[Editor’s note, this story has been updated to include the Vatican’s official statement on the matter.]
ROME– The head of the sovereign Order of the Knights of Malta has been asked by Pope Francis to present his resignation, something the grand master has agreed to do. In recent weeks, Frey Matthew Festing had entered into a public spat with the pontiff over the ouster of a top official.
“He has resigned,” Eugenio Ajroldi di Robbiate, Communications Director of the order told Crux on the phone on Wednesday.
However, he added, Festing is still the grand master because he has to present his resignation to the order’s government, which Di Robbiate described as a “technicality.”
The governing council will meet on Jan. 28.
In a statement released on Wednesday afternoon, the Vatican confirmed that Francis and Festing had met the day before, that the grand master had presented his resignation and that the pontiff had accepted it.
According to the statement, the pope expressed to Festing his “appreciation and gratitude 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 short communique also said that Francis is going to appoint a “pontifical delegate” to temporarily run the order.
Grand masters of the institution, the world’s oldest chivalrous institution, still standing as it was founded in the 11th century, usually keep their positions for life.
The controversy became public last December, with the firing of German Albrecht von Boeselager, the group’s chancellor. He was allegedly suspended after refusing an order to resign over revelations that the order’s charity branch distributed thousands of condoms in Myanmar on his watch.
Boeselager has since insisted that he didn’t know about the program, and that he had stopped it when he found out. The Knights currently have charitable programs in 120 countries.
On December 22, the Vatican announced Pope Francis had created a committee to examine the situation. The five members are Italian Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, former permanent observer of the Holy See to the U.N. in Geneva; Jesuit Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, a noted canonist and former rector of the Gregorian University; and laypeople Jacques de Liedekerke, Marc Odendall, and Marwan Sehnaoui.
Twice the order dismissed the papal inquiry, saying they wouldn’t cooperate with the probe, asserting their status as a sovereign state under international law and insisting that nobody, including the pope, has the right to interfere in their internal governance.
Festing wrote a letter to the Order’s members on Jan. 14 saying that there were “serious accusations of a conflict of interest” involving three of the five men appointed by Francis. As a result, he’s begun his own inquiry into the Vatican-appointed body.
He didn’t elaborate, however, the National Catholic Register has reported that three of the commission members were involved, along with Boeselager, in a $118 million bequest to the order.
It’s currently unknown if Festing’s inquiry will go through, or if it will be dropped once the sovereign council accepts his resignation.
On January 17, the Vatican released a sharply worded statement commending the work being done by the members of a committee created by Pope Francis to look into the order, and also not-so-subtly reminded the group that despite its sovereignty, it’s still a Catholic institution.
The statement says the Holy See wishes to “reiterate its support and encouragement” for the work being carried out by the members and volunteers around the world, “in fulfillment of the aims of the Order: tuitio fidei (the defense of the faith) and obsequium pauperum (service to the poor, the sick and those in greatest need).”
The following paragraph, however, says that for the support of that mission, the Holy See “reaffirms its confidence” in the five-member commission appointed by Francis to “inform him about the present crisis” in the orders’ direction.
Several members of the order, speaking under the condition of anonymity, told Crux in recent days that the way Boeselager’s firing had occurred was “embarrassing.”
Regardless of what one thought of the chancellor, one source said, no self-respecting institution fires a top official without making sure “he won’t come back.” Festing and American Cardinal Raymond Burke, the order’s spiritual leader and liaison to the Vatican, “should have done things better.”
Yet, despite Burke being at least partially to blame for the situation, most observers agree that he’s “untouchable” because if the pope were to ask him for his resignation, he would become a “martyr.”
Officially the world’s smallest sovereign state, the Knights of Malta have bilateral relations with 106 countries, and has United Nations permanent observer status. It issues its own passports, currency and postage stamps with the Maltese cross insignia.
According to their website, the organization has 13,500 members, 80,000 permanent volunteers and a qualified staff of 25,000 professionals – most of whom are doctors and paramedics.