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ROME – When rumors about Pope Francis’s current voyage to Cyprus and Greece began to look serious in the late summer and early fall, it was believed the outing would also include a stop in Malta. In the end that didn’t happen, and, from Pope Francis’s point of view, it’s probably just as well.
The omission spared Francis what otherwise would have been a mettlesome choice: Whether to attend Friday’s funeral of Fra Matthew Festing, the 79th Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, who became the first Grand Master to be laid to rest at St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valetta in 246 years.
Instead, the pontiff was represented by Italian Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, a former Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the UN in Geneva, a veteran diplomatic trouble-shooter for the Vatican and currently the pontiff’s “special delegate” to the Knights of Malta. A sea of Knights occupied the front pews in the cathedral, wearing their ceremonial black robes emblazoned with a crisp white eight-point cross, along with a who’s who of Maltese society, including the country’s Prime Minister, Speaker and Chief Justice.
Under ordinary circumstances, whether or not to show up at a Grand Master’s funeral would be a no-brainer for a pope. The Knights of Malta probably are the most storied lay organization in the Catholic Church, with roots reaching back to 1048 when it was established to provide medical aid to pilgrims in the Holy Land. Today it acts as a global charity and enjoys sovereign status under international law.
Yet Festing wasn’t just any Grand Master, because his term ended in controversy and perceptions of aligning himself with American Cardinal Raymond Burke and against Pope Francis.
The crisis was triggered in December 2016 by the discovery that condoms had been distributed by an aid project sponsored by the Knights in Myanmar. Festing held Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, the order’s Grand Chancellor, responsible for the situation and ordered him to resign. When von Boeselager refused, Festing suspended him and had a new interim Grand Chancellor elected.
Pope Francis swiftly assembled a five-member panel to advise him on what to do next, castigated Festing for his actions. That prompted Festing to offer to resign, but Burke, the ecclesiastical patron of the Knights, tried to persuade Festing to withdraw his resignation, arguing that Francis had exceeded his authority and couldn’t interfere in the inner workings of a sovereign entity. The order’s governing council, however, sided with von Boeselager and ordered him reinstated.
Afterwards Francis effectively took control of the Knights, ordering a constitutional reform process that’s still underway.
Especially given that all this was playing out at the same time as the uproar over Pope Francis’s document Amoris Laetitia, another drama in which Burke was a protagonist, the perception was that the Knights were a bastion of internal resistance to the pontiff – an image which von Boeselager has been struggling to shake off since he was reinstated.
In that light, some observers – including, it should be said, some within the Knights themselves – found it odd that Festing was sent to his rest with such pomp and circumstance, especially given that critics say he violated the order’s constitution, not only in the way he ousted von Boeselager but also in areas such as money management. Some worry that the grand choreography of the funeral will embolden the “Festing faction” within the Knights to believe they’re winning the internal struggles.
Tomasi didn’t address any of that in his homily Friday, restricting himself to recall the Knights to their charitable mission.
“Today’s battles are fought by the Order – not by the sword, but with a more effective weapon of charity to the poor and sick,” the 81-year-old prelate said.
Not only did skipping Malta save Francis the headache of deciding what his attendance at Festing’s funeral might have symbolized, it also bought him some time to answer hard questions that still linger about the direction of his reform.
Francis had originally tapped Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, his former chief of staff, to be his delegate to the Knights, but when Becciu was indicted over the summer in an ongoing trial for fraud and embezzlement, he turned to Tomasi, issuing a letter granting him sweeping powers over the order.
Critics insist that in effect, Pope Francis effectively has upended the Knight’s constitution, which emphasizes its independence in matters of internal government. They say the pope is confusing his authority over the “first class” members, who profess perpetual religious vows, with the organization itself, potentially triggering a legal crisis given that the Knights enjoy the same status under international law as the Vatican itself, including issuing its own passports and conducting diplomatic relations with foreign states.
The worst-case scenario, observers say, would be for one or more branches of the Knights – the Germans, for example, who make up a large share of the order’s membership and funding, or the French, the English, or the Lebanese – to decide to split from the papally-recognized entity and reincorporate under civil law in their respective countries. In theory, they could take the Knights’ money and sovereign status with them, leaving headquarters in Rome as little more than a shell.
What might drive such a decision would be a perception that the broad authority given to Tomasi, in practice, means control of the Knights by an Italian-dominated group in Rome who have Tomasi’s ear, while the human and financial capital of the order is elsewhere.
Even if such worst-case scenarios rarely materialize, the mere specter of it captures the challenges facing Tomasi and Francis going forward as they try to get the Knights to move where they want them to go, but without blowing the whole thing up in the process.
All of which explains why right now, Pope Francis is probably glad he decided to kick the trip to Malta down the road a bit. However, the hard questions will still be waiting when he gets back.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr