26 April 2017, The Tablet

Festing reported at large in Rome ahead of Knights of Malta vote for his replacement

Former grand master's intentions unclear as divisive vote for new leader looms large

The ex-Grand Master of the Order of Malta is expected to defy Pope Francis’ wishes and attend a meeting to elect the group’s next leader.

A spokeswoman for the knights in Rome told The Tablet the order are expecting Fra’ Matthew Festing to attend Saturday’s conclave-style election with another report saying he has already arrived in Rome.

The spokeswoman could not confirm whether Festing had arrived in the Eternal City and calls to the Grand Master this evening went unanswered. His own spokesman did not return requests for comment. 

Senior members of the order are currently gathering in Rome ahead of the crucial vote, with a select group meeting with the Pope tonight as Francis will be in Egypt when the election takes place. 

Festing, only the second Englishman to hold the position of Grand Master, resigned in January after a bruising public battle with the Vatican over the sacking of one of his top aides, Albrecht von Boeselager, in a row over the distribution of condoms.

Since his resignation Festing’s allies have been pushing for him to stand again as Grand Master: he is one of 12 eligible candidates who could be chosen as leader of the organisation which runs a global charitable network and is made up of around 13,000 knights and dames. 

But Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, Francis’ delegate to the order, wrote to Festing ordering him under obedience not to attend the election, adding this was also the Pope’s wish. 

“Your presence would re-open wounds, only recently healed” the senior Vatican prelate wrote. “And would prevent the event from taking place in an atmosphere of peace and regained harmony.” 

It is possible that Festing, a 67-year-old former Sotheby’s executive from Northumberland, is in Rome for pre-election meetings although will not attend the actual election. The spokeswoman explained that under the knights’ rules he is allowed to attend. 

Inside the order there is a strong faction that remains loyal to the former Grand Master while claiming that Francis and the Holy See have been guilty of unwarranted interference in the order’s affairs. The 11th century crusader-era knights are both a religious order with members who make a vow of obedience to the Pope and a sovereign, autonomous entity. 

At least one of those meeting with Francis at his Casa Santa Marta residence tonight is an ally of Festing. 

“I expect him [the Pope] to give us our marching orders,” Fra’ Ian Scott, a senior knight from England told The Tablet. “Whether we pay any attention, I don't know.”

The dispute between Festing and the Vatican ended up becoming a proxy war over Francis’ reform agenda: prominent Pope-critic, Cardinal Raymond Burke, the order’s patron, pushed for von Boeselager to be dismissed claiming the Vatican backed such a move. The cardinal has also, however, denied asking for the German knight’s sacking. 

It was Burke giving Holy See approval to von Boeselager’s removal from the position as Grand Chancellor that sparked an inquiry by the Vatican and which led to Festing resigning. Von Boeselager has now been reinstated to his position. 

While the former leader of the knights has claimed the Pope told him he could be re-elected such a move would open up another rift between the order and the Holy See.

The Pope has also told Festing he wants to reform the knights and has appointed Archbishop Becciu, the Vatican’s Deputy Prime Minister, to oversee the task and be his sole liaison with the order. This was a job that had been undertaken by Burke: he remains as the knights’ patron and sources inside the order say he may attend the election although does not have the right to vote. The cardinal reportedly tried to dissuade Festing from resigning. 

Archbishop Becciu is a details focussed official who is trusted by the Pope. He will, however, be in Cairo with Francis when the election takes place.

It is likely that the order will choose to elect an interim leader for a year to institute reforms such as a change in requirements that the Grand Master must demonstrate 300 years of noble ancestry. This means that there are just 12 eligible candidates, including one who is 97-years-old. 

Frontrunner for the role include Fra’ Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein, the current interim leader, Fra’ Giacomo dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto, an Italian aristocrat with strong Holy See links who used to look after then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s cat when the former Vatican doctrine chief was out of Rome. There is also an outside chance that French knight Fra’ Pierre de Bizemont could be chosen.

During the process, the professed knights compile a list of three possible candidates to choose from, with the new Grand Master needing a simple majority to be elected. The order’s code states that after “the fifth undecided ballot” the council can then decide to proceed to an election of a temporary leader known as the “Lieutenant of the Grand Master.”

The new leader will be sworn in at a Mass this Sunday - the day after the Pope returns from Egypt - while the announcement of who has been chosen is expected on Saturday. 

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