "close collaboration" with the No. 2 official who technically is in charge at the Knights. But he stressed: "I delegate to you all the necessary powers to decide possible questions that might emerge in carrying out the mandate I have given you."
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