On Friday, the Grand Magistry of the Order of Malta announced the death of Fra’ Matthew Festing, the 79th Grand Master of the Sovereign Order of Malta, who died in Malta, aged 71.
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.
Fra’ Matthew Festing died in Malta, the Order’s sovereign home from 1530 to 1798, where on 4th November he attended the solemn profession of religious vows of Fra’ Francis Vassallo in St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta. According to a report published by the Grand Magistry, a few hours later he felt ill and was taken to hospital where his condition quickly appeared severe.
Robert Matthew Festing was born in Northumberland, England, in 1949. He 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.
Festing was an art expert. For most of his professional life he worked at an international art auction house. He was appointed OBE (Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II and served as one of her Deputy Lieutenants in the county of Northumberland.
Between 1993 and 2008, he became the Grand Prior of England, the first holder of that role for 450 years. In this capacity, he led humanitarian aid missions to Kosovo, Serbia and Croatia. He was a descendant of Sir Adrian Fortescue, a knight of Malta, who was martyred in 1539. He had a brave service record as a soldier, having served in the Grenadier Guards in Northern Ireland and Belize in the early 1970s.
But it was in the Kosovo War in the late 1990s where he showed his charismatic leadership qualities. As the Balkans descended into violence and civil war, with historic tensions opening up old wounds, Festing went into action.
The Balkans showed Festing at his best. Whilst the UN stood on watching, Fra’ Matthew decided to act independently in his capacity as Grand Prior of England. With typical sangfroid, he borrowed a battered old truck from Shore Porters in Aberdeen, piled it with food and medical supplies, picked up a few volunteers and they simply drove to the Balkans from Northumberland. He made multiple aid missions.
According to Jack Straker, Festing’s former aide-de-camp, Matthew and his friends would drive through Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia in their old lorry, impervious to the war zone danger and ‘giving out aid and dodging shrapnel as they went along’. In 1998, Fra’ Andrew Bertie recognised Festing’s bravery by awarding him the Grand Cross of Justice, one of the highest ranks in the Order. The rank was created within the Order to honour Fra’ Matthew.
Festing was elected Prince and 79th Grand Master on 11 March 2008. He resigned the position of Grand Master on 28 January 2017. The controversial circumstances around his resignation after 11 years of service are complex and continue to have ramifications today within the Order regarding the role of ‘professed knights’ and proposed reforms that some traditionalists believe could undermine the Order’s historic identity as a ‘religious order’.
Festing became at odds with the more progressive German faction with many feeling he had been treated unjustly by the Vatican for political reasons. At the bottom of the dispute was a clash (traditionalist v progressive) over the role of the ancient order in the modern world. Should it remain an ancient chivalrous hospitaller order, devoted to helping the infirm, the poor and the sick, or should it become a more NGO-style professionalised international humanitarian organisation?
The Catholic world struggled to understand exactly what lay at the core of the clash between Baron Albrecht von Boeselager, the German Grand Chancellor of the Order and the British head of the church’s oldest surviving chivalric military order. One thing is certain, Festing was an ‘old-school’ traditionalist – a romantic English Catholic – who had devoted himself to a life of service and helping others.
According to Straker, Festing was deeply saddened by the unwarranted personal attacks on him at the time. This led to Cardinal Burke, the then Cardinal Patron of the Order of Malta, ordering the dismissal of von Boeselager, following the revelation that certain foreign aid programmes overseen bythe German knight had been distributing contraceptives in violation of Catholic teaching.
Then Pope Francis intervened, and Festing – after decades of selfless and honourable Catholic service – was forced out to much media fanfare. Yet, as was noted by Festing’s many friends, it was precisely Fra Matthew’s ‘integrity’ and ‘personal devotion to helping others’ that got him elected as Grand Master, being elected almost unanimously in 2008 by members of the Order from around the world.
During his decade at the helm of the Order – he succeeded Fra Andrew Bertie, another British Grand Master – Festing travelled to the five continents to ‘strengthen diplomatic relations with countries and to see the Order’s works around the world at first hand’. He led dozens of pilgrimages to Lourdes and other Marian shrines, taking personal care of disabled pilgrims.
He was made an honorary citizen of Rapallo, Italy (2008); Pompeii, Italy (2014) and Birgu, Malta (2015). He has received honorary degrees in Humane Letters, Catholic University of America (2009); Doctorate of Divinity, Northumbria University (2010); Doctor of Public Service, John Cabot University (2014); Religious and Human Science, Santa Maria la Antigua Catholic University (2016).
The date of Fra Matthew’s funeral is yet to be announced
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