Fra’ Matthew Festing, the 79th Grand Master of the Sovereign Order of Malta, has been laid to rest following a funeral in Valletta.
A mighty clap of thunder heralded the arrival of the coffin of Fra’ Matthew as it reached the massive doors of St John’s Co-Cathedral in the Maltese capital.
The organ echoed the sound as 250 mourners from around the world rose as one and stood to attention.
The casket, draped in the flag of the Order, was carried the length of the nave aloft the shoulders of eight bearers, all knights.
They were accompanied by a solemn procession of clergy, civic dignitaries, senior office bearers of the Order, the Lieutenant of the Grand Master, Fra’ Marco Luzzago, and the celebrants – Cardinal Silvano Tomasi , Special Delegate of Pope Francis to the Order and the Archbishop of Valletta, Charles Scicluna.
Members of the Order filled the church and bowed their heads in respect for their former Grand Master.
The service, which lasted over one-and-a-half hours, was a fitting response for a leader who had spent his 71 years looking after others and who was much loved as well as honoured.
In his homily, Cardinal Tomasi paid tribute to Fra’Matthew’s dedication to the Order and to its mission to care for the poor and the sick, a mission he had followed all his adult life.
At the end of the Mass, the remains of the 79th Grand Master were taken to the crypt where he was interred in a private ceremony attended by his family.
He now lies in the crypt Chapel of the Holy Cross, where eleven Grand Masters of the Order already lie.
The crypt was created during the construction of the church in the late sixteenth century. It contains the remains of the first eleven Grand Masters, 1522 to 1623.
Among them are Philippe Villiers de L’Isle Adam, Grand Master from 1521-1534, who brought the Order to Malta in 1530, Jean de La Valette (1557-1568), the hero of the Great Siege (1565) and who was also responsible for the building of Valletta and Jean L’Evesque de La Cassière (1572-1581) who in 1572 commissioned the church.
Fr Imre Kozma, who met Fra’ Matthew on many occasions on his visits to Hungary and the Order’s works in Hungary, said: “To speak well of Fra’Matthew Festing is not just a task, but a welcome duty.
“All his life he strove to employ his phenomenal abilities in the service of others. He made everyone aware of his own standpoint and his key values. He moved on calm, clear heights, above petty interests.”
Fra’Matthew was born November 30 1949 in Northumberland, and died in Malta on November 12.
Elected in March 2008, the charismatic Amplefordian served as Grand Master until January 2017 after being forced to resign by the Vatican in controversial circumstances after a well-publicised power struggle with the German Chancellor of the Order of Malta.
The dispute led to reforms within the ancient hospitaller order – dating back to the 11th century – that, until recently, enjoyed sovereignty independent of the Vatican.
He had read history at Cambridge and served in the Grenadier Guards and held the rank of colonel in the Territorial Army. He became a Knight of the Order in 1977. He said that he was “profoundly moved” by his experience of helping the sick with the Order in Lourdes, where he first went on pilgrimage in 1974.
He became a novice Knight of Justice – a novitiate to become a “religious” (or “professed knight”) of the Order – in 1986. He duly became a professed Knight of Justice in 1991 in which he took the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
As a Knight of Justice, he was a member of the tightly knit traditional community that Pope Benedict XVI described as lying at “the heart of the Order”.
His resignation caused further debate over the role of these vowed religious knights, with reforms proposed that would limit their authority and change the Order in ways that concern traditionalist members. This debate over reforms continues today.
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