When Fra’ Matthew Festing abdicated his position as Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta — at the pope’s direct request — it left many scratching their heads. How could he allow himself to be pushed out so easily? How was it that his earlier resistance to interference in the sovereign order over which he presided suddenly seemed to evaporate? Festing is hardly a man without martial training or skill. Rather, he is an English nobleman whose father, Sir Francis Festing, served as Field Marshall of the British Army — the highest rank attainable in his branch of the service. The younger Festing himself also served in the Army, attaining the rank of colonel. In the 1990s, as Grand Prior of the English Knights of Malta, Festing would borrow a truck, load it up with food and medical supplies, and drive it across Europe into the heart of the war-torn Balkans to give it to those most especially in need. As his Aide-de-Camp, Jack Straker, related, Festing
“would drive from his home in Northumberland, up to Aberdeen in Scotland where Shore Porters would lend him a truck.”
“He would leave his car there, drive the truck back to his home and fill it with supplies he had gathered up. From there he would drive down south, picking up one or two extra volunteers and more supplies,” and then on, straight into one of the most dangerous war zones of the time.
“He and his friends would drive through Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia, giving out aid and dodging shrapnel as they went along.”
Fra’ Matthew did many of these trips for several years, sometimes twice or three times a year, until it became more efficient to collect money and fly out to the areas to give financial aid or purchase local supplies.
In other words, he is a man with a spine, not put off by danger. A man who comes from fighting stock. A man who rose to the top of a complex and ancient chivalric order not through political calculation, but pure dedication and pluck.
And today, we are happy to inform you that he’s returned to form.
Last week, we told you that the papal delegate to the Order, Archbishop Becciu, wrote a letter to Festing with the approval of the pope, telling him not to come to Rome for the election of a new Grand Master — an election which he is very much entitled to attend. This, even though the pope told Festing he would not oppose his re-election — a re-election many within the Order favor. Yesterday, Sandro Magister took the story further:
To some, the interdict brought down by the pope on the former Grand Master of the Order of Malta, Fra’ Matthew Festing, seemed to be going too far. To others, not far enough.
The fact is that for 7pm on Thursday, April 27, on the eve of his journey to Egypt, Francis has convened at Casa Santa Marta a hefty representation of the members of the Order who have come to Rome to appoint their new superior general. To be exact, the following fifteen:
– Fra’ Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein, Grand Commander and Lieutenant ad interim;
– Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, Grand Chancellor;
– Dominique de La Rochefoucauld-Montbel, Grand Hospitaller;
– János Esterházy de Galántha, Receiver of the Common Treasure;
– Erich Prinz von Lobkowicz, President of the Association of German Knights;
– Marwan Sehnaoui, President of the Association of Lebanese Knights;
– Jaime Churruca y Azlor de Aragón, President of the Association of Spanish Knights;
– Thierry de Beaumont-Beynac, President of the Association of French Knights;
– Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre Del Tempio di Sanguinetto, Grand Prior of Rome;
– Fra’ Luigi Naselli di Gela, Grand Prior of Naples and Sicily;
– Clemente Riva di Sanseverino, Grand Prior Delegate for eastern Emilia and Romagna;
– Fra’ Ian Scott, Grand Prior of England;
– Fra’ Emmanuel Rousseau, member of the Sovereign Council;
– Jack E. Pohrer, of the American Association;
– Mons. Fra’ Giovanni Scarabelli, Professed Conventual Chaplain.
Properly speaking, the one who called the fifteen to the Vatican was substitute secretary of state Angelo Becciu, who since February 4 has been the pope’s special delegate to the order, endowed with full powers. But in addition to him, it has been announced that Francis will meet with them too.
The reason adopted in justification of the meeting is the one already indicated in the letter from Becciu to the members of the Order of last April 15: so that the “event,” meaning the election of the new superior general, “may take place in an atmosphere of peace and of restored harmony.”
