FRA’ MATTHEW FESTING, the Grand Prior of England, was today elected Prince and Grand Master of the Order of Malta. The new grand master was chosen in a secret ballot by the Complete Council of State. After receiving the approval of the Pope, His Most Eminent Highness swore the Oath before the council and the Cardinal Patronus of the Order, Cardinal Pio Laghi. Fifty-eight years old, Fra’ Matthew was, up to this point, an art expert for the auction house Sotheby’s. The Prince is the son of Field Marshal Sir Francis Festing who, as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was the effective head of the British Army. Sir Francis converted to Catholicism and married a member of the Riddells of Swinburne Castle, a prominent recusant family. Through his mother, Fra’ Matthew is descended from the Blessed Sir Adrian Fortescue, an English Knight of Malta who was martyred for the Faith in 1539. The grand master’s brother Andrew Festing, RP is a noted portraitist.
As a child, Fra’ Matthew lived in Egypt and Singapore where his father held army postings, and was educated at Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire and St. John’s College, Cambridge. Passing out from Sandhurst, he was commissioned an officer in the Grenadier Guards, Britain’s most senior infantry regiment. (The Coldstream Guards are actually older, but their seniority was reduced for backing Cromwell in the Civil War). Currently holding the rank of Colonel in the Territorial Army, Fra’ Matthew served the Queen as Deputy Lieutenant for Northumberland for many years, and was appointed OBE.
“The new Grand Master affirms his resolve to continue the great work carried out by his predecessor,” an official statement from the Order of Malta said, noting Fra’ Matthew’s “wide range of experience in Order affairs”. Having joined the Order of Malta in 1977, Fra’ Matthew took solemn vows in 1991 and was appointed Grand Prior of England in 1993, when the Grand Priory was resurrected after 450 years in abeyance. In that post he led humanitarian missions to Kosovo, central Serbia, and Croatia, and has attended the annual British pilgrimage to Lourdes with the handicapped and the disabled. “As well as his passion for the decorative arts,” the official announcement continued, “and for history, for which his encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of the Order is legendary, as is his very British sense of humour, Fra’ Matthew spends any free time possible in his beloved Northumberland countryside.”
This election is a most welcome one, and I would go so far as to say the councillors have chosen very wisely. It is an immense honour for we English-speaking Catholics that yet another Grand Master has been chosen from our ranks. But of course Fra’ Matthew was not chosen for being an Anglophone but rather for being Matthew Festing. Like Pope Benedict, he is a friend of the old rite of the Mass, and he was among the many prominent British Catholics (whose number included James MacMillan, Michael Ancram, Damian Thompson, Jamie Bogle, and others) who signed the ‘Appeal from the British Isles’ to Pope Benedict imploring a liberalization of the restrictions on the Tridentine rite (duly granted by the Holy Father in his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum of July 2007).
While certainly an ardent respecter of tradition, Fra’ Matthew is by no means a stuffy man but rather, as the Order’s official statement noted, is known for his sense of humour. On the only occasion on which I met Fra’ Matthew, I introduced him to Mrs. Burke (then Fraulein Hesser). Upon discovering that Abby hailed from the great state of California, Fra’ Matthew regaled us with his memories of driving from Denver all the way to the Pacific coast of California. Upon reaching the great ocean (the Grand Prior very enthusiastically informed us), he took off his shoes, rolled up his trousers and went straight in!
The Order of Malta has been remarkable in that it has had no qualms about modernization while at the same time unabashedly keeping to its ancient traditions. In this, it is a shining beacon in a world which too often and too easily disregards the time-tested ways of our ancestors. The very prompt election of Fra’ Matthew shows that the Order is of a firm mind and on a sound footing. We have no doubt that Fra’ Matthew will continue the great centuries-long tradition of the Order of Malta: to defend the Faith, to serve the Poor.
Prince and Grand Master
of the Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of St. John
of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta
Most Humble Guardian of the Poor of Jesus Christ
Category: Order of Malta