Frà Matthew Festing, 58, an Englishman, becomes the 79th Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta.
Until his final breath, Matthew Festing will carry the title “His Most Eminent Highness”.
Leading Knights said the order is often depicted as secret society of the wealthy elite.
By John Thavis
ROME (CNS) — In a secret and swift election, the Knights of Malta elected an Englishman as their 79th grand master.
Matthew Festing, who had been the Knights’ grand prior of England, was chosen March 11 to replace Andrew W.N. Bertie, who died in February.
Festing, 59, will head the world’s oldest chivalric order, founded in the 11th century. He is only the second Englishman to hold the post of grand master; Bertie was the first.
Known officially as the Sovereign Military Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, the organization was established to care for pilgrims during the Crusades. It lives on today as a lay Catholic religious order and a worldwide humanitarian network.
The order is also a sovereign state, holding observer status at the United Nations and maintaining diplomatic relations with 100 countries.
Festing, an expert in art and history, joined the Knights in 1977 and in 1991 became a “professed” knight, taking religious vows. He is a descendent of Blessed Adrian Fortescue, a Knight of Malta who was martyred in the 16th century.
As head of the English priory, Festing organized humanitarian assistance missions to Lebanon and Kosovo and led a delegation on the order’s annual pilgrimage with the sick to Lourdes.
In a statement issued after his election, the new grand master said he wanted to continue the work of his predecessor, who was credited with expanding the order’s humanitarian services and its diplomatic connections.
Pope Benedict XVI was informed of Festing’s election before it was announced to the world.
The election of a grand master is a major event in Rome. Fifty electors, representing the 12,500 male and female members of the order, filed into the Knights’ villa on Rome’s Aventine Hill, wearing their distinctive red robes decorated with the Maltese cross.
The election, which began with a Mass, had similarities to a papal conclave. The grand master had to be chosen from among the order’s approximately 50 professed Knights.
The voting was done by a secret ballot, after nonvoters were asked to leave. No politicking was allowed, and the new grand master had to receive a “majority plus one” of the total votes — at least 27 out of 50.
At a press conference a few days before the election, leading Knights said the order is often wrongly depicted as an elite, wealthy secret society.
“In many ways, we are misunderstood,” said Winfried Henckel von Donnersmark, a member of the order’s sovereign council. In part, that’s because of the unusual nature of the organization, he said.
The Knights are a religious order, yet the vast majority of members are lay, he pointed out. It is a Catholic organization, but its humanitarian operations are open to people of all faiths. And while it does have some property and patrimony, it has to continually raise funds to support its annual $1 billion in charity works around the world, he said.
Membership in the order is by invitation. Knights and Dames are practicing Catholics and devote part of their time to doing works of mercy.
The professed members are all male, but women form an increasingly important part of the order, officials said.
According to Albrecht von Boeselager, one of the order’s chief officials, the Knights have about 80,000 local volunteers working in 120 countries throughout the world. The organization is welcomed by so many governments — even by the military regime in Myanmar, for example — because it adheres to strict neutrality on political issues, he said.
“We don’t consider ourselves a human rights organization. If making accusations on human rights issues would prevent us from assisting the needy, we would prefer to be silent,” von Boeselager said.
In the Middle East and Asia, however, the Knights’ neutrality has recently been called into question by extremist propaganda, he said.
“We have been accused of being part of a ‘new crusade,’ and even of having mercenaries fighting in Iraq. That is totally untrue, and it endangers our personnel in Muslim countries,” he said.
Noreen Falcone, president of the Knights’ U.S. federal association, said the order’s organizational structure gives it the ability to move quickly into disaster areas. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, for example, the order went to work immediately.
“We’re still there, building homes and helping to give people back their self-respect,” she said.
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British art historian elected grand master of Knights of Malta
ROME (AP) – The Knights of Malta said Tuesday they have elected a British art historian as the new grand master of the lay Roman Catholic order.
Fra Matthew Festing replaces the late Fra Andrew Bertie as head of the 900-year-old charitable order.
The Knights of Malta chose the 59-year-old Festing as their 79th grand master during
a meeting Tuesday in Rome. Festing was sworn in shortly after the election, the order said.
Festing joined the Order of Malta in 1977. He has led humanitarian missions in Lebanon and Kosovo as the Grand Prior of England, a senior position he held for the past 15 years, the statement said.
Officially known as the Sovereign Military Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, the order was founded with a pilgrims’ hospice in 11th century Jerusalem and has the status of an independent state.
The order has 12,500 members and operates in 120 countries, providing medical and social services, particularly in war zones and impoverished areas. It maintains diplomatic relations with 100 nations.
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Frà Matthew Festing Elected Grand Master
Frà Matthew Festing, 58, an Englishman, becomes the 79th Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, elected this morning by the Council Complete of State (the Order’s electoral body). In accepting the role, the new Grand Master swore his Oath before the Cardinal Patronus of the Order, Cardinal Pio Laghi, and the electoral body. He succeeds Frà Andrew Bertie, 78th Grand Master (1988-2008), who died on 7 February.
The new Grand Master affirms his resolve to continue the great work carried out by his predecessor. Frà Matthew comes with a wide range of experience in Order affairs. He has been the Grand Prior of England since the Priory’s re-establishment in 1993, restored after an abeyance of 450 years. In this capacity, he has led missions of humanitarian aid to Kosovo, Serbia and Croatia after the recent disturbances in those countries, and with a large delegation from Britain he attends the Order’s annual pilgrimage to Lourdes with handicapped pilgrims.
Educated at Ampleforth and St. John’s College Cambridge, where he read history, Frà Matthew, an art expert, has for most of his professional life worked at an international art auction house. As a child he lived in Egypt and Singapore, where his father, Field Marshal Sir Francis Festing, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, had earlier postings. His mother was a member of the recusant Riddells of Swinburne Castle who suffered for their faith in penal times. He is also descended from Sir Adrian Fortescue, a knight of Malta, who was martyred in 1539.
Frà Matthew served in the Grenadier Guards and holds the rank of colonel in the Territorial Army. He was appointed OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) by the Queen and has served as her Deputy Lieutenant in the county of Northumberland for a number of years.
In 1977 Frà Matthew became a member of the Order of Malta, taking solemn religious vows in 1991.
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Sotheby’s Auctioneer Elected Grand Master of the Knights of Malta
Until his final breath, Matthew Festing will carry the title “His Most Eminent Highness.”
ROME—Sotheby’s auctioneer Matthew Festing has been elected as the 79th Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, a Roman Catholic chivalric order established in the 11th century during the Crusades, the Times (London) reports. The secret-ballot election took place March 11 at a papal-style conclave in the order’s headquarters on the Aventine Hill in Rome.
The Knights, who are also known as the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, carry out charitable and medical operations in 120 countries. The organization has recently been attempting to dispel rumors that it is rich and secretive (see the Da Vinci Code), and the election of Festing, who is seen as a reformer, is a sign that they plan to be more open and to better publicize their charitable acts.
Festing, a descendant of Sir Adrian Fortescue, a Knight of Malta martyred in 1539, was admitted to the order in 1977. In 1988 he became a Knight of Justice, in 1991 he took perpetual vows, and he has recently served as Grand Prior of the British Association, Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of Malta (BASMOM). Festing’s father was also a member of the order, and his brother Andrew Festing is president of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and a favorite of the British royal family.
Grand Masters, like Popes, are elected for life. Until his final breath, Matthew Festing will carry the title “His Most Eminent Highness.”