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Leader of Knights of Malta resigns at Pope’s request

January 25, 2017

The grand master of the Knights of Malta has submitted his resignation, at the request of Pope Francis, after a dispute with the Vatican over the removal of the group’s chancellor.

Fra’ Matthew Festing offered his resignation on January 24, during a meeting with the Pontiff, the Vatican announced. The Pope officially accepted that resignation the next day, “expressing appreciation and gratitude” to the outgoing leader of the renowned order.

A spokesman for the Knights—officially known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM)—confirmed that Pope Francis had asked for the grand master’s resignation. Fra’ Festing, who has taken religious vows, obeyed that directive.

However, the situation is somewhat complicated by the status of the SMOM as a sovereign body under international law. The resignation of Fra’ Festing does not become official until is accepted by the group’s Sovereign Council, which will meet on January 28. That vote, a spokesman said, is a “technicality.”

The “grand commander” of the SMOM, who has been second-in-command, will assume temporary leadership. In the longer term, the future of leadership for the Knights of Malta is cloudier. The Vatican announced that the grand commander would take charge “pending the appointment of a papal delegate.” However, again it is unclear whether that Holy See has authority to appoint a leader for another sovereign body.

In 1981, Pope John Paul II appointed a papal delegate, Father Paolo Dezza, to lead the Society of Jesus temporarily after the Jesuit superior, Father Pedro Arrupe, suffered a debilitating stroke. That move could appear as a precedent for the appointment of a papal delegate to the SMOM. In both cases, the Pontiff evidently wished to exert greater control over a religious body that was undergoing turmoil. But the Jesuits form a religious order, pledged to loyalty to the Roman Pontiff, whereas the Knights of Malta form an independent and sovereign body.

The forced resignation of Fra’ Festing came after a committee appointed by Pope Francis had investigated the controversy that arose when the grand master ousted Albrecht von Boeselager, who had been chancellor of the SMOM. The SMOM had protested the investigation, saying that the chancellor’s removal was an act of internal governance and the Vatican probe was a violation of the group’s sovereignty. Further, the leadership of the Knights had asserted that members of the papal committee had serious conflicts of interest: an apparent reference to the fact that some members had business ties with Boeselager. Nevertheless the papal committee continued its work and, apparently, reached a quick conclusion that a change in leadership was necessary.


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  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Feb. 01, 2017 8:02 AM ET USA

    Infallibility applies to teaching to the universal Church on matters of faith and morals. It doesn't apply to the choices the Pope makes about what fights to pick. The provision of condoms to Myanmar is an odd cause for the Holy Father to champion.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jan. 26, 2017 3:53 PM ET USA

    Pateradam3 posts a situation that appears to be an oxymoron. Consistent and public disobedience to Catholic doctrine makes for a "messy" Church, a Church that gets in the gutter, a Church that is shaken up, a Church where the "doctors of the law" are confused and submit dubia, a Church that makes practicing Catholics uneasy and fearful for the future, a Church that feels itself discomforted by legitimate liturgical diversity, a Church that likes to walk the razor's edge in matters of faith/moral

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Jan. 26, 2017 3:04 AM ET USA

    It is not at all clear what is going on, but it looks like an old-fashioned purge.

  • Posted by: pateradam3 - Jan. 25, 2017 10:29 PM ET USA

    There may be more to this that we do not know, but even so, one would like to see such swift action with religious orders and catholic universities whose members and faculty are consistently and quite publicly disobedient to Catholic Doctrine.

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Jan. 25, 2017 12:21 PM ET USA

    This ought to really reassure China that the Holy See isn't a foreign meddler that disrespects states and seeks to exert power in their domestic and even governance affairs.