Fra’ Matthew Festing, the Order of Malta’s 79th Grand Master, addresses the diplomatic corps in January 2015. | British Association of the Order of Malta.
Fra’ Matthew Festing, the former Grand Master of the Order of Malta, died on Friday at the age of 71.
Festing served as the 79th Grand Master of the lay religious order, founded in Jerusalem in the 11th century, from 2008 to his resignation in 2017.
The order’s Grand Magistry said that Festing felt ill after attending a solemn profession of religious vows at St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta, on Nov. 4. He was admitted to hospital and died on Nov. 12.
Robert Matthew Festing was born on Nov. 30, 1949, in Tarset, northern England, the youngest son of Field Marshal Sir Francis Festing, a senior British Army officer.
He studied at Ampleforth College, a Catholic boarding school in North Yorkshire, and St John’s College, Cambridge, where he read history.
He served in the Grenadier Guards, an infantry regiment of the British Army, and held the rank of colonel in the Territorial Army, the army’s reserve force.
An art expert, he dedicated much of his professional life to working as a consultant for Sotheby’s auction house.
In 1977, he became a member of the Order of Malta, a chivalric order originally founded to provide protection and medical care to Holy Land pilgrims. He took solemn religious vows in 1991, becoming a professed knight of the order.
In 1993, Fra’ Andrew Bertie, the order’s Grand Master, reestablished the post of Grand Prior of England, which had fallen into abeyance in 1806. Festing took up the role, serving in the position until 2008.
Following the breakup of Yugoslavia, he led aid missions to Kosovo, Serbia, and Croatia. As part of a project to help Balkan women to support their families, he toured northern England searching for curlers and brushes to help them establish hair salons.
He was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II in 1998.
Festing was elected as the order’s 79th Grand Master, on March 11, 2008, taking on responsibility for overseeing the organization’s global humanitarian work and diplomatic relations with more than 100 states.
He told the Financial Times in 2016 that the role consisted of “going around thanking people, encouraging people and trying to show an interest in what they are doing.”
His lifetime appointment ended abruptly in 2017, when Pope Francis asked him to resign following an internal dispute within the order centred on the dismissal of Albrecht von Boeselager, the Knights’ Grand Chancellor, in December 2016.
Among the reported reasons for the move was that under Boeselager’s watch, the order’s charitable branch was involved inadvertently in distributing condoms in Burma to prevent the spread of HIV. But an official told CNA at the time that the rupture was “more complex.”
Shortly after Boeselager’s departure, Pope Francis formed a group to investigate the matter. The Knights defended the decision as “an internal act of governance,” suggesting that the investigative group was legally “irrelevant” given the order’s sovereign status.
The Vatican announced that Festing had “resigned from the office of Grand Master” following a meeting with the pope on Jan. 24, 2017.
It said that the pope had accepted the resignation while “expressing appreciation and gratitude to Fra’ Festing for his loyalty and devotion to the Successor of Peter, and his willingness to serve humbly the good of the order and the Church.”
The pope temporarily entrusted the order’s governance to the Grand Commander, Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein, pending the appointment of a papal delegate.
Boeselager was reinstated and the pope named the then Archbishop Angelo Becciu as his delegate, asking him to work alongside Rumerstein for reconciliation within the order and the “spiritual renovation” of its constitution.
Shortly after his resignation, Festing said that it was in some respects a relief to no longer be Grand Master, a role that was rewarding but required him to deal with “utterly silly minutiae all the time, rivalries and difficulties and unpleasantnesses.”
Days before Festing’s death, Pope Francis gave sweeping new powers to Cardinal Silvano Maria Tomasi, his current special delegate to the order, to pursue reform.
A Nov. 12 statement by the British Association of the Order of Malta said that Festing attended the order’s international annual pilgrimages to Lourdes, southwestern France, every year of his adult life and was a familiar figure assisting pilgrims.
“In his time as Grand Master, he visited many countries where the Order of Malta carries out its charitable works and oversaw many international conferences and meetings of the order, to encourage and support their worldwide projects,” it said.
“In all his endeavours, he never lost sight of the spiritual motivation of the order and its mission.”