In many ways, says Fra’ Matthew Festing, it’s a relief not to be His Most Eminent Highness the Prince and Grand Master of the Knights of Malta. Overseeing the order’s aid work around the world was rewarding, he says, but “you’re dealing with utterly silly minutiae all the time, rivalries and difficulties and unpleasantnesses.”
So it wasn’t entirely unwelcome when on January 24, after a period of turbulence in the order, Pope Francis asked Festing to resign. “He said, ‘I want to dig out the Order of Malta, and it would be easier for me to do so without you in position.’ So I said, ‘OK, fine.’”
It wasn’t the ending Festing expected when he took office in 2008: the Grand Master, who holds an equivalent rank to a cardinal and a head of state, is elected for life. And as it turns out, Festing may yet return. But for now, he seems content to be back in Northumberland, the county where he grew up. His home, a large stone farmhouse, is hidden among the thickly forested Northumbrian hills, a short drive from the Scottish border. When I arrive, he greets me cordially, if perhaps a little warily. But he soon relaxes into a good humour.
The Order of Malta, he says, is “all sorts of funny things, and that’s one of the reasons it’s rather fascinating”. It is an 800-year-old religious order including about 60 knights, like Festing, who make vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. It is also a global humanitarian organisation with around 100,000 members, medical staff and volunteers. And it is a sovereign entity which maintains diplomatic links with more than 100 countries.
The order also preserves a great deal of aristocratic ceremony, though Festing finds much of it perplexing. “Some people, you know, enjoy all this sort of silly nonsense of dressing up. I personally am bored rigid by dressing up. I absolutely can’t bear it. I spent the entire time when I was in Rome trying to avoid dressing up in some rather silly sort of” – he casts around briefly for the right phrase – “fancy dress. But there are plenty of people who seem to love that.”
That said, he adds semi-convincingly, there’s nothing wrong with dressing up. “It’s a mistake to criticise somebody because they’re not quite the same as you are.”I have to suppress a smile at Festing’s towering poshness. He uses phrases like “all that gubbins” which I have not heard in a long time, pronounces “there” as “they-ah” and “Mass” to rhyme with “farce”, and when describing the range of options for a hot drink, offers me a cup of “good old Mr Tetley’s whatnot”. He speaks rather slowly and ruminatively, sometimes repeating a phrase two or three times, regularly bursting into an infectious belly laugh which goes “huh-huh-huh-huh” – but talking, nonetheless, with directness and purpose. The overall effect is somewhat Chestertonian.
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