The posters reference the 'decapitation' of the Order of Malta

Criticism of Pope Francis intensified on Saturday after his intervention in the Order of Malta order, with posters appearing around Rome asking: “Where’s your mercy?”

The posters appeared on the same day that Francis named a top Vatican archbishop, Angelo Becciu, to be his special delegate to the ancient aristocratic order.

Francis gave Archibshop Becciu, the second most senior official in the Vatican secretariat of state, “all necessary powers” to help lay the groundwork for a new constitution for the order, lead the spiritual renewal of its professed knights and prepare for the election of a new grand master, expected in three months.

On Saturday, dozens of posters appeared around Rome featuring Pope Francis and referencing the “decapitation” of the Order.

Within hours, the city of Rome had plastered over the posters. Police launched an investigation into the conservative circles believed responsible, aided by closed-circuit cameras, the ANSA news agency said.

The posters, written in Roman dialect, also cited the way Francis had “ignored cardinals,” a reference to the four cardinals who have publicly asked Francis to clarify whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can receive Communion.

One of the four cardinals is Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American cardinal who the Pope removed as the Vatican’s supreme court judge in 2014 and named to be his liaison with the Order of Malta. Cardinal Burke has become Francis’s most vocal critic and was instrumental in the Order’s saga.

With the cardinal’s support, the Order’s grand master Fra’ Matthew Festing sacked the grand chancellor, Albert von Boeselager, over a condom scandal. After learning that the ousting had been done in his name, Francis effectively took over the order. He asked Fra’ Matthew to resign, restored Boeselager to his position, declared all the Order’s sovereign decisions on the matter “null and void” and appointed Archbishop Becciu to help run the order temporarily.

Archbishop Becciu’s mandate as the Pope’s “exclusive spokesman” with the order now confirms Burke’s marginalisation.

In his letter Saturday, Francis said Archbishop Becciu would work in “close collaboration” with the number two official who technically is in charge at the Order. 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.”

At a press conference this week, Boeselager insisted the order’s sovereignty was never in question during the stand-off, 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.

The Order are a unique organisation: an aristocratic lay religious order that traces its history to the Crusades, the order runs a vast humanitarian organisation around the world involving over 100,000 staff and volunteers. The order also enjoys sovereign status and has diplomatic relations with over 100 countries, the Holy See included.