The Order of Malta’s Sovereign Council voted this afternoon to accept Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing’s resignation, with just a small number of members voting against.

The Register understands from sources inside the Order that just a “handful” of members voted to reject the resignation, and that the Holy See applied “very strong and direct pressure” on the Sovereign Council to accept Fra’ Festing stepping down as it was unsure that a majority would vote in favor.

In a statement, the Order said Fra’ Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein, who is reputed to be very frail, now assumes the office of Lieutenant ad interim, and will “remain the Order of Malta’s head until the election of the successor of the Grand Master.” That vote is expected to take place soon.

The statement added that as well as accepting the resignation, the Sovereign Council also “annulled the decrees establishing the disciplinary procedures against Albrecht Boeselager and the suspension of his membership in the Order.”

The German-born Knight “resumes his office as Grand Chancellor immediately,” the statement added

Fra’ Festing had dismissed Boeselager Dec. 6 after he twice refused to resign over a “failure of trust”, other “confidential” matters, and for being held ultimately responsible for the distribution of contraceptives by the Order’s humanitarian wing.

His dismissal led to a clash with the Holy See that, in turn, resulted in a speedily completed Holy See enquiry into the sacking — a move which the Order protested breached its sovereign status. Three of the commission’s five members, including its head, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, were also known to be close associates of Boeselager, leading to the accusation they were sitting in judgment on themselves.

The three and Boeselager have also been involved in a $118 million bequest to the Order held in a Swiss trust. The Register has asked both Boeselager and Archbishop Tomasi for details on the trust and their involvement but neither has so far responded.  

The day after the commission’s report was handed to the Pope Jan. 23, the Pope summoned Fra’ Festing to the Vatican and asked for his resignation on grounds that he wished to carry out his own investigation into the Order in light of the commission’s findings. To do so effectively, he told Fra’ Festing he thought it better that he step aside.

The Pope then ordered the former Grand Master to write his resignation letter during the meeting, which the former Grand Master did mainly out of obedience. He also was unaware that a day later, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, would send a letter announcing that the Pope had determined all of his acts from Dec. 6 “null and void” and a papal delegate would be appointed to lead the Order.

 

Pope reaffirms “special relationship”

In its Jan. 28 statement, the Order said that the Pope had been informed of today’s vote, as had the 106 Heads of State with whom the Order has diplomatic relations. The Sovereign Council thanked Fra’ Festing for his “great commitment” as Grand Master.

It also made reference to a letter to the Order from Pope Francis, dated Jan. 27, in which the Pope “reaffirmed the special relationship between the Sovereign Order of Malta and the Apostolic See.” The Pope also noted “precisely that his Special Delegate will be working on ‘the spiritual renewal of the Order, specifically of its professed members.’”

The statement stressed that the Order would give its “full collaboration” to the papal delegate, and closed by stating that the Order “is most grateful to Pope Francis and the Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin for their interest in and care for the Order.”

“The Order appreciates that the Holy Father’s decisions were all carefully taken with regard to and respect for the Order, with a determination to strengthen its sovereignty,” the Order stated, adding that Fra’ Rumerstein will “soon convoke” a meeting to elect the successor of the Grand Master according to the Order’s constitution.

 

Vote greeted with dismay and hope

The news of the vote has been greeted with dismay by some within in the Order as well as in the Holy See. One member told the Register he feared the sovereign Order, founded in the 11th century at the time of the First Crusade, “is finished”.

“What has been done to the Grand Master and the Order is shameful and completely arbitrary,” he said.

A Vatican official speaking on condition of anonymity regretfully compared the actions of the Holy See imposing its will on the governance of a sovereign subject to an “Anschluss.”

A significant section of the Order views much of the dispute as being orchestrated by the Order’s German Association, keen to “modernize” and lead the Order by ridding it of its First Class ranks who take religious vows. The overriding motives are said to be money and power. “The Germans are seen as responsible for all of this and are extremely unpopular,” said a member.

The association strenuously denies such accusations, although inside sources claim such ambitions have been apparent for decades, and not limited to the Order's German members. 

Despite the obvious anger within the Order, others nevertheless think today’s vote may not be as bad as some think, but will require careful handling and respect for the Order’s Code.

The Register has learned that the ousted Grand Master and the Council carefully took all the steps required by the Code, so as not to accept dictates unconditionally and keep actions in their hands as far as possible. Members tentatively welcome, for instance, that the Pope has allowed for a future Grand Master to be re-elected soon.

Sources in the Order say much will depend on who the papal delegate is and how far he will want to interfere and effect changes. It is not yet clear how the relationship between the papal delegate and the soon-to-be elected Grand Master will be managed, but members of the Sovereign Council are reportedly committed to calling out any injustices and violations of the Code and international law that might take place.