New Order of Malta Government Shares Its Vision for the Future

Re-instated Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager outlines his priorities as Pope Francis appoints his Special Delegate to the ancient chivalric Order.

Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, center, at a Rome press conference, Feb. 2, 2017.
Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, center, at a Rome press conference, Feb. 2, 2017. (photo: Edward Pentin/

Pope Francis has appointed Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu as his special delegate to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a position he will hold until the election of a new Grand Master as head of the Order.

In a Feb. 2 letter to the archbishop released Feb. 4, the Pope instructed Archbishop Becciu, who will continue in his current position as Substitute at the Secretariat of State, to “work closely” with Fra' Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein, currently running the Order ad interim. He wrote that both of them must work for “the greater good of the Order and for the reconciliation among all its components, religious and lay”, and assist in how to make an “appropriate renewal” of the Order’s Constitution.

In particular, the Pope said the delegate is to “take care of all matters relating to the spiritual and moral renewal of the Order,” and act as the Pope’s “exclusive spokesperson on all matters relating to relations between the Apostolic See and the Order.”  

The Holy Father added that the delegate will therefore have “all the necessary powers to decide any issues that may arise concerning the implementation of the mandate entrusted” to him.

The news follows a Feb. 2 press conference in Rome in which Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, who was at the center of a dispute between the Holy See and the previous Order of Malta government, outlined the Order’s priorities for the future, reaffirmed the organization’s loyalty to the Pope, and shared his interpretation of recent events.

Boeselager was reinstated last week as Grand Chancellor, its “number three”. He was joined at the event by the Order’s head of its humanitarian branch, Dominique de La Rochefoucauld, and its chief treasurer, Count János Esterházy de Galántha.

The 900 year old Order, a sovereign lay entity mainly led by professed Knights who take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, has traditionally carried out a dual mission of defending the faith and taking care of the poor and the sick. Its estimated 100,000 members, volunteers and medics operate in 120 countries.

The public wrangle between the Holy See and the Order was precipitated by Boeselager’s dismissal on Dec. 6 for ostensibly being held ultimately responsible for the distribution of contraceptives by the Order’s humanitarian arm, Malteser International, as well as other issues related to a “failure of trust”.

His sacking by the head of the Order, Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing, came after the Grand Chancellor twice refused to resign. Boeselager protested the firing principally on the grounds that his dismissal breached the Order’s Constitution, leading him to appeal to the Holy See which established a commission of enquiry — an act resisted by the Order as they said it interfered with its sovereign status. That investigation subsequently led to the Pope instructing Fra’ Festing to resign Jan. 24, and reinstating Boeselager Jan. 28. The Order’s Sovereign Council ratified the actions.

Fra’ Festing has now told the British weekly, The Tablet, Feb. 3 that the matter is “by no means finished”, leaving open the possibility that he may try for re-election or perhaps even a legal challenge regarding the validity of his resignation. 


Grand Chancellor’s six priorities

The reinstated Grand Chancellor, however, is keen for the Order to turn a page. Speaking on behalf of the “entire government” of the Knights on Feb. 2, Boeselager listed six priorities for the future, the first being to restore the “leadership in line with the Constitution of the Order” and to bring it back to “normality”.

The second was to “reaffirm” the Order’s “loyalty to the Holy Father” and to “reassure our members and everybody that the government of the Order is and will remain at the service of the Holy Father.” He said the Order’s “devotion” to the Church’s teaching was “irrevocable and beyond question.”

He explained that the Order had undergone a government crisis “brought about by an act illegal under our Constitution,” referring to what he sees as the illicit manner of his dismissal. He expressed his gratitude to the Holy Father for providing “guidance for a swift solution.” Furthermore, he said the Order regrets allegations of a “conflict of interest raised against members of the commission set up by the Holy Father.” Such allegations “are baseless and unfounded,” he said, adding that they  “look forward to setting up a special delegate the Pope will appoint.”  

Thirdly, he stressed that “humanitarian and social medical work” would remain “at all times at the center of the government’s activities”. Such work has “never been more relevant and needed,” he said. He stressed he would not allow “distractions” in the Order’s governance to “jeopardize” such work, and that its “decentralized structure” would ensure its activities were “safeguarded.”

