Order of Malta in limbo after Becciu’s ouster

Order of Malta in limbo after Becciu’s ouster

Albrecht Boeselager, Grand Chancellor of the Knights of Malta, answers questions during a press conference at the Foreign Press Club in Rome, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017. (Credit: Domenico Stinellis/AP.)

The Grand Chancellor of the Order of Malta has said the sudden departure of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, tasked with overseeing the Knights’ internal reform, has halted the finalization of their new constitutions, leaving questions as to how and when they can complete the process.

ROME – Albrecht von Boeselager, Grand Chancellor of the Order of Malta, has said the sudden departure of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, tasked with overseeing the Knights’ internal reform, has halted the finalization of their new constitutions, leaving questions as to how and when they can complete the process.

Becciu’s resignation over alleged embezzlement came as “a total surprise,” Boeselager said in a sit-down interview with Crux.

“Everyone knew something was going on, pending, but what we heard until then was that the relationship between the Holy Father and Cardinal Becciu was intact and that even if something would have happened, we didn’t expect such a strong decision,” he said.

In the wake of Becciu’s resignation, “things are in the open again,” Boeselager said, explaining that “Parts of the constitution and code need the approval of the Holy See, and to deal with this was the task of the delegate.”

“We have not been notified by the Holy See what the position of Cardinal Becciu [will be] towards us,” he said. “Until we officially know, we can’t say anything.”

Boeselager in late 2016 was at the center of a major internal conflict in the Order of Malta which resulted in weeks of a back-and-forth power-struggle with the Vatican after he was essentially kicked out, only to be reinstated by Pope Francis himself.

Francis then launched an investigation into Boeselager’s exit and, when former Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing refused to cooperate, he asked Festing to resign and ordered the group to undergo an in-depth internal reform, modifying their constitutions and focusing on how to gain new, younger members. He named Becciu – who at the time served as sostituto in the Secretariat of State, meaning he was essentially the pope’s chief of staff – as his special delegate overseeing the reform.

On Sept. 24 the Vatican announced Becciu’s resignation from his post as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints and from his rights as a cardinal. Though no formal reason was given for his departure, Becciu held a private press conference the next day saying he had been accused of embezzlement.

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The Order of Malta is preparing to hold their Council Complete of State in November to elect a new leader after the passing of their new Grand Master, Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre, in April.

According to Boeselager, the Order will either elect a new Grand Master or choose to elect a Lieutenant, an interim leader who can run the show for a year while the Knights finalize their reform.

However, the speed at which they will be able to complete this reform depends on what happens with the delegate. Until this is clarified, it’s largely a waiting game.

Please read below for excerpts of Crux’s interview with Albrecht von Boeselager:

Crux: You are holding the Council Complete of State next month. What are you looking for in a new leader at this point?

Boeselager: Well the first question the Council Complete of State, the formal name of the electing body, will have to decide is whether to elect a Grand Master or a Lieutenant. The constitution foresees the election of a Lieutenant for up to one year, and the reason behind this consideration is that we hope to finalize the reform within this term and to elect a Grand Master according to the new set-up of bylaws.

So, your reform is closing to finishing?

We hope. Now of course after the things that happened around Cardinal Becciu, things are in the open again. We have not been [notified] by the Holy Father so far.

Parts of the constitution and code need the approval of the Holy See, and to deal with this was the task of the delegate. So, we have not been notified by the Holy See what the position of Cardinal Becciu [will be] towards us…Until we officially know, we can’t say anything. If we get a new delegate or – it’s also open whether the pope will name a new delegate or new cardinal patronus, both would be possible – then it depends on how well this person knows the order already. When can he take over the work already done by Cardinal Becciu, or will he start anew with other people? That’s for us the uncertainty.

Did his resignation, apparently related to allegations of embezzlement, come as a surprise to you?

It was a total surprise. Everyone knew something was going on, pending, but what we heard until then was that the relationship between the Holy Father and Cardinal Becciu was intact and that even if something would have happened, we didn’t expect such a strong decision.

Other than the review of the proposed reforms to the constitutions, are there other areas of your reform and management that are impacted by his departure?

