Albrecht Boeselager, Grand Chancellor of the Knights of Malta, answers questions during a press conference at the Foreign Press Club in Rome, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017. The Knights of Malta, an ancient Catholic lay order, seeks to chart its future after an extraordinary upheaval involving a condom distribution scandal, a rogue cardinal and Pope Francis. The Knights’ grand chancellor, ousted over the condom scandal, was reinstated after Pope Francis reassured the Knights of Malta about its sovereignty, even as a special papal delegate will work to ensure the “spiritual renewal” of its members. (Credit: AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis.)
In an interview, the Grand Chancellor of the historic Order of Malta, Albrecht von Boeselager, talks about the order’s crisis, the path going forward, the pope’s plan for reform and what is being done to help migrants, refugees and those displaced by war and poverty.
ROME — After what has been a tumultuous few months for the Order of Malta, Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager has opened up about the process of reform and the work they are currently doing to help migrants, refugees and those displaced by war and poverty.
“This crisis has been a bit challenging for me personally,” Boeselager told CNA March 29. While the order itself undergoes an intense spiritual reform after a recent crisis involving the Vatican shook up their leadership, Boeselager said, “I hope spiritual renewal will come out of it for me too.”
However, despite the difficulties the reformation of the order currently presents, the Grand Chancellor stressed the importance of staying on task, and not letting their humanitarian work, specifically with migrants and refugees, be set aside.
Boeselager spoke to CNA during a sit-down interview just over a month after outlining the order’s priorities following his reinstatement as Grand Chancellor and the resignation of their former Grand Master, Matthew Festing, at the request of Pope Francis.
Tensions in the order initially spiked after Boeselager, whose brother Georg von Boeselager was appointed a member of the Board of Superintendents of the IOR on December 15, was ousted from his position as Grand Chancellor in December. That prompted the Holy See to establish an investigative group to look into the circumstances surrounding his dismissal.
A public row between the order and the Holy See ensued, eventually resulting in Festing’s resignation upon the Pope’s request, the reinstatement of Boeselager as Grand Chancellor, and the appointment of a papal delegate to oversee the “spiritual reform” of the order until a new Grand Master is elected during an April 29 convocation.
In his interview with CNA, Boeselager speaks not only of the current state of the reform, but also provides some background on his own history with the order and highlights the important humanitarian work they are doing with migrants and refugees, which forms the backbone of the order’s activities.
Please read below the full interview with the Grand Chancellor:
One of the main priorities of the order that you outlined in your press conference in January was humanitarian work with migrants and refugees. Can you explain some of the initiatives the order is currently doing with migrants and refugees specifically?
The order is very much involved in the care of migrants and refugees in different parts of the world, in countries from where they come, on their way and in countries where they wish to go to. So we are active in the countries surrounding Syria: Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon, to help refugees from Syria and also, if security allows, displaced people within Syria.
We are active in South Sudan, which is in a big crisis at the moment, and in other countries where there are migrants and refugees or problems of displacement of people. Often it’s internally displaced people.
In Asia, in Thailand, we care for Rohingya refugees. In almost all the hotspots for migrants and refugees we are active. Here in Italy, our medical personnel serves on the Italian board to provide medical care to those saved in the Mediterranean, and in Austria, Germany, Hungary, France, we care for refugees that arrive in these countries.
Do you see any specific challenge that might arise with the increased migrant flow into Europe?
In fact at the moment, since about 12 months, the flow has reduced very much, so I don’t see at the moment a crisis of numbers in general. In the mid ’90s 0.5 percent of the population in Europe were refugees or asylum seekers and at the moment it’s 0.4 percent, so it’s less than before. I think in Europe it’s more of a crisis of leadership and communication than a crisis of receiving refugees or migrants at the moment. But that does not mean that we are not faced with a great challenge, because Africa is on the move, one can say, and we certainly need a more long-term policy to deal with the challenges which will certainly be coming.
On this point, I wanted to ask about a meeting you had last week on the situation in Libya. What were some of the major points brought up in that discussion?
The political situation in Libya is at the moment again deteriorating, and human trafficking has become a big business in Libya, and all of the parties in Libya, I think, are aware that this is an additional threat to the stability of the country. So on this issue they agree, but they are helpless to deal with it.
Many migrants are held in detention centers, which recently someone compared to concentration camps. I’ve never been to one of those camps so I cannot judge by myself, but what we hear from the migrants we serve coming from Libya are terrible stories, so everything that can be done to mitigate the situation should be done. Even if the steps forward are very small, we should not give up and that’s why we try now for the third time to convene a meeting with representatives from Libya and from other international organizations to start discussing what can be done to help.
We are at the moment also giving training to the Libyan coast guard. That has been discussed in our ranks for long, because normally we are very hesitant to get directly involved in military or police actions, but giving training to these people who in the future will rescue people from the Mediterranean I think is necessary, and we hope that we can build trust toward the institution in Libya so in the future we may be able to help.
