‘The Pope said I could be re-elected’: an interview with Fra’ Matthew Festing

In many ways, says Fra’ Matthew Festing, it’s a relief not to be His Most Eminent Highness the Prince and Grand Master of the Knights of Malta. Overseeing the order’s aid work around the world was rewarding, he says, but “you’re dealing with utterly silly minutiae all the time, rivalries and difficulties and unpleasantnesses.”

So it wasn’t entirely unwelcome when on January 24, after a period of turbulence in the order, Pope Francis asked Festing to resign. “He said, ‘I want to dig out the Order of Malta, and it would be easier for me to do so without you in position.’ So I said, ‘OK, fine.’”

It wasn’t the ending Festing expected when he took office in 2008: the Grand Master, who holds an equivalent rank to a cardinal and a head of state, is elected for life. And as it turns out, Festing may yet return. But for now, he seems content to be back in Northumberland, the county where he grew up. His home, a large stone farmhouse, is hidden among the thickly forested Northumbrian hills, a short drive from the Scottish border. When I arrive, he greets me cordially, if perhaps a little warily. But he soon relaxes into a good humour.

The Order of Malta, he says, is “all sorts of funny things, and that’s one of the reasons it’s rather fascinating”. It is an 800-year-old religious order including about 60 knights, like Festing, who make vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. It is also a global humanitarian organisation with around 100,000 members, medical staff and volunteers. And it is a sovereign entity which maintains diplomatic links with more than 100 countries.

The order also preserves a great deal of aristocratic ceremony, though Festing finds much of it perplexing. “Some people, you know, enjoy all this sort of silly nonsense of dressing up. I personally am bored rigid by dressing up. I absolutely can’t bear it. I spent the entire time when I was in Rome trying to avoid dressing up in some rather silly sort of” – he casts around briefly for the right phrase – “fancy dress. But there are plenty of people who seem to love that.”

That said, he adds semi-convincingly, there’s nothing wrong with dressing up. “It’s a mistake to criticise somebody because they’re not quite the same as you are.”

I have to suppress a smile at Festing’s towering poshness. He uses phrases like “all that gubbins” which I have not heard in a long time, pronounces “there” as “they-ah” and “Mass” to rhyme with “farce”, and when describing the range of options for a hot drink, offers me a cup of “good old Mr Tetley’s whatnot”. He speaks rather slowly and ruminatively, sometimes repeating a phrase two or three times, regularly bursting into an infectious belly laugh which goes “huh-huh-huh-huh” – but talking, nonetheless, with directness and purpose. The overall effect is somewhat Chestertonian.

Was he surprised when the Pope asked for his resignation? “I had an inkling,” he says, enjoying the possible joke against himself. “It wasn’t a total surprise. Huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh.”

What did he say to the Holy Father? “I said, ‘Can I ask you a hypothetical question?’ He said yes. And I said, ‘Hypothetically, what would happen if I was re-elected?’ He thought for a moment and said, well, that would be all right.”

The Council Complete of State, comprising about 60 members, meets to elect a new grand master on April 29. It is not inconceivable that Festing could be re-appointed. He says he’s happy to do whatever the order asks of him: “If they want me, they want me, and if they don’t, they don’t.” He adds: “I have no intention of running a campaign. However, if they re-elect me, I would have to consider agreeing to it.”

Festing’s assistant Jack Straker has joined us for the interview. He’s helping Festing sort out his things, and to get ready for the arrival of a grown-up nephew and niece-in-law who are coming to live at the farmhouse. Straker has arranged the meeting on condition that I don’t get too nosy about the recent controversy. It started when Albrecht von Boeselager, the order’s Grand Chancellor (number three), was accused of various forms of wrongdoing – some related to condom distribution – all of which he denied. The Pope expressed his concerns about the situation. Festing believed that he could only resolve the issue by asking Boeselager to step down.

But when Festing invited Boeselager to resign, he refused; when Festing commanded it, he refused again. Festing suspended Boeselager, whose supporters promptly appealed to the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin. The cardinal launched an inquiry, which the order rejected as a violation of its sovereign status. Eventually the Pope intervened: he asked Festing to resign, reinstated Boeselager, and appointed a delegate to help run things. To the Pope’s critics, this was trespassing on the order’s sovereignty – it was as though Italy had deposed someone from the governance of the Vatican – and sacking a good man who had been trying to do his job. To the Pope’s defenders, it was a wise intervention, clearing the way for necessary reform in the order.

Festing says the scale of the controversy saddens him. “The world has been distracted from the huge amount of good the order does.” As for the Pope asking him to resign: “You have to accept discipline. You have to accept obedience. It’s the way things are.”

A smile crosses his face. “Many things that happen in life are a mystery, you know.” More laughter. “God’s ways are not the same as your ways. So you know, at the time I wasn’t particularly surprised. In fact, I wasn’t surprised. Because I had an inkling. But if you’d asked me a year ago, if you’d said that’s what’s going to happen, I would have been very surprised. But quite a lot can happen in a year.”