Fourthly, he pledged to strengthen diplomatic relations, and stressed a focus on cooperation with UN agencies such as the UNHCR, the UN commission for refugees. Fifthly, he singled out the needs of refugees and migrants, saying their need has “never been greater”, and singled out the situation in Syria.

Lastly, Boeselager made an oblique criticism of President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, saying the Order was “alarmed and concerned by the proliferation of discriminatory positions towards immigrants, not least, based on their national origin.” He warned of the “monstrous consequences” that can come from policies “based on origin and race”, adding the Order would continue to raise its voice to ensure humanitarian laws are upheld.


Questions and some answers

Answering questions afterwards from journalists, Boeselager said the crisis has been “less about persons and more with regard to the Constitution of the Order.” For him, his dismissal violated the Order’s Constitution and Code, and was made “on the assumption” that the Holy See had asked for his dismissal which “was not the case.” He added it remained “partly a mystery” to him why he was wanted out, and that part of it was due to “increasing tension and disagreement between the elected government of the Order”.

On the issue of sovereignty and the accusation the Vatican performed an illegal and hostile takeover of the Order, Boeselager said the intentions of the Pope and the Holy See were “contrary to an Anschluss”; rather they had wanted to “do everything to strengthen us to carry out our mission,” he said, but did not enter into specifics.

He further played down the issue of sovereignty, saying it had been “provoked” by letters from the Grand Master. “It is not the basis [of the crisis],” he said. “The basis is that the Order needs to work in a trustful relation with the Holy Father and the Holy See. Without this trustful relation, the Order cannot function. So the concern of the Holy Father was to reestablish trustful relation.” He also disputed the view that the Grand Master was forced to resign. He was asked to consider resigning “in a pastoral way,” he said, and the Grand Master “graciously accepted,” something also later accepted by the Sovereign Council.     

Asked if his resignation was wanted, Boeselager replied: “There was no consideration in this regard because we did not expect this crisis to escalate.” 

The very public dispute has cost the Order and in turn damaged its highly respected work for the poor and the sick, although the Order is publicly playing down the losses. Dominique de La Rochefoucauld said out of millions of euros it receives in donations in France, the fall amounts to a drop of about 20,000 to 30,000 euros. However, sources close to the German association, which has 80 percent of the Order’s funds, say the effect has been “very damaging”, amounting to a loss of 35 million euros in December alone.


Conflicts of interest

The Grand Chancellor rejected “many allegations” regarding members of the Holy See commission and created “assumptions of relations between different people.” Three of the five-member commission — Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, Marc Odendall and Marwan Sehnaoui — were known to be associates of Boeselager, with documents indicating they have been involved in a $118 million bequest to the Order held in a Swiss trust. Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, also appointed Georg Boeselager, Albrecht’s brother, to the board of the IOR (Vatican Bank) in December, a further indication of possible conflicts of interest.

But as well as rejecting such accusations of conflict of interest in his prepared statement, Boeselager insisted his brother’s nomination on Dec. 15 took place “before the crisis arose” and was “even published before the crisis” (Boeselager’s dismissal was on Dec. 6 and the Holy See announced its commission of enquiry Dec. 22), and that his brother “doesn’t know any members of the commission.”

As to his own relationship with the commission members, Boeselager said he’d been in the Order’s government for 30 years and so there is “almost no one” in a “leading position” in the Order whom he wouldn’t know, and that he was “proud to say” he has “very good relations” with almost all of them. “So to claim people of the commission know me or have special contacts with me, it would be hard to find anybody else [who could make a similar claim].”

On the question of finances which some believe to be at the center of this crisis, Esterházy told reporters that the Order is highly dependent on donations to carry out its important work for the poor and the sick. But he also underscored that, for any donation, “we have to obey the rule of law” as well as “other requirements above and beyond that which we strictly adhere to.” For example, he said there are “very rigid selection criteria” for donations, one of them being to ensure there is no “conflict of interest within the donation scenario between the Order, the donor and members of the Order.”

