A news story, two statements in disagreement with each other, a mystery. This is how fate played out, between January 24 and 25, for the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
The news is the resignation of the Grand Master of the Order, Fra’ Matthew Festing.
Official sources of the Order have reported that Pope Francis received the Grand Master in audience on the afternoon of Tuesday, January 24, “asked him to resign, and he agreed.”
Settimo Cielo has also been assured that the pope urged the Grand Master to proceed according to the constitutions of the Order when it comes to the interim and the appointment of the successor.
And this is what finds confirmation in the statement that the Order published on Wednesday, January 25, around noon, on its official website:
“The Grand Magistry of the Sovereign Order of Malta announces that Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing has convened an extraordinary session of the Sovereign Council for 28 January 2017 for the acceptance of his resignation from the office of Grand Master. This is in accordance with Article 16 of the Constitution of the Sovereign Order of Malta.”
Around the same time on Wednesday, however, the press office of the Holy See issued this other statement:
“Yesterday, 24 January 2017, in audience with the Holy Father, His Highness Fra’ Matthew Festing resigned from the office of Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
“Today, 25 January, the Holy Father accepted his resignation, expressing appreciation and gratitude to Fra’ Festing for his loyalty and devotion to the Successor of Peter, and his willingness to serve humbly the good of the Order and the Church.
“The governance of the Order will be undertaken ad interim by the Grand Commander pending the appointment of the Papal Delegate.”
The Vatican statement contains at least two jarring points.
The first is the emphasis on the fact that the Festing’s resignation was accepted by the pope even before it was accepted by the Sovereign Council, “communicated to the Holy Father,” and thereby made “effective” according to those constitutional procedures which the pope himself urged should be respected.
The second is an authentic mystery, and concerns the nature of that “pontifical delegate” whose appointment has been announced.
The terminology adopted brought to mind a sort of external commissary imposed on the Order by the Holy See. But it is not clear in whose place, if Pope Francis himself urged the regular election of a new Grand Master.
The following are the articles of the constitutional charter of the Order of Malta that refer to the issues in question, and against which the Vatican is most in conflict:
Art. 3 § 1 – The Order is a subject of international law and exercises sovereign functions.
Art. 4 § 1 – The Order is a legal entity recognized by the Holy See.
Art. 4 § 6 – The religious nature of the Order does not prejudice the exercise of sovereign prerogatives pertaining to the Order in so far as it is recognized by States as a subject of international law.
Art. 13 § 3 – Before the assumption of the office, the election of the Grand Master is to be communicated by letter to the Holy Father by the person elected.
Art. 16 – The resignation from office by the Grand Master must be accepted by the Sovereign Council and, to be effective, communicated to the Holy Father
Art. 17 § 1 – In the case of the permanent incapacity, resignation or death of the Grand Master, the Order is governed by a Lieutenant ad interim in the person of the Grand Commander who can carry out acts of ordinary administration until the Office ceases to be vacant.
Art. 17 § 5 – The Lieutenant of the Grand Master is elected in accordance with Art. 23, par. 5, from among the Knights possessing the requisites required for election to Grand Master.
The crisis that is engulfing the Order of Malta broke out with the resignation imposed by the Grand Master last December 6 on Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, who appealed to the Holy See and obtained from the pope the appointment of a commission charged with examining the reasons for the dispute, a commission that was however rejected by the Grand Master as an illegitimate violation of the sovereignty of the Order.
The dispute, in any case, goes deeper and involves the opposition between defenders of the original religious profile of the Order – reduced today to a few dozen voting members – and the proponents of its “secularization,” particularly strong in the German camp, the most numerous and active in the field of humanitarian aid.
The most detailed and documented reconstruction of the affair can be found in these three articles by Edward Pentin for the National Catholic Register:
January 7, 2017
> Disorder in the Order of Malta
January 18, 2017
> Order of Malta, Holy See Remain at Odds Over Inquiry Commission
January 26, 2017
> Pope Francis Declares All of Festing’s Recent Acts “Null and Void”
While these are the statements issued successively by the Order of Malta, before today:
(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)
POSTSCRIPT – The “mystery” over the nature of the “pontifical delegate” whose appointment was announced in the January 25 statement from the Vatican remained unsolved for several hours even for the governing members of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
To clear up some of the doubts – but also create new ones – has come a subsequent letter from the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, also dated January 25, in which the leadership of the Order has been informed among other things of the following two decisions made by Pope Francis:
“To help the Order in the renewal process which is seen as necessary, the Holy Father will appoint his personal Delegate with powers that he will define in the act of appointing him.”
“The Holy Father, on the basis of evidence that has emerged from information he has gathered, has determined that all actions taken by the Grand Master after December 6, 2016, are null and void. The same is true for those of the Sovereign Council, such as the election of the Grand Chancellor ad interim.”