Pope Francis has declared that all actions taken by the head of the Order of Malta and its governing council since the dismissal of Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager last month are “null and void,” including the election of Boeselager’s replacement.
Writing on the Pope’s behalf to members of the Order’s governing council Jan. 25 (see below), Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin stated that the Holy Father, “on the basis of evidence that has emerged from information he has gathered, has determined that all actions taken by the Grand Master after December 6, 2016, are null and void.”
He added: “The same is true for those of the Sovereign Council, such as the election of the Grand Chancellor ad interim.” The Council elected Fra’ John Critien as Boeselager's temporary replacement.
Cardinal Parolin began his letter by re-emphasizing that the Grand Commander, Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein, is now in charge of the Order, adding that “in the renewal process which is seen as necessary,” the Pope would “appoint his personal Delegate with powers that he will define in the act of appointing him.”
Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing submitted his resignation Jan. 24, according to a Jan. 25 Vatican statement. The Vatican added in the communiqué that the next day “the Holy Father accepted his resignation.”
The Vatican also said the governance of the sovereign Order would henceforth be undertaken “ad interim by the Grand Commander pending the appointment of the Papal Delegate”.
The Pope summoned Fra’ Festing to the Vatican on Jan. 24 on the strict instruction not to let anyone know about the audience — a modus operandi that has been used frequently during this pontificate, the Register has learned. During the meeting, Francis asked Fra’ Festing to resign immediately, to which the Grand Master agreed. The Pope then ordered him to write his resignation letter on the spot, according to informed sources.
The Register has also learned that the Pope told Fra’ Festing that the reason for asking for his resignation was the Pope's conviction that he has to do a new, complete investigation of the Order, and that such an investigation would be more easily conducted if the Grand Master resigned.
The Register has been told that the Pope then had Fra’ Festing include in his letter of resignation that the Grand Master had asked for Boeselager's dismissal under the influence of Cardinal Raymond Burke, the patron of the Order. However, as patron, the cardinal has no governance in the Order and can only counsel the Grand Master, meaning the decision to dismiss the Grand Chancellor belonged solely to the Grand Master.
Asked if it could confirm this version of events surrounding Fra’ Festing's meeting with the Pope, the Vatican told the Register Jan. 26 it does not comment on private conversations.
If the Grand Master was pressured to resign, some within the Order are speculating about the validity of his resignation as it was demanded immediately without giving him time to consider the matter. They also are concerned it heralds a future purge of the Order.
Furthermore, some are asking that if all the acts of the Grand Master since Dec. 6 are null and void as Cardinal Parolin stated in his letter, would that also include Fra’ Festing’s act of tendering his resignation to the Pope.
On Saturday, the Sovereign Council meets to vote on whether to accept the Grand Master's resignation.
How the dispute began
The dispute between the Order of Malta and the Vatican dates back to last month when, on Dec. 6, Fra’ Festing dismissed Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, the Order’s third most senior leader.
Fra' Festing asked Boeselager to resign and, when he twice refused, the Grand Master dismissed him 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.”
Pope Francis made clear to Cardinal Burke that he was "deeply disturbed" about the matter and wanted it resolved, but as it was an internal matter of governance for the sovereign Order, he did not specify precisely how it should be rectified.
Boeselager protested the charges against him, 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.
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.
Here below is a translation of Cardinal Parolin’s letter:
"Distinguished Members of the Sovereign Council,
I wish to inform you that H.M.E.H. Fra’ Matthew Festing, Grand Master of the Order, on January 24, 2017, tendered his resignation to His Holiness, Pope Francis, who accepted it.
As the Order’s Constitution provides in Art. 17 § 1, the Grand Commander will assume the responsibility of governance ad interim. Pursuant to Art. 143 of the Order’s Code, he will inform Heads of State with which the Order maintains diplomatic relations and the various organizations belonging to the Order.
To help the Order in the renewal process which is seen as necessary, the Holy Father will appoint his personal Delegate with powers that he will define in the act of appointing him.
The Grand Commander, in his role as Interim Lieutenant, will exercise the powers contained in Art. 144 of the Order’s Statute until the Papal Delegate is appointed.
The Holy Father, on the basis of evidence that has emerged from information he has gathered, has determined that all actions taken by the Grand Master after December 6, 2016, are null and void. The same is true for those of the Sovereign Council, such as the election of the Grand Chancellor ad interim.
The Holy Father, recognizing the great merits of the Order in carrying out many works in defense of the faith, and in service to the poor and the sick, expresses his pastoral concern for the Order and hopes for the collaboration of all in this sensitive and important moment for the future.
The Holy Father blesses all members, volunteers and benefactors of the Order and supports them with his prayers.
Pietro Cardinal Parolin
Secretary of State"