In the communique you guys sent out about the meeting it said some new collaborations were discussed. What would some of these collaborations look like?
We hope that in the not-too-far future security would allow us to go into Libya and to start medical care for migrants in Libya.
Moving to the topic of the spiritual reform the Order is currently undergoing, what would you say is the ultimate goal of this reform in light of everything that has happened?
I think starting with the term ecclesia semper reformanda, we need to start with the person, personal reform and reflection on our way all the time. I think in a bigger time, steps, also institutional reforms, have to be considered. So it’s in this frame of permanent reflection; I think in Lent it’s a good time to reflect on these things. We have to look at the recent crisis, try to access where institutional weaknesses were at the base of the crisis, so it was more personal controversies which caused the crisis, and to see where we can reform the order so that we can go forward with more strength to fulfill our mission.
The Holy Father has put a special focus in his letter on the First Class of the order, so those are the members of the order who have professed the three vows. Unfortunately there are only a few in the order – this is a situation we are living with for more than 200 years, so that’s not new for the order. And to see mainly what could be done or what’s necessary to allow more vocations to the First Class.
So would you say this idea of ecclesia semper reformanda was perhaps what Pope Francis had in mind when he spoke of a specifically “spiritual” reform?
What are some of the current steps being taken as this reform takes place?
The next immediate step is to elect a new successor of Fra Matthew in just four weeks, so in a month. So that’s where we concentrate on at the moment, to prepare this election. But we have already started to collect, just to collect from the order, from the membership, where they see a need for reform. We are not yet evaluating them, we are just assembling them and sorting them, and after the election we will first decide how to structure the process, which steps we take to organize the process and then start discussing issues of reform. This will take some time because we have to do it in great transparency, and transparency means communication and time so that nobody can have the impression that something is cooked in a secret kitchen.
Part of what was also mentioned in the pope’s letter was the need to re-visit specific parts of the order’s constitution. What are the parts that might need to be changed or revised in some way?
It’s a bit early to say exactly what will come out. As the pope mentioned, specifically the First Class, maybe something needs to be changed there, but that’s something especially the First Class members have to reflect on themselves, that’s not our matter. The recent crisis has shown some weaknesses in the check and balances and the governance, so we have to look at governance issues and I’m pretty sure that we will have to do some reforms in this regard. And maybe we have also to look at issues of training and preparation of members in the different classes, to strengthen their background.
Is there a specific outcome that you in your role as Grand Chancellor are hoping to achieve?
In my role as Grand Chancellor I see my duty to help moderate this process and trying to help to bring peace and unity in the order. So I will at the moment help so that all these suggestions will be fairly considered and brought together, but not take a special direction, because I think that’s not my role at the moment
Moving forward, what do you see your role as? Could you possibly be elected Grand Master at the Council Complete of State April 29?
That’s fortunately impossible, because I am not a member of the First Class. The Grand Master has to be a member of the professed with solemn vows and the professed members of the order are the members who constitute the order as a religious order, and the head of the order has to be chosen from among them.
So you’ll continue as you are then?
I think this special feature will not change.
I also wanted to ask you some personal questions about your own background. Can you explain a bit of your own story and how you came into contact with the order?
My father and my mother were members of the order. My father in fact started the initiative to bring sick and handicapped to Lourdes after the Second World War. So these annual pilgrimages of my parents were part of our normal family life because it always took some preparation. With four children it took also a special moment we didn’t like so much when our parents went away for 10 days or so.
Then I remember the first, most spectacular operation of the order in 1956 during the Hungarian crisis, when the order started to rescue refugees coming from Hungary and the Hungarian-Austrian border. Our dining room and the office of my father were the same room, and my father coordinated the interventions from Germany. So I still remember this as a very specific time in my youth, so the order was part of my youth.
After my military service I went for the first time to Lourdes a bit skeptical, like sometimes children are when they are doing something their parents have done all the time. So I was observing a bit, and then (as I was) serving in front of the bath in Lourdes, one of the helpers in the bath came out and said ‘I need help inside’ and just dragged me in without asking. So I came into a cabin where the really severely (sick people) were taken into the bath and there were two Dominican fathers who literally kissed the sore bones of the sick and that really took me. Since then I have gone every year perhaps with one exception.
So you would say this was really the moment that inspired you to make a greater commitment with the Order of Malta?
Yes, absolutely. Lourdes is, I would say, the spiritual heart of the order. If you talk of reform, I think the experience of Lourdes for many members is a real source of renewal. Reform is not a theoretical process. Reform has as a condition personal renewal and reform, and I think Lourdes is the deepest source for us and for me too.
Is there a sense of personal renewal that you are hoping for moving forward?
I think this crisis has been a bit challenging for me personally, and I hope spiritual renewal will come out of it for me, too.