ROME— After weeks of turmoil that saw Pope Francis, the Vatican and the Sovereign Order of the Knights of Malta locked in a power struggle, a top official of the order now says they won’t let the crisis deter them from their humanitarian work, particularly with immigrants and refugees.
The Order of Malta “is not fighting the pope,” said Albrecht Boeselager, the Grand Chancellor of the Knights of Malta, who was fired last December but reinstated on Saturday after the resignation of Grand Master Matthew Festing.
Boeselager contested impressions that Francis essentially sacked Festing.
“It’s not right to say that the Grand Master was ousted,” Boeselager said. “He was asked, I supposed, nobody of us was present, but in a pastoral way [by Pope Francis] to consider resignation. And Grand Master graciously offered his resignation to the sovereign council.”
Boeselager said there was never any actual consideration of the order removing Festing, because the Knights were caught off guard and had not expected the crisis to escalate.
According to Boeselager, who met with the press in Rome on Thursday, by appointing a delegate Francis is not trying to “weaken” the order and its mission but to “strengthen” it.
He also said that the Knights’ sovereignty was never questioned, because the Vatican only interfered in the crisis after the pope was used as a front for trying to sack the chancellor late last year.
“The Vatican only started to take care of the crisis when it was made aware that the name of the Holy Father was invoked when I was asked to resign,” he said. “And that’s the reason the Holy Father and the Vatican had to step in.”
Boeselager insisted that upon reading the letters from the pope it’s clear that both Francis and the Vatican realize the sovereignty of the Knights is at the service of the Church. The Knights of Malta is unique in the sense that it’s internationally recognized as a state, including by the United Nations, where it has a “permanent observer” status.
Yet they are also a religious order, the two being “sides of the same coin,” as Boeselager put it. The order, he insisted, “reaffirms its fidelity to the Holy Father, will remain at his service. Our loyalty is irrevocable and indisputable.”
Regarding the future role of American Cardinal Raymond Burke, currently the patron of the order, but who throughout the crisis sided with Festing, the Grand Chancellor said he couldn’t comment because he didn’t know.
At the moment, Burke’s role is that of spiritual leader and liaison between the order and the Vatican. Yet according to a letter sent by the pope to the Order’s general council, Francis will soon be appointing a papal delegate who will be the point of reference between the Knights and the Vatican.
The chancellor was also asked about the differences between Burke and previous patrons. He said that there were some disagreements, which is understandable due to the fact that they are different people. Urged to respond about how the American fulfilled his role, Boeselager said: “I think you know Cardinal Burke – his special attention was adhering to Church teaching.”
Though he refused to name Burke, Boeselager also said that throughout the crisis, which began when he was asked to resign, Festing had been, in his opinion, “ill-advised by whomever.”
Despite the controversies his firing last December generated, Boeselager also said that the reasons behind it remain “a mystery” to him, but acknowledged that there had been increasing tensions and disagreements between the elected government of the order and people brought in by Festing, who were hired without regard for the order’s constitution.
Addressing the reports that he had been sacked for allowing one of its programs to distribute condoms, something the Grand Master and Burke had reportedly accused him of, Boeselager said that the accusations were groundless, and that when he discovered condoms were being distributed in a program in Myanmar, he stopped it.
“I feel bound to the teachings of the Church, and if you ask my friends they would rather see me on the conservative, not the liberal, side,” he said.
On Saturday, the order had also announced that Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein will serve as the new Lieutenant ad interim until a new Grand Master is elected. He’ll remain in his position until the “Council Complete of State” is summoned- which has to happen within three months of Festing’s resignation.
Boeselager said they expect for this to happen sometime in April, and that it’s possible someone will be elected for a one-year term, giving the order and the papal delegate enough time to settle things, while at the same time not jeopardizing the Knights relations with over 100 states.
Dominque de La Rochefoucauld, Grand Hospitaller of the order, meaning the man who coordinates the charitable programs of Knights in 120 countries, was also present at Thursday’s press conference.
“We will not allow the recent distractions in the government of the order to jeopardize our humanitarian and socio-medical work,” La Rochefoucauld said.
Nevertheless, he acknowledged, the current crisis did have an impact in the donations they receive, which pour in from around the world from both individuals and companies, government agencies and state organizations.
Talking about an experience in France in recent days, La Rochefoucauld said that they received some $26,000 to $32,000 less than during the last campaign, but in both cases still raised millions.
“People decided not to help us because they thought we were fighting against the pope,” La Rochefoucauld added “But it was not true. We need to restore the trust.”
There’s still some work to do to restore said trust, both with the donors and with the Vatican. Yet, when all is said and done, according to Boeselager, this crisis will be “a marginal event in history.”
With teary eyes, he delivered a final appeal to a room packed with reporters: “What is more at stake is the crisis we’re facing in the world, the misery and the plea of the millions of people migrating and flying, drowning in the Mediterranean, tortured on their way.”
“Please, don’t forget to report about these cases,” he continued. “Fight the arrogant ignorance regarding this crisis. And the indifference.”