ROME (ChurchMilitant.com) - The deposed Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta has been ordered not to come to Rome for its upcoming election of a new leader.
Professed Knights are gathering in the Eternal City on April 29 to vote for a new Grand Master, after Fra' Matthew Festing, who headed the order for nine years, was asked by Pope Francis to step down in January. Although the Holy Father has no administrative jurisdiction over the Order, Festing, in an act of obedience, acceded to the unprecedented request. Grand Masters usually serve for life.
A day after he stepped down, the disgraced Grand Chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, was reinstated. Grand Commander Fra' Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein has been interim leader of the order in the meantime.
And Cdl. Raymond Burke, spiritual patron of the order, was de facto suspended after Pope Francis appointed a new delegate to speak on his behalf, Abp. Angelo Becciu.
In a letter sent on Holy Saturday to Festing in the pope's name, Becciu ordered Festing to refrain from attending the upcoming conclave:
Dear Venerable Brother,
From the moment I accepted the task entrusted to me by the Holy Father as his Delegate to the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, a priority of mine has been to deepen my knowledge of the Order either through personal meetings with its members or by means of correspondence in this way have been able to appreciate the vitality of the Order as well as the complexity of its problems what has also emerged is a certain disorientation, accompanied by deep suffering, due to the recent crisis. In all, however, one can clearly see the desire to turn a new page, working to reconcile the different elements and initiating a review of the Constitutions.
However, with a view to the Complete Council of State, to be held on 29 April, many have expressed their wish that you not come to Rome and participate in the voting sessions. Your presence would reopen wounds, only recently healed, and would prevent the event taking place in an atmosphere of peace and regained harmony.
In consideration of the above, and having shared the decision with the Holy Father, I ask you, in my capacity as Special Delegate, not to be present at the Complete Council of State and to forego your trip to Rome on this occasion. I ask you this as an act of obedience, in which you will, without doubt, recognize this sacrifice of yours as a self-giving gesture for the good of the Order of Malta.
While extending to you my wishes for a Happy Easter, I assure you of a continued remembrance in my prayers.
Yours sincerely in Christ,
Archbishop Angelo Becciu
According to Vaticanista Ed Pentin, the letter was "surprising," since Festing remains a popular figure among members of the order.
"The news is surprising as sources inside the Order say Fra' Festing, who the Pope asked to resign in January, remains very popular within the Order and could even be re-elected," Pentin wrote. "The Pope has also said he would accept his re-election."
The Knights were locked in a power struggle with the Vatican over the dismissal of its Grand Chancellor, von Boeselager, sacked in December after allegedly having knowledge of condom distribution by Malteser International, the Knights' charitable arm.
Pope Francis afterwards announced the establishment of a commission to investigate the dismissal of Von Boeselager, who denied the charges, claiming he had no knowledge of the condom distribution.
Investigative journalist Michael Hichborn of the Lepanto Institute says the evidence shows otherwise, and that the disgraced Grand Chancellor was lying. Hichborn's investigation — which revealed that Malteser had been handing out contraception in Africa since 2005 — came after the order itself had produced a report showing its humanitarian arm had been involved in anti-Catholic activities, with von Boeselager's explicit knowledge.
The establishment of the papal commission was reportedly the result of a "misunderstanding" between the Vatican Secretary of State and the Order of Malta. The pope had told Cdl. Raymond Burke, then patron of the order, on November 10 to investigate the claims of condom distribution; he also reportedly wanted freemasonry "cleaned out" of the ranks of the Knights.
After von Boeselager was dismissed, he claimed that Burke had falsely told him it was the pope's express wish that he be fired. Burke, denying the claims, said he would never have told Boeselager that the Pope had specifically asked for his dismissal." But von Boeselager's claims had already reached the Holy See, which decided it would take action to investigate the fairness of the ex-Grand Chancellor's firing.
The order was quick to remind Pope Francis he lacks jurisdiction to investigate. "The replacement of the former Grand Chancellor is an act of internal government administration of the sovereign Order of Malta and consequently falls solely within its competence," read a December 23 statement. An investigation would be "unacceptable."
Canon lawyer Ed Condon weighed in on the side of the Knights. "Although the Order is Catholic," he wrote January 9, "its constitution clearly separates it from the oversight of any Vatican department."
The Order of Malta, founded in 1113, is one of the oldest institutions in Western civilation. It is a sovereign entity, printing its own coins, stamps and passports, and today is an international humanitarian organization with diplomatic relations with more than 100 states. It has permanent observer status at the United Nations.