I think for the internal governance and running of the order no, that goes on as always. Cardinal Becciu was not part of the government of the Order, he was the link to the Holy Father and tasked with bringing, as far as the Holy See is concerned, bringing this reform forward.

We did not have much feedback yet regarding our drafts … they were sitting in the hands of Cardinal Becciu, and he surrounded himself with specialists in canon law. We know it was an ongoing process, but we haven’t had any feedback yet. [Becciu] repeated many times the intentions of the Holy Father to reform the First Class, the group of the professed, and to deepen the spirituality. To deepen the spirituality is an ongoing task which never ends. Perhaps it goes in waves, but you have to work on it permanently. And the reform of the First Class takes modifications in the constitutions and also new considerations regarding formation and so on.

One of the things the pope had specifically requested in terms of the reform was the need to attract more youth. Have you been able to do that? Do you have a revamped vocations plan, or is there a strategy that you’ve developed?

I think the order has never in history had so many young people gathered around. The young volunteers in Germany were, I can’t say firmly today, but in past years were the only growing Catholic youth organization in Germany. The young people going to Lebanon, even now, to work with handicapped people. We have some programs. They go and work half a day with handicapped people and half the day they study at the Jesuit university. All of these projects, the holiday camps with the disabled, are expanding. It’s one of the fastest growing activities of the order, so the attraction to young people is very high.

What we have to do is to reorganize, reestablish the framework for future professed, so that we can present something to young people who feel attracted to this vocation. Vocations come from heaven, we cannot beg people, but we have to prepare the ground, that is our task. You never know, but I am confident because these young people are so committed and engaged in what they do, you cannot imagine. It’s sometimes shameful for us to see them!

What would you say are the key priorities of the Order right now, in terms of reform and your work?

There are three I would say. The reform, the activities, and our presence in multilateral scenes. Reform we have spoken about; the reform of the First Class, reform of the parties and government structure, the territorial structure. That is very technical, but some things have to be done there.

Then, regarding activities, I must say I am very proud to see how our people responded to the challenges of the corona crisis. The imagination with which new activities were born, the commitment to continue activities, to transform them, was incredible, really incredible. In Milan, I think for a certain time they were almost the only ones to continue their project with the homeless. They went out all the time because we had to close down soup kitchens, but then food was brought to certain places and distributed, hotlines were created for elderly people, purchasing services so the elderly didn’t have to go out.

Here on a central level we have created a scheme which we call ‘Doctors to Doctors’, so we organized video conferences for experienced doctors to have chats with doctors in the Middle East. Now they do it also from the United States to Latin America so that the doctors in these countries can learn from the experiences doctors have had here. It’s less a scientific forum than a forum for practical advice, how to deal with the challenges. This we started on a lower level and it has become a big activity.

Going back to the first point you made, you mentioned the reform of the First Class. What is the vision for this reform? Is there a vision for it, or is it mostly technical changes?

After the loss of Malta in the secularization of the properties of the Order in the early 19th century, the Order was not able to sustain the professed anymore, so they were left alone and there was no community anymore, so they had to stay alone. The revitalization of the order started later, in the mid-19th century in Germany and Italy, and later France, but not in a way that the Order would have been able to sustain the professed again. I would say only after World War II the development began to really take pace and grow. Now, it would be possible again to say that those who profess in the Order really can devote their lives in the work of the Order and the Order will be able to sustain them.

And to have some sort of common life again?

That’s still under discussion. The idea is to have a common novitiate where they live together. The idea is also to have places where they can live [with] two or three, but it depends on how many we will have. This also touches on the vow of poverty, because if the Order can again sustain their living, they don’t need their own income or property to secure their lives.

One final question. I am curious about how much contact the leadership has with the pope and how closely he is following your reform…

We have one institutional contact which is an institutional audience every year around the feast of St. John. Then, the Grand Master of Lieutenant, whoever leads the Order, meets the Holy Father at different occasions. Then, the exchange of a few words which sometimes are very important. For the rest, some of us also see the pope at Vatican events, at councils where we are members. The rest of the contact with the Holy Father go either through the delegate, the cardinal patronus, the Secretary of State, these are the links.

Do you have any sense of how aware he is of where you guys are at in the reform process?

I can’t tell you in detail, it depends on how detailed Cardinal Becciu informed him.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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