Following a dispute between the Order and the Holy See, Pope Francis asked the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta to submit his resignation on Tuesday which the Pope then accepted.

In a Jan. 25 statement, the Vatican said: “Yesterday, 24 January 2017, in audience with the Holy Father, His Highness Fra’ Matthew Festing tendered his resignation from the office of Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.”

“Today, 25 January, the Holy Father accepted his resignation, expressing appreciation and gratitude to Fra’ Festing for his loyalty and devotion to the Successor of Peter, and his willingness to serve humbly the good of the Order and the Church.”

The statement ended by saying “the governance of the Order will be undertaken ad interim by the Grand Commander pending the appointment of the Papal Delegate” — a significant and controversial development in view of the Order's sovereign status. 

The confirmation follows comments a spokesperson told Reuters last night, that the Pope had asked the Grand Master to resign “and he agreed.” The Register has confirmed this through other sources, and learned that the meeting was convoked with just two hours notice, at 5.30pm.  

The Order's Sovereign Council will vote on Saturday whether to accept the resignation, Eugenio Ajroldi di Robbiate, Communications Director for the Order of Malta, told CNA Jan. 25. Normally grand masters serve for life. 

Until then, Festing “technically is still Grand Master,” Robbiate said. He added that given the Order’s constitutional requirement for a Grand Master’s resignation to be accepted, there is “absolutely theoretically” a possibility that Fra’ Festing’s request will be rejected, however, “it’s improbable.”

Robbiate had no comment on the current Vatican investigation into the Order’s dismissal of their former Grand Chancellor, saying “I honestly can’t say” if Fra’ Festing’s resignation would in any way affect the Vatican’s inquiry.

During this period of uncertainty, the Order will be run by its number two, Grand Commander Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein.

The Order of Malta is a chivalric order dating back to the 11th century and the First Crusade. Originally founded to provide protection and medical care to Holy Land pilgrims, it now performs humanitarian work throughout the world, and its two principle missions are defense of the faith and care for the poor and the sick.

 

Dispute between Holy See and the Order

The dispute between the Order of Malta and the Vatican began last month when Fra’ Festing dismissed Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, the Order’s third most senior leader.

Boeselager was asked to resign and, when he twice refused, was dismissed on grounds of insubordination.

The primary issue behind the call for Boeselager’s resignation was that he was deemed ultimately responsible, following the Order’s own internal commission of inquiry, for allowing contraceptives to be distributed by the Knights’ humanitarian arm. The Order also said there had been other "confidential" factors in play, as well as a “failure of trust.”

Boeselager protested the charges, and argued against the manner of his dismissal. He called for his case to be heard by a tribunal of the Order, and appealed to the Pope who then appointed a five-member commission to look into the unusual circumstances of his sacking.

Fra’ Festing refused to cooperate, saying the commission was interfering in the Order’s sovereignty and right to govern its own internal affairs.

On Jan. 10 the Knights again defended their decision to dismiss Boeselager, calling it “an internal act of governance”. The Order added that Holy See commission, which is mandated to complete its work on Jan. 31, was “legally irrelevant” given the Order’s sovereignty.

The Holy See, in turn, reiterated Jan. 17 its confidence in its commission of inquiry and indicated it was awaiting its report “in order to adopt, within its area of competence, the most fitting decisions for the good of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and of the Church.”

Other factors behind this dispute have been allegations of an ambitious German association vying for control of the Order, accusations that the Grand Master was being overly authoritarian, and conflicts of interest among members of the Holy See commission.

Three members of the commission along with Boeselager have also been involved in a $118 million donation held in a trust in Switzerland. The trust denied any connection with the Order, despite documentation indicating the contrary.

This article has been updated.