Festing’s Catholicism was shaped by his mother, Mary. “She was the most committed Catholic I think I’ve ever known, in terms of not having any nonsense. She wasn’t to be argued with about any matter of Catholic observance or belief. She was extremely tough. And certainly she said it doesn’t matter what happens to you in life, the most important thing is to practise your religion.”

His father Sir Francis Festing, a devout convert who became the professional head of the Army, insisted that his four sons also join the military. “You couldn’t argue, because he was an extremely tough personality.”

Festing is sitting below a rather fearsome-looking portrait of his father. (Though in photographs, Field Marshal Festing seems to share his son’s twinkly-eyed warmth.) We’re on opposite sides of the dining table in a room, like the hallways and kitchen, full of paintings: family members, landscapes, animals. (Festing used to work for Sotheby’s as an art expert and auctioneer.) The room is in a state of dignified disorder: the table is mostly covered by piles of books, papers, jars of homemade jam, icons of the Holy Family and Our Lady of Guadalupe, today’s Daily Telegraph open to the obituary page.

Was Festing’s time in the Army a sort of preparation for being Grand Master? “Yuh, I think that’s true.” The thought strikes him. “No, I think it is true.”

There is one difference. “In the Army, people basically do what they’re told. Whereas in the Knights of Malta nobody does what they’re told at all! Huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh! It’s a bit more complicated.”

In the 1970s, shortly after Festing left the full-time Army for part-time service, an uncle asked him to go on an Order of Malta trip to Lourdes, accompanying sick pilgrims. Many of Festing’s family had been members of the order, but it was only then that “for some mysterious reason the Holy Ghost inspired me to follow them”.

Lourdes, where he “fell in love” with the order, remained important. Becoming Grand Master made it harder to work on the ground. But he wanted to carry on: “I personally like doing things.” So even after 2008 he continued to volunteer at Lourdes railway station, carrying newly arrived pilgrims off the trains in their wheelchairs and on stretchers. “I remember when I said I was damn well going to go on doing that, some people very much disapproved. They said, ‘No, no, no, no – the Grand Master is much too important and grand for that.’ It’s silly.”

His priority as Grand Master was vocations. “If you don’t have the professed knights, you just become a sort of religious club,” he says. He instituted a proper form of vocational discernment: candidates are thoroughly interviewed and psychologically vetted, then put through a proper novitiate and detailed training. Since 2008, the number of professed knights has almost doubled.

Festing launched other reforms. He set up an ethics commission to ensure that the order was true to Catholic teaching – a commitment which has recently been compromised, he says. Festing’s supporters also credit him with strengthening the order’s spirituality, making several canny appointments and giving an example of humble service.

Others in the order have briefed against him. Festing has been criticised for two appointments: of an arms dealer to a diplomatic role, and of Fra’ Duncan Gallie – who was criticised in a 2013 report into the British association’s safeguarding procedures – to the sovereign council.

Festing appears genuinely bemused by these criticisms when I mention them. The arms dealer was appointed locally without his knowledge, he says. As for Gallie, he was elected by the Chapter General.

What about the other charge against Festing – that he is too close to the Italian part of the order? Only here does Festing seem annoyed, because the accusation is typical, he thinks, of the factionalism which bedevils the order. “Any organisation – doesn’t matter whether it’s the local village tiddlywinks club, or whether it’s the EU, or the UN, or the Vatican, or whatever else – all these places are full of rivalries and goodness knows what. I fear it’s the way human beings are.”

It all detracts from the order’s work, he says, which is simply “to look after the poor and the sick”. For instance, they have been rescuing migrant boats from the Mediterranean. Festing is especially haunted by a memory from Lampedusa, the Italian island where many boats arrive from North Africa. “There was a particular boat, which was about the size of this table [12 feet or so]. It had 36 people in it, and they had been given a little bit of petrol for the outboard motor, and they’d been given however many bottles of water it was, and told to go off in that direction for an hour and a half, where you will be picked up. Without any food. And they were still in the boat five and a half days later when they were picked up. Whether anybody had died and been chucked over the side, I don’t know.

“But it was very, very horrific. There were several women, there was a child completely unaccompanied, and there was a particular guy. There was a particular guy who had been drinking water out of the bilge of the boat, which of course had petrol in it, because it had leaked. And if he wasn’t drinking that, he’d been drinking sea water. And so he had to have his stomach pumped. I thought he was going to die at my feet. But in fact he didn’t.”

Straker, the assistant, chips in with a question: was Festing the first person to tell the Pope about Lampedusa? Francis’s first trip as Pope was to the island, an early sign of his concern for refugees. Straker goes on: “I’ve heard from a couple of people that one of the reasons he liked you so much was because you introduced him to Lampedusa.”

“Oh well, that’s interesting. I hadn’t – I didn’t know that,” Festing says.

In a month’s time, he will know if he has been re-elected. What will he do if he isn’t?

“Well, one would have to see.”

“Writing a book?” Straker suggests.

Festing mimes a huge yawn. “Every clown writes books. I don’t know, I’m really not sure. Huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh! We’ll see.”

This article first appeared in the March 24 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here