It’s not every day that one meets a prince. But Fra’ Matthew Festing, 79th Prince and Grand Master of the Order of Malta, wears it lightly. Fra’ Matthew’s full title is: His Most Eminent Highness Fra’ Matthew Festing, Prince and Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, Most Humble Guardian of the Poor of Jesus Christ.
And it is the mission of the order to defend and assist the poor that is central to the work of the organisation in every corner of the world. The Order of Malta is the oldest surviving order of chivalry. It is also one of the largest humanitarian relief organisations in the world operating in more than 120 countries. Its programmes include medical and social assistance, disaster relief, emergency services and first aid corps, help for the elderly, people living with disabilities and children in need and the provision of first aid training, and support for refugees and internally displaced persons regardless of race, origin or religion.
The Order of Malta has been operating with this impartial perspective for over 900 years, caring for people of all beliefs and none.
“The mission of the Order is as it has always been. It hasn’t really changed in 900 years, the first knights who went to Jerusalem with the First Crusade arrived as soldiers, but then they were inspired to look after the poor and the sick. That’s what we’ve been doing ever since, and it’s what we’ll continue to do,” Fra’ Matthew insists.
But, while the work fundamentally remains the same, the circumstances have changed beyond recognition. “Our challenges are global now,” Fra’ Matthew (64) admits. “We get absolutely continuous requests for help from every part of the world and we have to do our best to try and respond to the needs that are there, but resources are not limitless”.
The Order relies on the involvement of its 13,500 members, as well as approximately 80,000 trained volunteers and 25,000 employees, the majority of whom are medical personnel.
Given its historic origins in defending and caring for pilgrims to the Holy Places in the Holy Land, the Order of Malta has a particular concern for the victims of conflict and instability in the Middle East.
As we meet, there is little sign of a ceasefire in the current conflict between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas in Gaza. At the same time, while media attention has waned, the bloody civil war in Syria has killed over 200,000 people and the Islamist group Isis is sweeping through Iraq ethnically cleansing Christians as they go.
Within the Palestinian West Bank, one of the Order’s biggest projects is the Holy Family Hospital providing the population of Bethlehem and its surrounding area with an indispensable service, offering the only possible place for women of the region to give birth under good medical conditions.
Since 1990 more than 60,000 babies have been born in the hospital. Its primary objective is to offer high-quality maternity care to all women, regardless of race, religion, culture or social condition.
In Syria, the Order is involved in running camps and facilities for people internally-displaced by the civil war. In other parts of the region, where the effects of the war are being felt, the order is caring for Syrian refugees in both Turkey and Lebanon.
Is Fra’ Matthew hopeful about long-term peace in the Middle East? “Well, it never seems to get any better, that’s for sure,” he says, before admitting that he is “very pessimistic”.
“They [Jews and Arabs] have not only been enemies since 1948, they’ve been enemies for almost 2,000 years. It’s a part of the world where people are at each other’s throats, and it all boils down to a culture of retribution where each side engages in a tit-for-tat response. I can’t see how that’s ever going to be healed,” he says with obvious anxiety.
The Order of Malta is treated as a sovereign entity in international law and, as such, Fra’ Matthew is a Head of State and sends ambassadors to over 100 countries and the United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU). Fra’ Matthew insists that this is “vital in helping us carry out our work. It means that our ambassador can talk directly to the relevant ministries and government departments.” This diplomatic relationship allows the Order to work more freely, for example, allowing aid to go through diplomatic channels rather than facing the usual red tape associated with customs clearance.
While the order is engaged in many troubled parts of the world, it is to Africa where Fra’ Matthew looks. “The place where there are continuing and underlying problems is the central belt of Africa.
“A lot of the time, the media is not paying attention because the journalists have rushed off to the next crisis, but, really, Africa is the part of the world where the most dreadful suffering is taking place,” Fra’ Matthew says.
One gets the distinct impression from Fra’ Matthew that the part of his title he takes most seriously is that of ‘Most Humble Guardian of the Poor of Jesus Christ’. In that regard, he is ebullient about the ministry of Pope Francis. “Whenever you talk to him, his great emphasis is always on the poor, the vulnerable, the dispossessed, those people that no-one cares about.
“This comes naturally to someone from South America, and in the Order we very much see Pope Francis’ emphasis on the poor as a blessing.”