Pope Francis has told the Knights of Malta not to accept anyone into its highest category of membership until reforms to the order have taken place.

His request came as he rejected an appeal by professed knights and chaplains – the 50 or so members of the order who have made vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and who represent the “first class” of knights – to intervene in the order’s governance.

The 900-year-old institution is undergoing a period of Vatican-mandated reform after Pope Francis asked for the resignation of its last Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing.

Grand Commander Fra’ Ludwig Hoffman von Rumerstein, a professed knight, had written to Francis asking him to strengthen the presence of professed members in running the order. His letter came after a gathering of professed knights and chaplains in Rome.

Fra’ von Rumerstein asked that Francis introduce a requirement for two thirds of the Sovereign Council, the knights’ board of governance, to be made up of professed members. He also appealed to the Pope to scrap the requirement for the Grand Master to be of noble lineage. Currently the Grand Master must be a noble and a professed knight.

Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, the Vatican’s delegate to the order, replied saying that Pope Francis wished to “respect the current [reform] process” and would “not consider any further intervention to be convenient”.

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