Fra Matthew Festing was elected last year as grand master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, the Church’s oldest humanitarian organization, whose origins date back to 1085 and the Crusades.
A former auctioneer at Sotheby’s and a colonel in the British Territorial Army (volunteer army reservists), Festing, 59, takes over an organization currently operating in 42 countries and with diplomatic representation in more than 100 nations.
During a break from a recent conference in Rome, he spoke about the challenges facing the order.
Can you give any recent examples of where the Knights of Malta have been particularly successful?
We have had success in various places. Because we’re extremely careful to be nonaligned and not in any way political, one of the most interesting things we’ve been able to do has been to work in Myanmar, or Burma, where practically no other agencies were allowed — particularly if they were from a particular nation. The Myanmar authorities would not let people in, whereas we, in fact, were able to do quite a lot of very good work. So that is an example of the fact that we have to be extremely careful to be nonaligned or not political in any way.
How does an organization such as the Knights of Malta work with governments and other independent organizations?
Well, it’s very important that they do. That’s the first thing. We have diplomatic representation in a large number of countries, so we are able to have a direct link with various governments. That helps us in a major way. Then a lot of the funding for the work that we do comes from government agencies. A huge proportion comes from private individuals who respond to appeals that we make. So it works in both directions.
How do you deal with conflicts of interest between the wishes of governments and those of the order?
A previous speaker today was talking about the business of government legislation, which may require hospitals to start — all of them — providing abortions. That’s a very good example of where we have difficulties, because, obviously, as a Catholic organization, we can’t go against the teaching of the Church. That is certainly an issue for us. And there are a number of areas where the thing has to be thought about carefully. Of course, if it’s not possible for us to operate, we don’t. It would be perfectly true to say that this is an increasing problem as secularization increases.
What are your main priorities as a humanitarian organization?
It varies all over the world. Of course, on an immediate basis, every time there is a natural disaster or some form of conflict, then there is an urgent problem, which we try to cope with. The Congo at the moment is an extremely good example of this. It’s absolutely typical of the kind of thing we get involved in. One of our great difficulties, of course, is moving from one disaster to another disaster. We have to assess whether we can help or whether we can’t. In other areas, one of the most interesting things is seeing what’s happening in the emerging countries [former communist countries in Eastern and Central Europe]. As time goes on, their needs change. So early on, we have an initial intervention which is dealing literally with feeding people and providing basic medicines. Then, as time goes on, we find ourselves helping in different ways. For example, I’ve just been to Latvia, which wants help looking after street children and old people. They need to develop a provision for the elderly. That’s something we’re looking at at the moment. So the answer is all these things vary from place to place.
Are you in regular contact with Pope Benedict, keeping him informed of everything you do?
I have the great honor of occasionally going to see the Holy Father. We keep in very close contact with the Holy See all the time. But we’re not, as it were, part of the Holy See, not part of the Vatican, but, of course, we very much exist to support what the Holy See is about. So yes, we keep in very close contact. Many members of the various dicasteries in the Vatican are also chaplains of the order or whatever, so we see each other extremely frequently at every level.
What are your own particular objectives for the order? How different are they from those of Fra Andrew Bertie, whom you succeeded?
Many, many areas of the order are in very good condition. My personal big concern is that at the core of the order we have a certain number of what we call “professed knights,” sort of lay monks. We do not have enough of them, and most of them are fairly elderly. So personally, my big priority is to foster vocations among much younger people.
Edward Pentin is
based in Rome.