Malta’s knights tell Pope Francis to butt out of their business

Order of Malta refuses papal commission’s investigation after sacking Grand Chancellor and replaced by Maltese knight John Critien

Pope Francis grants an audience to Fra’ Matthew Festing, the 79th prince and grand master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta
Pope Francis grants an audience to Fra’ Matthew Festing, the 79th prince and grand master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta

The Knights of Malta – officially known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta – have sent Pope Francis an extraordinary rebuke after the Holy See appointed a commission to investigate the sacking of its Grand Chancellor.

Pope Francis set up a special committee to investigate discord within the Knights of Malta, after the grand master of the venerable order, Matthew Festing, ousted its ‘foreign minister’ Albrecht von Boeselager.

Von Boeselager was replaced by the Maltese knight John Critien, who takes up the prominent position in the Order’s magistry.

In a statement, the SMOM, which is based in Rome, said that the replacement of the former Grand Chancellor was “an act of internal governmental administration and consequently falls solely within its competence. The aforementioned appointment is the result of a misunderstanding by the Secretariat of State of the Holy See.”

John Critien: the Maltese knight was made the Order's Grand Chancellor after the sacking of Albrecht von Boeselager
John Critien: the Maltese knight was made the Order's Grand Chancellor after the sacking of Albrecht von Boeselager

Fra Matthew Festing said he had sent a letter of clarification to the Roman Pontiff, “laying out the reasons why the suggestions made by the Secretariat of State were unacceptable”.

The Vatican investigating committee will have five members: Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the former Vatican representative at UN offices in Geneva; Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, an Italian Jesuit canon lawyer; and three members of the Knights of Malta. It was a highly unusual move, the investigatory committee was asked to gather information on the incident and report to the Holy See “in a short time”, but provided no further details.

Controversial sacking

Inside the Order, Fra Festing threatened disciplinary action against any member criticising his expulsion of Von Boeselager. The international Catholic weekly The Tablet said the move had sparked “open warfare” inside the Church’s oldest and most illustrious military order, founded in the 11th century during the crusades and which ruled over Malta between 1530 until their expulsion by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798.

Albrecht von Boeselager
Albrecht von Boeselager

Von Boeselager, who as Grand Chancellor was the number three in the Order, was reported to have told friends he had been accused of not following the Church’s teaching on the distribution of condoms in Africa.

Italian daily Il Messaggero said the scandal concerned von Boeselager’s tenure as health minister and claims that he didn’t prevent the order’s workers in Africa from distributing condoms.

Festing denies this claim, saying Von Boeselager tried to conceal problems concerning his stewardship of the Order’s charitable work.

The Order’s patron and Vatican liaison, the arch-conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke – a critic of Pope Francis – was present when Festing asked Boeselager to resign. Cardinal Burke was demoted from a senior Vatican position by the pope in 2014.

Critics say Festing violated the Order’s constitution by suspending him when Von Boeselager refused to resign. Now Festing has written to his Knights, threatening them with disciplinary action and that “members [who] continue to object, and who do not resign, could be submitted to disciplinary procedures… For the good of the order, I ask you to no longer circulate opinions and concerns of this matter around the world.”

“For a member in obedience like Albrecht von Boeselager to refuse an order under the Promise betrays a disregard for the Order’s spirituality and laws, his Religious Superior and Sovereign, and for the Holy Father’s representative to the Order who was supporting the Grand Master in his decision.”

The Maltese Knight, Fra John Critien, was made Grand Chancellor in Von Boeselager’s stead. Critien was admitted into the Grand Priory in 1983, and in 1993 took perpetual religious vows as Knight of Justice. He was member of the Sovereign Council of the Order between 1994 and 1999 and was elected again in 2014. In July 2000 Critien was appointed Knight Resident at Fort St Angelo, Malta, a position he currently holds.

The Knights operate a global charity in 120 countries, employing some 25,000 doctors and nurses. As a sovereign subject of international law, it has diplomatic relations with 102 countries and observer status at the United Nations. Von Boeselager doubled as foreign minister and interior minister in the Order.

Festing is referred to as “His Most Eminent Highness” and is based at Palazzo Malta in Rome, where his rank is almost equivalent to that of a cardinal. The Knights who lead the order have to be male, of noble birth, and make vows of celibacy, poverty and chastity.