Sunday, 5 December 2021




A regular worshipper in the Conventual Church has sent us this photograph, which, despite its outward similarity to a tourist snap, is in fact the record of an historic moment in the life our our Country, Our Church and our Order.

The photograph was taken from Lambeth Bridge shortly after the Holy Father had passed across, cheered by our photographer, on Friday 17th September 2010, on his way from visiting the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace to the Palace of Westminster, to address Parliament and the Nation.

At the very time this picture was taken, the Holy Father was speaking in Westminster Hall. He was standing on the spot on which St Thomas More was condemned to martyrdom in 1535, the first time since the Reformation that the Members of both houses of Parliament have been addressed as a formal act of State by a Bishop of the Catholic Church. The first time ever by the Roman Pontiff. 

Present near the front of the Hall sat The Grand Prior of England, Fra' Fredrik-Crichton Stuart, the first time that the Grand Prior has been present in Parliament since Sir Thomas Thresham in 1559, before which time the Priors sat ex officio among the barons.  See the drawing at the bottom of this article.

We post here below the text of the Address delivered by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI on this glorious occasion in the life of the Realm.  His Holiness is boldly aware of the significance of this history both for British Catholics and for all peoples of these Isles.

The latter part of the Holy Father's address has much of relevance to the daily work today of the Order of Malta. These words are addressed to us too, let us have the courage to heed them.

Mr Speaker,
Thank you for your words of welcome on behalf of this distinguished gathering. As I address you, I am conscious of the privilege afforded me to speak to the British people and their representatives in Westminster Hall, a building of unique significance in the civil and political history of the people of these islands. Allow me also to express my esteem for the Parliament which has existed on this site for centuries and which has had such a profound influence on the development of participative government among the nations, especially in the Commonwealth and the English-speaking world at large. Your common law tradition serves as the basis of legal systems in many parts of the world, and your particular vision of the respective rights and duties of the state and the individual, and of the separation of powers, remains an inspiration to many across the globe.
As I speak to you in this historic setting, I think of the countless men and women down the centuries who have played their part in the momentous events that have taken place within these walls and have shaped the lives of many generations of Britons, and others besides. In particular, I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose "good servant" he was, because he chose to serve God first. The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God, allows me the opportunity to reflect with you briefly on the proper place of religious belief within the political process.
This country's Parliamentary tradition owes much to the national instinct for moderation, to the desire to achieve a genuine balance between the legitimate claims of government and the rights of those subject to it. While decisive steps have been taken at several points in your history to place limits on the exercise of power, the nation's political institutions have been able to evolve with a remarkable degree of stability. In the process, Britain has emerged as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual's rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law. While couched in different language, Catholic social teaching has much in common with this approach, in its overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and in its emphasis on the duty of civil authority to foster the common good.
And yet the fundamental questions at stake in Thomas More's trial continue to present themselves in ever-changing terms as new social conditions emerge. Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask anew: what are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident - herein lies the real challenge for democracy.
The inadequacy of pragmatic, short-term solutions to complex social and ethical problems has been illustrated all too clearly by the recent global financial crisis. There is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world. Just as "every economic decision has a moral consequence" (Caritas in Veritate, 37), so too in the political field, the ethical dimension of policy has far-reaching consequences that no government can afford to ignore. A positive illustration of this is found in one of the British Parliament's particularly notable achievements – the abolition of the slave trade. The campaign that led to this landmark legislation was built upon firm ethical principles, rooted in the natural law, and it has made a contribution to civilization of which this nation may be justly proud.
The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This "corrective" role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.
Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square. I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.
Your readiness to do so is already implied in the unprecedented invitation extended to me today. And it finds expression in the fields of concern in which your Government has been engaged with the Holy See. In the area of peace, there have been exchanges regarding the elaboration of an international arms trade treaty; regarding human rights, the Holy See and the United Kingdom have welcomed the spread of democracy, especially in the last sixty-five years; in the field of development, there has been collaboration on debt relief, fair trade and financing for development, particularly through the International Finance Facility, the International Immunization Bond, and the Advanced Market Commitment. The Holy See also looks forward to exploring with the United Kingdom new ways to promote environmental responsibility, to the benefit of all.
I also note that the present Government has committed the United Kingdom to devoting 0.7% of national income to development aid by 2013. In recent years it has been encouraging to witness the positive signs of a worldwide growth in solidarity towards the poor. But to turn this solidarity into effective action calls for fresh thinking that will improve life conditions in many important areas, such as food production, clean water, job creation, education, support to families, especially migrants, and basic healthcare.
Where human lives are concerned, time is always short: yet the world has witnessed the vast resources that governments can draw upon to rescue financial institutions deemed "too big to fail". Surely the integral human development of the world's peoples is no less important: here is an enterprise, worthy of the world's attention, that is truly "too big to fail".
This overview of recent cooperation between the United Kingdom and the Holy See illustrates well how much progress has been made, in the years that have passed since the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations, in promoting throughout the world the many core values that we share. I hope and pray that this relationship will continue to bear fruit, and that it will be mirrored in a growing acceptance of the need for dialogue and respect at every level of society between the world of reason and the world of faith. I am convinced that, within this country too, there are many areas in which the Church and the public authorities can work together for the good of citizens, in harmony with Britain's long-standing tradition. For such cooperation to be possible, religious bodies – including institutions linked to the Catholic Church – need to be free to act in accordance with their own principles and specific convictions based upon the faith and the official teaching of the Church. In this way, such basic rights as religious freedom, freedom of conscience and freedom of association are guaranteed. The angels looking down on us from the magnificent ceiling of this ancient Hall remind us of the long tradition from which British Parliamentary democracy has evolved. They remind us that God is constantly watching over us to guide and protect us. And they summon us to acknowledge the vital contribution that religious belief has made and can continue to make to the life of the nation.
Mr Speaker, I thank you once again for this opportunity briefly to address this distinguished audience. Let me assure you and the Lord Speaker of my continued good wishes and prayers for you and for the fruitful work of both Houses of this ancient Parliament. Thank you and God bless you all!
The Parliament of King Edward I, ca. 1300. The King sits on the throne attended by both Houses of Parliament. He is flanked by the King of Scots, the Prince of Wales, and the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. The single figure in black sitting to the right of the barons on the cross-benches in the second row from the bottom of this drawing is the Grand Prior of England of the Knights Hospitaller.  He is William de Tottenham, who was the first Grand Prior to be summoned to the House of Lords.

