The Knights of Malta soap opera took on new drama on Wednesday as the order’s ousted leader apparently returned to Rome on the eve of the election for his successor in spite of a papal delegate asking him not to.
Fra’ Matthew Festing, whom Pope Francis effectively ousted as Grand Master in January, is technically eligible to be re-elected during Saturday’s vote. But he told fellow knights he merely wanted to cast his ballot.
In an April 15 letter, Francis’s delegate running the order, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, had told Fra’ Festing to stay away from Rome, saying his presence at the election “would reopen wounds and prevent the event from taking place in an atmosphere of peace and harmony.”
Vatican commentator Edward Pentin said this instruction had been reconsidered partly because, as a professed knight, Fra’ Festing’s absence would have invalidated the ballot.
Fra’ Festing has told the order he plans to vote, and two knights told The Associated Press he was back in Rome on Wednesday.
The Knights of Malta saga erupted in December after Fra’ Festing ordered his foreign minister, Albrecht von Boeselager, to resign. Boeselager’s stated crime was that condoms had been distributed by the Knights of Malta’s humanitarian branch in Myanmar under his watch. Church teaching forbids artificial contraception.
The Vatican got involved after Boeselager complained, launching what became a very public spat between Fra’ Festing and Francis.
Francis asked Fra’ Festing to resign, ordered Boeselager to be reinstated and appointed Archbishop Becciu as his envoy to help run the order until a new Grand Master could be elected.
The Vatican takeover was a raw display of papal power and put into question the Knights’ fiercely guarded sovereign status. Francis added to the impression of heavy-handedness by inviting more than a dozen senior knights to a pre-vote huddle on Wednesday evening at the Vatican hotel where he lives.
The order’s leadership has recommended that the 56 knights eligible to cast ballots on Saturday elect a temporary “lieutenant” to run the order for one year, rather than the life term of a Grand Master. That will give the order time to reform its constitutions to broaden the pool of eligible future grand masters. Currently, the rules limit the pool to “professed knights” — who take religious vows of poverty, obedience and chastity — who hail from noble lineage.
Currently, 12 men fit the bill, but many of them are in their 80s.
The Knights of Malta is an ancient lay Catholic religious order that runs hospitals and clinics around the world. It counts 3,500 members and 100,000 staff and volunteers who lend first aid in war zones, natural disasters and conflict areas; members also make regular pilgrimages bringing the sick to Catholic shrines.