It would seem that Malta has become the battleground where some of the deepest divisions in the Church have been playing out. From Cardinal Burke’s exile to the role of Patronus of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta to the landmark Maltese bishops’ guidelines on Amoris Laeititia to the battle that’s been going on between the order and Rome after the Grand Chancellor of the Knights of Malta, Albrecht Boeselager, was forced out following the revelation of his involvement in the distribution of condoms, it seems to be one thing after another in news related to the tiny Mediterranean island nation.
But now, the “knights who won’t retreat” appear to have done exactly this, with the order’s Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing, reported to have resigned his post today at the request of Pope Francis. The position of Grand Master is for life, making this move — especially after the order’s strong statement of resistance to a Vatican inquiry — very strange.
The official website of the order does not yet have the announcement in their news section, and the above-linked report from the Spanish-language website InfoVaticana is notably sparse, consisting mostly of background, with the exception of the following sentence:
Acccording to what InfoVaticana has heard, Pope Francis has asked him to offer his resignation.
This entire episode with the Order of Malta has been, I must admit, incredibly hard to follow for the casual observer. I do not expect it to be made much clearer following this unexpected news.
UPDATE: Reuters is now reporting the story:
The head of the Knights of Malta, who has been locked in a bitter dispute with the Vatican, has resigned, a spokesperson for the Rome-based Catholic chivalric and charity institution said on Wednesday.
The spokesperson said Grand Master Matthew Festing had resigned after Pope Francis asked him to step down at a meeting on Tuesday. Grand Masters of the institution, which was founded in the 11th century, usually keep their positions for life.
“The pope asked him to resign and he agreed,” the spokesperson said, adding that the next step was a formality in which the group’s Sovereign Council would have to sign off on the highly unusual resignation. The order would be run by its number two, or Grand Commander, until a new head is elected.
It seems this is a done deal. The question of why remains unclear.
POSTSCRIPT: I know the order has been, following the loss of Malta in 1800, based in Rome, but it retains its title for a reason. I note the connection between what is happening in Malta proper and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta because it seems, at least to me, more than just a coincidence.
POSTSCRIPT 2: I have also updated the title and part of the body of this post to better reflect the speculative nature of this report. We are hearing from a reputable source — InfoVaticana broke the story on the pope’s letter to the Argentinian bishops last year — that this has transpired. I’ve been unable to obtain independent verification of this story directly from the order, but I have heard tentative confirmation from some people with contacts within the order. I hope that the updated text makes more clear that this has not yet been fully verified.