The Vatican's special delegate to the Order of Malta has ordered the former Grand Master of the knights to stay away from the election of his successor at the end of this month.
"I ask you, in my capacity of Special Delegate, not to be present at the Complete Council of State and to forego your trip to Rome on this occasion," Archbishop Angelo Becciu wrote in a letter to Festing published by the National Catholic Register. "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."
The letter - in which Becciu states that he has discussed the issue with Pope Francis and he agrees - is a surprise considering an interview last month in the Catholic Herald in which Festing claimed that he had been given approval to run for re-election from Pope Francis himself.
In the interview, Festing said: “I said, ‘Can I ask you a hypothetical question?’ [The Pope] 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.”
He added: "I am currently very happily in Northumberland enjoying a quiet, prayerful existence away from Rome, and I have no intention of campaigning to be re-elected. However if they re-elect me, I would have to consider agreeing to it."
Such a move would go down very badly in the Vatican given that he was asked to step down by the Pope following a Holy See inquiry into the sacking of Albrecht von Boeselager, who was dismissed as the order's foreign minister after being accused of allowing the distribution of condoms in Myanmar and parts of Africa.
With or without Festing's presence, tensions will be running high on 29 April when the order’s "council complete of state" gathers in Rome for a conclave-style election for a new Grand Master, with the Holy See having no power to accept or reject the successful candidate - they are simply informed of the choice. Sources inside the order stress that a likely outcome is that an interim head will be chosen, a figure who would be given a year to bring in reforms.
A 67-year-old former Sotheby’s executive, Festing became only the second Englishman to lead the 11th century crusader-era knights, when he was elected in 2008, and despite his resignation there is nothing in the knights’ rules preventing him from coming back.
READ THE FULL LETTER FROM ARCHBISHOP ANGELO BECCIU BELOW...