Vatican Reverses Decision, Allows Festing to Take Part in Order of Malta Election

In a volte-face, former Grand Master Fra' Matthew Festing will vote in elections this week which are being spearheaded by the Vatican.

(photo: Order of Malta photo)

The Vatican has reconsidered an earlier instruction forbidding the Order of Malta’s former Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing from attending the election of his successor this week.

According to sources within the order, Fra’ Festing will be coming to Rome to vote in the Saturday election partly because his absence as a professed knight would have invalidated the ballot.

In January, Pope Francis asked the former grand master to resign, saying his plans to investigate and reform the order would be better served were he not leading it. In February, the order announced an election would be held April 29.

On April 15, Pope Francis’ special delegate to the Order of Malta, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, sent Fra’ Festing a letter saying that “many of the Order” had “expressed their wish” that he not travel to Rome for the election as they felt his presence would “reopen wounds” after the dismissal last year, and later reinstatement, of Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager as grand chancellor.

Archbishop Becciu also said he had “shared the decision with the Holy Father” and that the former grand master should therefore forgo his trip to Rome “as an act of obedience.”

The news came as a surprise to many in the order as Fra’ Festing remains very popular among many of its members and could even be re-elected. The Pope has also said he would accept his re-election, although Fra’ Festing’s critics say he violated the order’s constitution when he was grand master, most notably over the dismissal of Boeselager, and should not therefore return. Fra’ Festing and others say they were acting in accordance with the order’s constitution and code.  

Due to a heavy workload, Archbishop Becciu told the Register April 26 he was currently unable to comment on the decision as well as other questions about the order and the election. 


The Latest Twist

The latest twist of events in the Order of Malta reflects a struggle over who should run the ancient chivalric institution, with one side, led by Boeselager and largely supported by the Vatican, wanting to radically reform it, and the other hoping to maintain the order’s traditions, one of which involves only allowing professed Knights, who take monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, to be allowed to head the institution (currently just 55 out of 13,000 members).

The power struggle has led to an internal war of words, with both sides criticizing each other’s version of the events over the past year and accusing the other of being dishonest.

In a lengthy paper obtained April 26 by the Register, an anonymous member of the order backs up what Fra’ Festing and others said were the main reasons for Boeselager’s dismissal last year, one of them being the former grand chancellor’s responsibility for allowing the distribution of contraceptives, including abortifacients, to the poor in parts of the developing world.

The paper referred to an investigative report commissioned by the order and published in January 2016 which revealed that Boeselager had known that Malteser International, the humanitarian arm of the Order of Malta, had been systematically distributing and promoting the use of condoms, oral contraceptives and other birth-control drugs and devices expressly condemned as immoral by the Church. Yet he did not report on these activities adequately to the grand master and the sovereign council.

The anonymously written paper also claims that the Vatican is supportive of Boeselager and the order’s wealthy German members partly because it is cash poor and relying on outside financial help.

“The German bishops practically control the Vatican because they are so rich and the Vatican so poor,” the author stated. “Indeed, the Vatican is constantly in danger of becoming insolvent and is easily manipulated by the German bishops.”

This is said to explain why the Vatican did not want Boeselager dismissed, formed a commission of investigation into his dismissal largely made up of people connected with a $118 million bequest to the order based in Switzerland, and had him swiftly reinstated.

Another reason for the rush is said to be that the trustee, who had had dealings with Boeselager and members of the Holy See commission, was being prosecuted and threatened to make unsavory revelations about various figures in the order and the Vatican if the order did not withdraw criminal proceedings against her.


Firm denials

But Boeselager and his allies firmly deny such allegations. Although several in the order have testified to Boeselager privately voicing his support for contraceptive distribution in order to help save lives, Boeselager himself has publicly claimed he did not know about their distribution and when he found out, had it halted.

A source close to Boeselager who asked to remain anonymous said allegations that the order was transferring money from the trust (some reports say as much as 30 million euros) to the Vatican were “crazy,” as the trustee cannot give the money to something other than the projects the order’s members and the trustee agree on. He also denied the Vatican was struggling financially and so looking to the order to help.

He further ruled out the accusation that the German association and others are trying to secularize the order and rid it of its nobility, possibly splitting it into humanitarian and religious sections in order to obtain more funding from the U.N. and other bodies for its humanitarian causes. Their aim is, however, to change the constitution so that a grand master no longer serves for life, can be impeached if he acts contrary to the constitution, and should have an age limit. That is according to proposals put forward by Johannes Lobkowicz, procurator of the grand priory of Bohemia (see his paper here). 

The German faction’s project is believed to be focused on inverting the pyramid of the order's natural hierarchy, so instead of having professed knights in charge, knights of a lower rank (oblates and tertiaries) would take over and control the meaningful decisions of the order. The German branch currently has no professed knights and so, under the current constitution, cannot hold the rank of grand master.  

“This is done under the ‘device’ of ‘let’s allow the professed to focus on their vocations’,” one senior knight said. 

But the source close to Boeselager also denied wanting to turn the order into a quasi-Red Cross, saying that to secularize it would be to "kill it." He did, however, express a need to reform the religious elements of the order, for example by improving the quality of formation and leadership, but only so it can become more Catholic. “The order will not become less Catholic — that’s something we all agree on,” he said, and claimed that German knights and dames do more than most of the other members in terms of religious education, formation, and organizing retreats.

The Vatican, meanwhile, is taking a leading role in this week’s elections, and closely consulting Boeselager and others who share the grand chancellor’s vision.

Pope Francis will meet representatives from the order Thursday evening, including Boeselager, Fra' Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein, the grand commander and interim lieutenant, and Dominique de La Rochefoucauld-Montbel, the order's grand hospitaller. Fra' Festing won't be in attendance, nor will many other figures who worked under him during his time as grand master. 

Archbishop Becciu is also effectively running the election and being accused of heavy-handedness, as seen by the program for the vote over the coming days.