His lifetime appointment ended abruptly in 2017, when Pope Francis asked him to resign following an internal dispute within the order centered on the dismissal of Albrecht von Boeselager, the Knights’ Grand Chancellor, in December 2016.
Among the reported reasons for the move was that under Boeselager’s watch, the order’s charitable branch was involved inadvertently in distributing condoms in Burma to prevent the spread of HIV. But an official told CNA at the time that the rupture was “more complex.”
Shortly after Boeselager’s departure, Pope Francis formed a group to investigate the matter. The Knights defended the decision as “an internal act of governance,” suggesting that the investigative group was legally “irrelevant” given the order’s sovereign status.
The Vatican announced that Festing had “resigned from the office of Grand Master” following a meeting with the pope on Jan. 24, 2017.
It said that the pope had accepted the resignation while “expressing appreciation and gratitude to Fra’ Festing for his loyalty and devotion to the Successor of Peter, and his willingness to serve humbly the good of the order and the Church.”
The pope temporarily entrusted the order’s governance to the Grand Commander, Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein, pending the appointment of a papal delegate.
Boeselager was reinstated and the pope named the then Archbishop Angelo Becciu as his delegate, asking him to work alongside Rumerstein for reconciliation within the order and the “spiritual renovation” of its constitution.
Shortly after his resignation, Festing said that it was in some respects a relief to no longer be Grand Master, a role that was rewarding but required him to deal with “utterly silly minutiae all the time, rivalries and difficulties and unpleasantnesses.”
Days before Festing’s death, Pope Francis gave sweeping new powers to Cardinal Silvano Maria Tomasi, his current special delegate to the order, to pursue reform.
A Nov. 12 statement by the British Association of the Order of Malta said that Festing attended the order’s international annual pilgrimages to Lourdes, southwestern France, every year of his adult life and was a familiar figure assisting pilgrims.
“In his time as Grand Master, he visited many countries where the Order of Malta carries out its charitable works and oversaw many international conferences and meetings of the order, to encourage and support their worldwide projects,” it said.
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“In all his endeavors, he never lost sight of the spiritual motivation of the order and its mission.”