Fra’ Matthew Festing: A Life of Service

Given what we know about the general climate in the world of ecclesiastical politics right now, how would we imagine a good and simple man would fare? Someone for whom decency, honesty, integrity and a plain determination to do his job well are the main drivers of his life? Someone for whom the world of intrigue, political gaming, and manipulation for personal gain or power are completely alien? Not too well, perhaps?

What if he were the head of an ancient chivalric order dedicated to helping the poor, the sick, and the victims of disasters around the world?

The Catholic world has struggled to understand what transpired between Pope Francis’ Vatican and the Knights of Malta, the Church’s oldest chivalric military order. The byzantine twists and political layers of the story are perhaps beyond the ability of a single journalist to comprehend and convey. But the one thing that stands out in a way that can’t be mistaken or hidden is the character of the people involved – this we can judge easily by their actions.

Fra’ Matthew Festing, former Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, at a Roma camp in Novisad, Northern Serbia in October 2001. At that time, people were being horrible to the Roma in that part of the world, so Fra’ Matthew and his friends made sure to deliver aid to them.

I recently had a conversation with Jack Straker –the young Englishman who is the personal Aide-de-Camp to Fra’ Matthew Festing, the recently-resigned Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta — and together we discussed the life and work of this man who has been unceremoniously thrust into the spotlight of controversy after a lifetime of service. As I listened, I began to wonder how this kind of old-school man could have survived five minutes thrown into the shark tank that is today’s Vatican – including its little flotilla of journalistic remoras?

On January 24, 2017, Festing was unexpectedly called to a meeting with Pope Francis, at which time he was asked to resign his position. Festing acceded to the request, and the Order’s Sovereign Council accepted his resignation on January 28. Straker, who has served as Festing’s assistant since 2014, mentioned his sadness at the accusations in some quarters of the Order that were, and still are, flying against the former Grand Master, particularly in regards to his personal integrity. One of the most recent came on February 15th, when a Lebanese knight — and member of the Parolin/Boeselager commission of the Holy See — gave an interview to, flatly called Festing a liar. As contradictory versions of events that transpired within the order leading up to the resignation have emerged in the media, even Cardinal Burke, the typically reserved Cardinal Patron of the Order of Malta has reacted with somewhat uncharacteristic force. The American cardinal expressed his shock at accusations that he, not Festing, as befit his position, ordered the dismissal of Albrecht von Boeselager as Grand Chancellor of the Order following the revelation that certain aid programs the German knight had overseen had been distributing contraceptives in violation of Catholic teaching. Burke, a man not known for hyperbole, referred to the allegation as “a calumny”. And so the controversy continues…

In contrast to the picture being painted by certain elements of the press – who have denounced Festing and the religious knights as “frilly” aristocrats – there is, Straker said, “no greater servant of the Order than Fra’ Matthew.”  High praise for an organisation dedicated to selfless service to those in need. But it was this integrity and personal devotion to the work that got him the job to begin with, when he was elected almost unanimously in 2008 by members of the Order from around the world.

The Man Who Would Become Grand Master

Matthew Festing became a Knight of the Order in 1977. He says that he was profoundly moved by his experience serving the sick with the Order in Lourdes, beginning in 1974. He was accepted as a novice Knight of Justice – that is, entered the novitiate to become a religious of the Order – in 1986. He became a solemnly professed Knight of Justice in 1991 – taking the three monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience – and so signed over his life wholly and completely to the Order of Malta. As such, he was part of a community that Pope Benedict XVI described as “the heart of the Order.” Without these vowed religious knights, the Order as it was founded in the 11th century to be would cease to exist, and would instead have become merely another NGO.

Indeed, the former Grand Master’s record as a soldier, officer, and lifelong servant of the poor can be most justly described as heroic. As a soldier in Her Majesty’s army, Matthew Festing served in the Grenadier Guards in Northern Ireland and Belize in the early 1970s.

But, Straker said, he saw more action in the Balkans. As I listened to the stories of his service, I found myself wondering if Matthew Festing was asking himself, “What would Indiana Jones do?” In the late 1990s, the world was watching in horror as the perpetually unstable Balkan region, that gate between eastern Christian Europe and Islamic Asia Minor, again exploded into violence.

Fra’ Matthew in Bihac, North-West Bosnia in October 1995, with the truck from Shore Porters.

The Kosovo War was a particularly cruel example of modern warfare, in which civilians were both targets and negotiating pawns. With the UN and other international organisations doing little more than watching the carnage, Fra. Matthew decided to do what he could on his own. When it became clear that there was a real need for aid in the Balkan states, Fra’ Matthew — at that time Grand Prior of England — simply borrowed a battered old truck, loaded it with food, medical supplies and other necessities, and drove it straight into the hot zone.

He, Straker said, “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.

It was for this extraordinary act of initiative and bravery, in addition to his other work for the Order, that in 1998 the Grand Master of the time, Fra’ Andrew Bertie, promoted him to the rank of Grand Cross of Justice, one of the highest ranks in the Order. Indeed, this rank was invented within the Order to honour Fra’ Matthew. Before his promotion, the grade did not exist. In 2005, Fra’ Matthew was awarded the Grand Cross Pro Merito Melitensi with Swords – one of the highest honours the Order can bestow.

But for a man of the old school, his work was not about honours and awards. It was simply what needed to be done, and is typical of his character.

Fra’ Matthew in Boka, Northern Serbia in October 2001. During this trip, Fra’ Matthew and friends helped re-build an old people’s home – here he is with some of the residents.

