Papal delegate orders former Knights of Malta leader not to attend successor's election

Rome — The special delegate appointed to be Pope Francis' spokesman to the Knights of Malta has reportedly ordered the group's former leader not to participate in the election of his successor, which will be held in Rome at the end of the month.

Archbishop Angelo Becciu, who was appointed to his role in February following weeks of tension between the Vatican and the historic chivalric order, told former Grand Master Matthew Festing that his presence would "reopen wounds ... and would prevent the event from taking place in an atmosphere of peace."

"I ask you ... not to be present," Becciu wrote to Festing, according to copies of the letter published Tuesday by several outlets. "I ask you this as an act of obedience ... for the good of the Order of Malta."

Festing, a Briton, resigned as the head of the order Jan. 25, following a meeting with Francis at the Vatican. The election of his successor is take place April 29.

Tensions between the Vatican and the order mounted in late December after Festing fired the order's Grand Chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager.

The firing sparked a two-month dispute, with Francis creating a commission to investigate the move and Festing originally pledging non-cooperation with that commission, saying it did not respect his group's historic status as a sovereign entity.

Von Boeselager was reinstated in his role following Festing's resignation.

Festing had indicated in recent days that he intended to come to Rome for the election of his successor. In an interview with the UK's Catholic Herald, the former grand master said he would even consider accepting election to his former role but would not mount a campaign for it.

U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke remains the Knights of Malta's spiritual patron, but the scope of his role is uncertain following Becciu's appointment. In the Feb. 4 announcement of the special delegate, the Vatican said Becciu would be Francis' "exclusive spokesman" to the order.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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