Italian elected new leader of Order of Malta

This handout picture released by the Order of Malta Press Office shows newly elected Grand Master of Knights of the Order of Malta, Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto, on April 29, 2017 in Rome

A 72-year-old Italian medieval art expert was on Saturday elected to head the Order of Malta, the world's oldest chivalric order.

Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto takes the reins for one year after Pope Francis ordered the resignation in January of the Order's Grand Master, Britain's Matthew Festing, following a power struggle.

A centuries-old lay religious mission, the order provides humanitarian aid in crisis zones around the world.

It comprises 13,500 members ranked by their noble titles and who are expected to lead an exemplary Christian life while participating in the Order's charity activities.

The influential Order of Malta, founded in Jerusalem and recognised by the pope in 1113, operates in around 120 countries and is one of the biggest landowners in Italy.

Only 12 of the Order's 56 "professed knights" -- the missions's top tier of membership -- were able to show evidence of sufficiently noble lineage to become Grand Master.

Di Sanguinetto was chosen after Pope Francis on Wednesday received 15 of the knights and handed them a letter encouraging reform but also restating his authority as head of the Roman Catholic Church.

In his letter, the pontiff noted the "special relationship" between the Vatican and the Order and saluted those members who he said had shown they "want to ensure a way of serving even more consonant with the Gospel".

"You are embarking on an important path of spiritual renewal in a spirit of fidelity to your tradition and with vigilance to the signs of the times and needs of the world, through the witness to the Faith and in the service to the poor."

The Order was originally founded to help defend Christendom from Islamic invaders and pirates. But it is now involved in helping migrants around the world -- including the many Muslims rescued in the Mediterranean.