Fra' Marco Luzzago, who led the Knights of Malta since late 2020, died at the age of 71, the order announced.

Luzzago, the order's lieutenant of the grand master, died June 7 in Macerata, Italy, "following a sudden illness," the Knights of Malta said in a statement.

Citing their constitution, the order said that with Luzzago's death, Fra' Ruy Goncalo do Valle, the grand commander, assumed the role of interim lieutenant "and will remain head of the sovereign order until the election of the new head of the order."

Pope Francis offered his condolences to the order and to Luzzago's family in a June 8 telegram to Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican's special delegate to the order.

Before giving his blessing to the Knights of Malta, the pope recalled Luzzago's "commitment generously spent in the performance of his high office in the service of this institution, as well as his love for the church and luminous Christian witness."

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, also expressed his condolences in a message to Goncalo do Valle. Cardinal Parolin assured the order of his prayers "for such a faithful son of the church."

Luzzago, he added, "knew how to devote himself with generous commitment to the promotion of perennial Christian values."

Born in Brescia in 1950, Luzzago studied medicine at universities in Padua and Parma. He had been a member of the Knights of Malta since 1975 and made his solemn profession of vows in 2003.

He served as commander of justice at the order's grand priory in Rome, where he also served as delegate of the northern Marche region. Between 2017 and 2020, he served as councilor of the order's Italian association.

Following the death of the order's previous grand master, Fra' Giacomo dalla Torre, Luzzago was elected in November 2020 as lieutenant of the grand master for what was supposed to be a one-year term. Since 2017 the order has been involved in a process to revise its constitution, which is why members chose to elect a lieutenant rather than a grand master, who traditionally served for life.

The Knights of Malta have 13,500 members, as well as 80,000 volunteers and 25,000 medical professionals providing relief and humanitarian aid in 120 countries.