Knights of Malta Grand Master to resign at request of Pope Francis

Robert Matthew Festing of Order of Malta at a photography exhibition at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross April 14 2016 Credit Alexey Gotoviskiy CNA Robert Matthew Festing of Order of Malta at a photography exhibition at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, April 14, 2016. | Alexey Gotoviskiy/CNA.

The Knights of Malta have confirmed that Matthew Festing, the Prince and Grand Master of the Order, has agreed to submit his resignation after being asked to do so in a meeting with Pope Francis Tuesday.

"The Grand Master met the Pope yesterday evening and (Francis) asked him to resign," Eugenio Ajroldi di Robbiate, Communications Director for the Order of Malta, told CNA Jan. 25.

He said the decision "wasn't one knew anything," but Festing was cooperative and agreed to submit his resignation to the government of the Order.

The Grand Master's resignation would cut short his lifetime appointment, to which he was elected in 2008.

However, according to the Order's constitutions, if a Grand Master wants to resign he must convoke the governing council, submit his resignation request to them, and they must then approve it in order for the resignation to be official.

Until then, Festing "technically is still Grand Master," Robbiate said, explaining that the vote is set to take place on Saturday.  

He said that given the Order's constitutional requirement for a Grand Master's resignation to be accepted, there is "absolutely theoretically" a possibility that Festing's request will be rejected, however, "it's improbable."

Robbiate had no comment on the current Vatican investigation into the Order's dismissal of their former Grand Chancellor, saying "I honestly can't say" if Festing's resignation would in any way affect the Vatican's inquiry.

A Jan. 25 communique from the Vatican confirmed the news, saying Festing "resigned from the office of Grand Master" during his meeting with the Pope Tuesday.

Pope Francis, it read, accepted Festing's resignation Wednesday, "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 Vatican also confirmed that until a papal delegate is appointed to oversee governance of the Order, it will be guided in the interim by their Grand Commander, Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein.

Festing's agreement to resign follows a conflict between the Order of Malta and the Holy See over the dismissal of the Knights' former Grand Chancellor, Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, in December 2016. Among the reported reasons for the dismissal was that under Boeselager's watch, the Order's charity branch had inadvertently been involved in distributing condoms in Burma to prevent the spread of HIV.

However, a senior official of the Order has said that while the incident was a contributing factor in Boeselager's resignation, the reasons – while confidential – are much broader.

The Holy See announced Dec. 22, shortly after Boeselager's dismissal, that Pope Francis had formed a group to investigate the matter.

On Jan. 10 the Knights issued a statement defending their decision, calling Boeselager's dismissal "an internal act of governance," making the group established by the Holy See to investigate the decision "legally irrelevant" given the Order's sovereignty.

The Holy See, in turn, reiterated Jan. 17 its confidence in its investigative group and indicated it was awaiting the group's report "in order to adopt, within its area of competence, the most fitting decisions for the good of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and of the Church."

The Order of Malta is a chivalric order which was founded in 1099, originally to provide protection and medical care to Holy Land pilgrims. It now performs humanitarian work throughout the world, and its two principle missions are defense of the faith and care for the poor.

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It maintains sovereignty, holding diplomatic relations with more than 100 states and United Nations permanent observer status.

Festing had been elected Prince and Grand Master of the Order of Malta March 11, 2008.

He was born in Northumberland in the United Kingdom in 1949 and as a child lived for a period of time in both Egypt and Singapore where his father, Field Marshal Sir Francis Festing, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was posted.

The former Grand Master studied history at Ampleforth and St. John's College Cambridge. Also an art expert, he has spent the majority of his professional career working at an international art auction house.

Festing served in the Grenadier Guards and still holds the rank of colonel in the Territorial Army. He was also appointed by the Queen as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), a role in which he served as one of her deputy lieutenants in the country of Northumberland.

Officially becoming a member of the Order of Malta in 1977, Festing took solemn religious vows in 1991, becoming a professed knight. In 1993 he became the Grand Prior of England, a position he held until 2008.

In this role, Festing led humanitarian aid missions in several countries, including Kosovo, Serbia and Croatia, and was head of the British delegation during the Orders' annual international pilgrimage to Lourdes.

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In addition to his other roles, Festing has been made an honorary citizen of the cities of Rapallo and Pompeii in Italy, and Birgu in Malta. He was also awarded honorary degrees by the Catholic University of America, the Northumbria University, John Cabot University, the Fu Jen Catholic University of Taiwan and the Catholic University Santa Maria La Antigua of Panama.

This article was updated at 2:10p.m. local time in Rome with information from a Vatican communique on Festing's resignation.

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