Straker described the Grand Master’s frustration that his high office made it difficult for him to participate in the Order’s activities in Lourdes, particularly the devoted and meticulous care the Order takes of the sick and disabled during their pilgrimages to the shrine. At Lourdes, where the Order plays an important role, being Grand Master was a trial to him.

“Lourdes was where he found his vocation, and it had a profound effect on him.” He is a member of the Hospitalité [a religious confraternity that cares for the sick and disabled who visit Lourdes] but as Grand Master he couldn’t go and work at the trains that bring the sick and disabled to the shrine. Apart from the fact that there was never any time, because he was always doing something official, his celebrity status as Grand Master inevitably separated him from the person-to-person care and human interaction that was his first love and greatest reward in the work.

“I used to organise chances for him to sneak off to see the malades, and to visit old friends – malades and volunteers – with whom he had been to Lourdes for years.”

“He never lost sight of his original calling,” Straker added. The Grand Master always attended the Knights’ retreats and other exercises of his vocation in England, as he had always done and which were “his spiritual sustenance”.

As Grand Master, Festing took an active role, visiting major and minor Order projects all over the world. These included the island of Lampedusa where the Italian Order relief corps has been helping the tens of thousands of refugees rescued from the Mediterranean. Last April he went to Vienna to visit a project teaching Syrian refugees to speak German. He was scheduled to travel in April to Lebanon to see one of the flagship projects for young volunteers, the “Caravan” camp, and was looking forward to visiting the volunteers helping those affected by the earthquakes in central Italy.

Fra’ Matthew in Kosovo in 1999. Sitting on his left is his brother, Michael Festing, who was the Hospitaller of the British Association.

And he never lost the personal touch. Last year when a small group of volunteers and disabled friends came to Rome for a pilgrimage, he attended Mass with them and hosted them for tea at the Villa Malta on the Aventine.

The probably-apocryphal story that people like to tell about popes sneaking out of the Vatican to talk to ordinary people, like an ecclesiastical Henry V walking among the regular troops, was actually true about His Most Eminent Highness Festing. During his tenure in Rome, the Grand Master, Straker said, would take “every opportunity” to dress down in a Barbour jacket and flat cap, and sneak off to spend his evenings anonymously (or as anonymously as possible) dishing out dinner and good cheer to the down-and-outs in Rome’s soup kitchens.

“We would do this whenever he had an evening free. He would give out pasta and talk to the homeless in his accented Italian. We used to do it as often as we could. It was great fun.”

During his tenure, the Grand Master was based in Rome, which his friends say, was a “cruel fate” for a Northumbrian of a tweedy, agrarian disposition who lives for his beloved countryside. From the Order’s headquarters in loud, dirty, noisy, and chaotic old city, His Most Eminent Highness, Fra’ Matthew Festing dedicated himself to the growth and reform of the ancient Order, an organisation of well over 100,000 people, active in over 120 countries.

Fra’ Matthew in Bihac, North-West Bosnia in October 1995. Fra’ Matthew and his friends organised 200 children from schools from Durham and Newcastle to give a present each to take for 200 children from a school in Bihac. The little boy in the photograph was learning English and was in the process of writing a thank-you letter to Fra’ Matthew, which he still has.

Amongst many other projects, he has recently made major financial reforms, overhauling the management of the Order’s agricultural assets in Italy with the help of the treasurer. He was overseeing a project to restore the Order’s own church on the Aventine hill in Rome, another of the city’s historic buildings, designed by Piranesi, together with the other buildings and gardens, hoping to make the Order’s assets more productive and, where possible, available for retreats and conferences.

In his premiership, Fra’ Matthew took on a more active role than his predecessor. He retired inactive members of the Sovereign Council, the Order’s “parliament,” recruiting replacements and giving them specific duties, like parliamentary ministers. He has “re-energised” the Knights of Justice, “so that the religious core of the Order would have a rich future.”

His legacy in the Order can especially be seen in the community of Knights of Justice. He focused on fostering vocations to Justice, which in turn would bolster up the spiritual life of the Order as a whole. When his predecessor died there were around thirty Professed Knights. During his tenure, Fra’ Matthew doubled that number.

He understood the demands of the vocation: “It’s not a retreat from the world; it’s an active participation in the world.” But it is a difficult one, lived without the usual supports of a monastic vocation. “You don’t get the support of a community. You have to say the [Divine] Office of the Hours as a monk does, but you have to do all this and serve the poor and the sick.”

“It’s a tough vocation,” Straker said, “because you’re out in the world, getting your hands dirty, in a world that is increasingly anti-religious and doesn’t understand it.”

Perhaps most importantly, Festing took in hand the “ethical side of the Order’s relief work.” He held that the Order must ensure that its religious and hospitaller sides did not come into conflict. This meant that they could not be involved in hospitals which perform abortions or “gender reassignments”.

A key issue, of course, is funding, and Fra’ Matthew was working to ensure, for example, that funding of the Order’s various branches did not come with the usual population control strings attached.

“As a religious order,” Straker explained, “the work we do for humanitarian causes must be in accordance with Catholic teaching. Fra’ Matthew, he said, “instigated an Ethical Commission which will oversee the hospitaller work in future and make sure it is all above board.”

Though Straker was speaking of the Grand Master’s activities in the present tense, events moved so quickly that by the time this article was written, Fra’ Matthew had already given the Pope his resignation. It remains uncertain at this date whether or how these reforms will continue.

The Knights, Straker said, are often misunderstood by a world that has forgotten what “chivalric” really means. Fra’ Matthew understood it perfectly, he said, as a living out of the Christian vocation in the world: serving those less fortunate. Whatever comes next for him, and for the Order and the wider Church, this is something that will remain Matthew Festing’s primary goal.

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