ROME—Pope Francis scored a big win in the clash between the Vatican and the sovereign religious order of the Knights of Malta on Saturday, with the group’s Sovereign Council officially accepting their leader’s resignation as had been requested by Francis and announced by the Vatican.
In a statement released by the order on Saturday, the Knights of Malta also say that a papal delegate appointed by the pontiff will be operating on “the spiritual renewal of the Order, specifically of its professed members,” and will be welcomed by the Knights.
In effect, what all this means is that Englishman Fra’ Matthew Festing, who served as Grand Master of the Sovereign Order of Malta, steps down from his life-time appointment, and German official Albercht Boeselager, who’d been fired as Grand Chancellor in December over a row involving the distribution of condoms in Myanmar through a Knights-affiliated charity, resumes his position.
Austrian Fra’ Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein will assume Festing’s role ad interim.
All of this was announced by the order through a press statement released on their website Saturday afternoon, after a meeting of the Sovereign Council on the Magistral Palace in Rome, a few yards away from the famed Spanish Steps.
“On the agenda was the resignation from Office of Grand Master presented by Fra’ Matthew Festing, in accordance with article 16 of the Constitution of the Order of Malta,” the statement says. “The Sovereign Council accepted his resignation from office.”
Also conforming to the Constitution, it says, Pope Francis has been notified of Festing’s resignation, which will now be communicated to the 106 Heads of State with whom the Knights of Malta have diplomatic relations.
The statement says Von Rumerstein, until now Grand Commander, will assume as Lieutenant ad interim and remain the head of the Order until the election of Festing’s successor takes place.
Among other things, the Vatican had recently announced that Pope Francis would be appointing a special delegate to oversee a “process of renewal.” On this matter, the statement released on Saturday says that the delegate will have a spiritual role. This, the Knights say, was stressed as such by the pontiff, who sent them a letter on Jan. 27, the eve of the meeting of the Sovereign Council.
Speaking to the Associated Press ahead of Saturday’s meeting, Knights’ spokesman Eugenio Ajroldi di Robbiate had said that if Festing did in fact resign, it was up to the sovereign council to take the appropriate decisions, including accepting the resignation.
Crux’s attempts to contact the order after the announcement was made did not find an immediate response.
Boeselager had been sacked last December, allegedly because one of the many social and aid programs the Knights run in 120 countries had distributed condoms, something the Catholic Church is against. He claimed that once he found out about it he cancelled the program, but he was still sacked.
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 had dismissed the papal inquiry, and on Jan. 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 subject to papal authority.
According to the statement released on Saturday, in the letter sent by Francis the previous day he “reaffirmed the special relationship between the Sovereign Order of Malta and the Apostolic See.”
The pontiff affirmed that the lieutenant ad interim assumes responsibility over the order’s government, in particular regarding relationships with other countries.
In recent days, many have framed this as part of an ongoing battle between Pope Francis and American Cardinal Raymond Burke, patron of the Knights of Malta.
When Burke was appointed to the job by Francis in Nov. 2014, it was seen as a demotion, since the American went from being head of the Apostolic Signatura, meaning the Vatican’s supreme court, to assume a largely ceremonial role as a liaison between the Knights and the Holy See.
The two have clashed from the beginning of Francis’s pontificate, with Burke being outspoken about his “concern” over where the Church is going under the leadership of the Argentine pontiff.
In recent months, and before the situation of Malta surfaced, Burke had openly challenged Francis on several things, saying that if the pope doesn’t clarify his document on the family, Amoris Laetitia, he would have to “formally correct” the pontiff.
Although Francis doesn’t say this in so many words, many have perceived the document, the result of an almost three-year long Synod of Bishops on the issue, as opening the doors for divorced and civilly-remarried Catholics to receive Communion.
Up to this point, however, no move has been made to remove Burke from his position.
Saturday’s statement from the order seemed to take pains to emphasize their desire to cooperate with the Vatican’s intervention.
“The Sovereign Order of Malta is most grateful to Pope Francis and the Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin for their interest in and care for the Order,” it said. “The Order appreciates that the Holy Father’s decisions were all carefully taken with regard to and respect for the Order, with a determination to strengthen its sovereignty.”