RIP Fra' Matthew Festing (1949-2021) - Catholic Herald

RIP Fra' Matthew Festing (1949-2021) - Catholic Herald

RIP Fra' Matthew Festing (1949-2021)

On Friday, the Grand Magistry of the Order of Malta announced the death of Fra' Matthew Festing, the 79th Grand Master of the Sovereign Order of Malta, who died in Malta, aged 71.

Elected in March 2008, the charismatic Amplefordian served as Grand Master until January 2017 after being forced to resign by the Vatican in controversial circumstances after a well-publicised power struggle with the German Chancellor of the Order of Malta. The dispute led to reforms within the ancient hospitaller order – dating back to the 11th century – that, until recently, enjoyed sovereignty independent of the Vatican. 

Fra' Matthew Festing died in Malta, the Order's sovereign home from 1530 to 1798, where on 4th November he attended the solemn profession of religious vows of Fra' Francis Vassallo in St John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta. According to a report published by the Grand Magistry, a few hours later he felt ill and was taken to hospital where his condition quickly appeared severe.

Robert Matthew Festing was born in Northumberland, England, in 1949. He read history at Cambridge and served in the Grenadier Guards and held the rank of colonel in the Territorial Army. He became a Knight of the Order in 1977. He said that he was 'profoundly moved ' by his experience of helping the sick with the Order in Lourdes, where he first went on pilgrimage in 1974.

He became a novice Knight of Justice – a novitiate to become a 'religious' (or 'professed knight') of the Order – in 1986. He duly became a professed Knight of Justice in 1991 in which he took the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. As a Knight of Justice, he was a member of the tightly knit traditional community that Pope Benedict XVI described as lying at 'the heart of the Order.' His resignation caused further debate over the role of these vowed religious knights, with reforms proposed that would limit their authority and change the Order in ways that concern traditionalist members. This debate over reforms continues today.