He said another principle they follow “is a clear and transparent allocation to purpose of the Order” and that there is “always a special relationship between donors and the Order”. He noted that a “centralized and decentralized” procedure is used for receiving donations which he said is “important to know” because it “characterizes the environment in which donations are given, received and processed and applied by the Order.”

Boeselager was asked at the conference about the Swiss bequest, his involvement with it (his name appears in correspondence between the trust and the Order), and an alleged lawsuit by the Order against the trustee. Sources in the Order say the process was filed to prevent the funds from being diverted away from the Knights to the Vatican Bank as part of alleged efforts to bring the Order under the Vatican’s control.


Why the rush?

The Grand Chancellor directed that question to Esterházy to answer, who said there is “no connection between the Order of Malta and that trust, to the extent that this trust has a connection to the donor or the potential donor. We feel it’s in the domain of the donor and so it is not up to us to comment on it in any way, specifically because of what I mentioned earlier — what we call the special relationship in any donation between a donor and the Order of Malta which we simply have to respect.”

Multiple sources in the Order have privately claimed that the rush to finish the Holy See commission (it was announced. Dec. 22, had its first meeting Jan. 5, and handed its report to the Holy Father Jan. 23, a week ahead of its scheduled completion) and reinstate Boeselager was in order to close the lawsuit. Otherwise, the funds would not reach the Order or the Vatican, as well as revealing compromising information about the transaction and persons connected with it. They say the deadline for the court ruling was Jan. 30.

But speaking to the Register, sources close to Boeselager firmly denied such allegations. They argued such claims were meant to “disinform” and discredit members of the Holy See commission, that documents have been forged, and that they were not aware of any trial. One source in the Order said funds could not be diverted to a different recipient to the one instructed by the donor because of rules governing trusts. “It’s a very good joke,” he said, adding that such a scenario would be “extremely unlikely.”

Other informed sources within the Order have claimed that Boeselager is the “Vatican’s man in the Order” whose task has been to bring it and its finances under the control of the Vatican, which was why his dismissal was always out of the question. This, they argue, also explains the appointment of Georg Boeselager to the board of the Vatican Bank which was deliberately expanded to include him.

But the Grand Chancellor’s supporters say the real issue boils down to a power struggle between the former government (particularly certain figures around Fra’ Festing resistant to change) and “elected leaders” such as Boeselager attempting to bring the Order into the 21st century — internal matters of disagreement, they say, which will all be made public one day.


Remember the poor

In his other comments at the press conference, Boeselager defended his handling of the contraceptive distribution scandal, saying action was taken “immediately” to stop it after it became known, and that his “conscience is clear”. “I have always underlined that I feel bound to the teachings of the Church,” he said. Policies were put in place in the early to mid 2000s to try to prevent such a practice happening again, he maintained. He also stressed the importance of national associations’ responsibility in dealing with the problem.

Asked about the Pope’s wish for “spiritual and moral renewal” of the Order, Boeselager said it was something “every Christian is in need of”. Following the appointment of Archbishop Becciu as the Pope’s special delegate who will assume most, if not all, of Cardinal Raymond Burke duties as patron of the Order, he said the cardinal’s future would be “left to the decision of the Holy Father” and added that the Pope’s specially appointed delegate, announced last week, would be his “spokesman for the Order for the time being”. He would also concentrate on the “religious side of the Order.” The Grand Chancellor said Cardinal Burke's “special attention was adherence to Church teaching.” 

Some have alleged that the German association, the wealthiest of all of the Order’s national branches, wishes to lead the Order down a more secular path partly in order to ensure closer links and therefore more funding for the Order from the UN and other sources, effectively turning it into a humanitarian non-governmental organization. Boeselager said the Pope had “made very clear” that his focus will be “the religious side of Order”.

He closed by predicting the crisis of the Order would be a “marginal event in history” and that what is “more at stake is the crisis facing in world” in the form of homelessness and forced migration.

“Please don’t forget to report about these cases and fight the arrogant ignorance regarding these crises — and the indifference,” he said.

Order of Malta flag

Disorder in the Order of Malta

Last month’s dismissal of the order’s grand chancellor by its grand master, over the order’s involvement in the distribution of artificial contraceptives, has precipitated a serious rift with the Holy See.