VATICAN CITY (AP) — The soap opera at the ancient Knights of Malta religious order took on new drama Wednesday on the eve of the election of a new leader.
For starters, Pope Francis invited more than a dozen senior knights to a pre-vote huddle Wednesday evening at the Vatican hotel where he lives. While the topic wasn't announced, the meeting comes ahead of Saturday's election to replace Fra' Matthew Festing, whom Francis effectively ousted as grand master in January after the two sparred publicly.
Even more surprising was that Festing returned to Rome on Wednesday from Britain to cast his ballot, in defiance of the pope's wishes.
In an April 15 letter, Francis' delegate running the order, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, had specifically told Festing to stay away from Rome, saying his presence at the election "would reopen wounds and prevent the event from taking place in an atmosphere of peace and harmony."
The developments added new drama to the Knights of Malta saga, which erupted in December after Festing ordered his foreign minister, Albrecht von Boeselager, to resign. Boeselager's stated crime was that condoms had been distributed by the Knights of Malta's humanitarian branch in Myanmar under his watch. Church teaching forbids artificial contraception.
The Vatican got involved after Boeselager complained, launching what became a very public spat between Festing and Francis that touched on the order's sovereign status. The spat, though, also laid bare the conservative criticism of Francis, given that Festing had been backed in his battle by Cardinal Raymond Burke, a leading critic of the pope.
Francis asked him to resign, ordered Boeselager to be reinstated and appointed Becciu as his envoy to help run the order until a new grand master could be elected.
That process is expected to reach a milestone on Saturday, though the order's leadership has recommended that the 56 knights eligible to cast ballots elect a temporary "lieutenant" to run the order for one year, rather than the life term of a grand master. That will give the order time to reform its constitutions to broaden the pool of eligible future grand masters. Currently, the rules limit the pool to "professed knights" — who take religious vows of poverty, obedience and chastity — who hail from noble lineage.
Currently, 12 men fit the bill, but many of them are in their 80s.
The Knights of Malta is an ancient lay Catholic religious order that runs hospitals and clinics around the world. It counts 3,500 members and 100,000 staff and volunteers who lend first aid in war zones, natural disasters and conflict areas; members also make regular pilgrimages bringing the sick to Catholic shrines.