Pope Francis on Saturday dissolved the leadership of the Knights of Malta, appointing a provisional government and instituting a new constitution ahead of the election of a new Grand Master.

The changes come after five years of debate over a reform process, ordered by the Pope, that some felt threatened the Order's sovereignty.

Francis’ decree revokes the titles of the Order of Malta’s members in the High Offices, giving them to other members and reconstituting the Sovereign Council, which is the government of the order.

To these four, he also appointed an additional nine new members of the Sovereign Council, forming a provisional government.

The Pope's directive also calls for an Extraordinary Chapter General in January 2023, which will begin the process of electing a new Grand Master.

The new constitution eliminates arequirement for top Knights and the Grand Master to have noble lineage as well as the tradition of Grand Masters being elected for life.

Future Grand Masters will be elected for 10-year terms, renewable only once, and will have to step down at age 85.

The Grand Master of the Order remains Fra’ John Dunlap, who was appointed by Pope Francis after the sudden death of his predecessor Fra’ Marco Luzzago, in a move which sidestepped the order’s electoral process.

In a statement, the Grand Master, and head of the Provisional Government of the Order, said: “The Order of Malta welcomes the paternal actions of His Holiness which demonstrate the great love the Pontiff has for our Order. In his careful review of the various proposals put before Him these last months, the Pope has determined a path forward that promises to ensure the Order’s future both as a Religious Institute and a Sovereign Entity."

The all-male top leaders of the Knights of Malta are not clerics, but they take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the pope. The institution has 13,500 members, 25,000 employees and 80,000 volunteers worldwide.

The order, formed in the 11th century to provide protection and medical care for pilgrims to the Holy Land, has the status of a sovereign entity. It maintains diplomatic relations with over 100 states and the European Union and permanent observer status at the United Nations.

In 2017, Pope Francis asked Grand Master Matthew Festing, 67, to step down, after months of dispute following a scandal concerning one of the Order's top officials. Grand Masters usually rule for life and Festing's resignation was the first in recent history.

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