And this is the same reason with which Becciu, in the name of the pope, justified the obligation imposed on Festing not to take part in the upcoming conclave of the Order, which will open on April 29, and not even to be present in Rome during the days of the event.
This unheard-of prohibition of the former Grand Master – already forced to resign by the pope in person on January 24 – had raised understandable dismay among the Knights of Malta. To some it had seemed an unprecedented abuse of power. To others, even among Festing’s opponents, an excessive action that therefore required a further act of correction and pacification on the part of the Vatican authorities.
But there is a postscript on Magister’s report:
Eighteen hours after this post was put online, the agencies Reuters and The Associated Press broke the news that former Grand Master of the Order of Malta Fra’ Matthew Festing has decided all the same to go to Rome – where he landed on Wednesday, April 26 – to participate in the election of the new superior general, defying the veto of Pope Francis.
According to statute, the former Grand Master has the right to take part in the conclave of April 29, both by voting and by standing for reelection.
Festing was a member of the Grenadier Guards. I hope he’s hearing their song.
UPDATE (4/26/2017): Edward Pentin has a report on the story indicating that the Vatican is now relenting on allowing Festing to participate. (One wonders what they could possibly hope to do if he insisted.) Pentin writes: “According to sources within the order, Fra’ Festing will be coming to Rome to vote in the Saturday election partly because his absence as a professed knight would have invalidated the ballot.”
Pentin also makes note of a sordid internal struggle, as related by an anonymously written paper from a source presumably within the Order itself:
In a lengthy paper obtained April 26 by the Register, an anonymous member of the order backs up what Fra’ Festing and others said were the main reasons for Boeselager’s dismissal last year, one of them being the former grand chancellor’s responsibility for allowing the distribution of contraceptives, including abortifacients, to the poor in parts of the developing world.
The paper referred to an investigative report commissioned by the order and published in January 2016 which revealed that Boeselager had known that Malteser International, the humanitarian arm of the Order of Malta, had been systematically distributing and promoting the use of condoms, oral contraceptives and other birth-control drugs and devices expressly condemned as immoral by the Church. Yet he did not report on these activities adequately to the grand master and the sovereign council.
The anonymously written paper also claims that the Vatican is supportive of Boeselager and the order’s wealthy German members partly because it is cash poor and relying on outside financial help.
“The German bishops practically control the Vatican because they are so rich and the Vatican so poor,” the author stated. “Indeed, the Vatican is constantly in danger of becoming insolvent and is easily manipulated by the German bishops.”
This is said to explain why the Vatican did not want Boeselager dismissed, formed a commission of investigation into his dismissal largely made up of people connected with a $118 million bequest to the order based in Switzerland, and had him swiftly reinstated.
Another reason for the rush is said to be that the trustee, who had had dealings with Boeselager and members of the Holy See commission, was being prosecuted and threatened to make unsavory revelations about various figures in the order and the Vatican if the order did not withdraw criminal proceedings against her.
I can confirm that I have also seen this paper, and the information it contains is extensive, the detail impressive, and the implications somewhat staggering, reaching all the way into the Vatican itself. It reads like an international crime drama, and makes mention of a number of lawsuits threatened against media outlets and journalists who attempt to tell the story.
To borrow a cliche: the plot thickens.
UPDATE 2 (4/27/2017): A statement on Vatican Radio in Italian says that the pope met with the top leadership of the Order yesterday. Translated:
Last night [April 26], at 19:00 [7 pm], a private audience of the Holy Father took place with Msgr. Giovanni Angelo Becciu, Substitute for General Affairs of the Secretariat of State, and with the highest leaders of the Order of Malta. The Press Office of the Holy See confirmed it in response to questions from some journalists.
There is no indication that Festing was present (he’s a former Grand Master, after all), but no doubt his presence, inasmuch as he is in Rome, was felt. The Vatican is now trying to spin Festing’s decision to come to Rome as always having been left to his conscience, but Becciu’s letter — invoking an “act of obedience” gives the lie to that story: