19 April 2010

Times Interview with Grand Master SMOM Fra Mathew Festing

From  the Times Online

April 9, 2010

New Grand Master's crusade to explain his ancient Catholic order

TheSovereign Military Order of Malta is now a global aid charity

Richard Owen

Fra Matthew Festing, 60, is the third British Catholic since 1258 to serve as Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta.

When I spoke to him in his residence, a frescoed Renaissance palace near the Spanish Steps in Rome, I asked him why some people have the impression that his order is a secretive, even sinister, global power.

“A complete mystery,”he replies. “I think it comes from 19th-century Romanticism about the Middle Ages, fascination with things Gothic.”  In reality the order traces its origins before the First Crusade in the 11th century, when it protected and cared for pilgrims in Jerusalem and grew into a formidable fighting force. Driven out of the Holy Land by Muslim forces to Rhodes, and then in 1530 to Malta, the order has had its headquarters in Rome since 1834.

Festing is irked by “fraudulent”orders also claiming descent from the Knights of Malta. “It is based on ignorance, a misappreciation of history, reading too much Dan Brown,”he says. “The Knights Templar do not exist. They were suppressed by the papacy in the 14th century.

“There is this crazy desire for dressing up in funny clothes — plus some people think that by aping us they can get their hands on our diplomatic passports. After the loss of Malta our order became very small and was thought to be exclusive because you had to have noble qualifications. I think that is what has given rise to all this nonsense.”

Now a global aid charity, the order remains one of the most powerful Catholic orders: as its head Festing has the rank of cardinal (although not the right to vote for the next Pope).

A former officer in the Grenadier Guards and art expert at Sotheby’s, Festing became a member of the order in 1977 and Grand Prior of England in 1993, leading various humanitarian aid missions to Kosovo, Serbia and Croatia.

The Latin motto of the order translates as “Defence of the faith and assistance to the poor”.

“When they were hoofed out of Malta by Napoleon, the Knights were absolutely devastated, thought it was the end of everything. Actually it was a blessing in disguise, the order could get back to what it was meant to be doing, looking after the poor and the sick.”
Click here to read the rest of the interview.

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