On November 8, the Vatican announced that Cardinal Raymond Burke would be transferred from his post as Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura to being the Patron of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta, or the Knights of Malta for short. Cardinal Burke’s position entails providing spiritual guidance to the Prince and Grand Master of the Order, Fra. Matthew Festing and the Knights at large, as well as to serve as the representation of the Holy Father to the Knights. This post, usually given to retired Cardinals past the age of 75, seems unusual for Burke, who is currently only 66.
In a November 21 interview with the Catholic News Agency, Cardinal Burke seemed optimistic about the role and noted that the Knights of Malta are a peculiar order, since it is partly composed of lay people. Thus, Cardinal Burke’s experience as the Vatican’s top canon lawyer will help deal with this unusual status.
The Knights of Malta were established in AD 1099 and were recognized by Pope Paschal II in AD 1113 as sovereign. The Knights are present today in over 120 countries, has more than 13,500 Knights and Dames and over 80,000 volunteers. One of the important aspects of the Knights of Malta is their contribution in the fields of healthcare and social work and the order, between members and volunteers, boasts about 20,000 medical personnel.
Beside its Hospitaller connection, the order has two principal missions, the defense of the faith and the care of the poor. On this, Cardinal Burke remarked, “Both of these things go together, because you obviously need deep faith and the strength that comes from Christ to serve those who deserve to be served.” Though the order only allowed members from noble families to join during the Middle Ages, today membership is open to all classes and socio-economic backgrounds.
Given the unusual nature of this transfer, many have speculated that this move was really a punishment on the part of Pope Francis for Cardinal Burke’s critiques of certain views during the now-finished first part of the Synod on the Family. However, in a December 7 interview for the Argentinian La Nacion, the Pontiff clarified that Burke’s move to the Knights of Malta was not “punishment” for his views.
The Holy Father mentioned that he had decided to move Cardinal Burke to the position of Patron of the Knights of Malta some time before the Synod and that Burke was made aware of this, but, “I said to him ‘This will take place after the synod because I want you to participate in the synod as Dicastery Head.’ As the chaplain of Malta, he wouldn’t have been able to be present. He thanked me in very good terms and accepted my offer, I even think he liked it.”
The Pontiff went on to talk about some of the confusions that seem to have cropped up concerning the Synod on the Family and to dispel some of the myths about his public image. This comes at the heels of his retort during a press conference on the flight back from Strasburg after speaking to the European Parliament, where the Pope answered a question about whether he was a Social Democrat by calling that an over-simplification, pointing to the fact that his persona is being grafted onto the political realm without seeing the full picture of his teaching.