Festing was an art expert. For most of his professional life he worked at an international art auction house. He was appointed OBE (Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II and served as one of her Deputy Lieutenants in the county of Northumberland.

Between 1993 and 2008, he became the Grand Prior of England, the first holder of that role for 450 years. In this capacity, he led humanitarian aid missions to Kosovo, Serbia and Croatia. He was a descendant of Sir Adrian Fortescue, a knight of Malta, who was martyred in 1539. He had a brave service record as a soldier, having served in the Grenadier Guards in Northern Ireland and Belize in the early 1970s.

But it was in the Kosovo War in the late 1990s where he showed his charismatic leadership qualities. As the Balkans descended into violence and civil war, with historic tensions opening up old wounds, Festing went into action.

The Balkans showed Festing at his best. Whilst the UN stood on watching, Fra' Matthew decided to act independently in his capacity as Grand Prior of England. With typical sangfroid, he borrowed a battered old truck from Shore Porters in Aberdeen, piled it with food and medical supplies, picked up a few volunteers and they simply drove to the Balkans from Northumberland. He made multiple aid missions. 

According to Jack Straker, Festing's former aide-de-camp, Matthew and his friends would drive through Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia in their old lorry, impervious to the war zone danger and 'giving out aid and dodging shrapnel as they went along'. In 1998, Fra' Andrew Bertie recognised Festing's bravery by awarding him the Grand Cross of Justice, one of the highest ranks in the Order. The rank was created within the Order to honour Fra' Matthew. 

Festing was elected Prince and 79th Grand Master on 11 March 2008. He resigned the position of Grand Master on 28 January 2017. The controversial circumstances around his resignation after 11 years of service are complex and continue to have ramifications today within the Order regarding the role of 'professed knights' and proposed reforms that some traditionalists believe could undermine the Order's historic identity as a 'religious order'.

Festing became at odds with the more progressive German faction with many feeling he had been treated unjustly by the Vatican for political reasons. At the bottom of the dispute was a clash (traditionalist v progressive) over the role of the ancient order in the modern world. Should it remain an ancient chivalrous hospitaller order, devoted to helping the infirm, the poor and the sick, or should it become a more NGO-style professionalised international humanitarian organisation?

The Catholic world struggled to understand exactly what lay at the core of the clash between Baron Albrecht von Boeselager, the German Grand Chancellor of the Order and the British head of the church's oldest surviving chivalric military order. One thing is certain, Festing was an 'old-school' traditionalist – a romantic English Catholic – who had devoted himself to a life of service and helping others.

According to Straker, Festing was deeply saddened by the unwarranted personal attacks on him at the time. This led to Cardinal Burke, the then Cardinal Patron of the Order of Malta, ordering the dismissal of von Boeselager, following the revelation that certain foreign aid programmes overseen bythe German knight had been distributing contraceptives in violation of Catholic teaching.

Then Pope Francis intervened, and Festing – after decades of selfless and honourable Catholic service – was forced out to much media fanfare. Yet, as was noted by Festing's many friends, it was precisely Fra Matthew's 'integrity' and 'personal devotion to helping others' that got him elected as Grand Master, being elected almost unanimously in 2008 by members of the Order from around the world.

During his decade at the helm of the Order – he succeeded Fra Andrew Bertie, another British Grand Master – Festing travelled to the five continents to 'strengthen diplomatic relations with countries and to see the Order's works around the world at first hand'. He led dozens of pilgrimages to Lourdes and other Marian shrines, taking personal care of disabled pilgrims.

He was made an honorary citizen of Rapallo, Italy (2008); Pompeii, Italy (2014) and Birgu, Malta (2015). He has received honorary degrees in Humane Letters, Catholic University of America (2009); Doctorate of Divinity, Northumbria University (2010); Doctor of Public Service, John Cabot University (2014); Religious and Human Science, Santa Maria la Antigua Catholic University (2016).

The date of Fra Matthew's funeral is yet to be announced