Grand Master R.I.P.

Knights of Malta Grand Master Fra Andrew W.N. Bertie stands next to a painting of himself in more traditional costume at the Knights' headquarters in Rome in this 2002 file photo. The lay Catholic religious organization is the world's oldest chivalric order, existing for 900 years. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)The grand master of the Knights of Malta, Fra Andrew Willoughby Ninian Bertie, died in Rome on Thursday. His passing means that Rome will host a new election — the Knights call it a conclave — sometime soon.

For those who met him, Bertie seemed one of a kind. Like all the Knights’ grand masters, he could trace back at least 200 years a noble bloodline on both sides of his family. But he didn’t lord it over anyone; he spent some of his afternoons helping out at Rome clinics, emptying bedpans and doing other volunteer tasks.

When Bertie was elected in 1988, Greg Erlandson — now publisher of Our Sunday Visitor — covered the event for the CNS Rome bureau. Greg’s lead described Bertie as a “58-year-old blue-blooded celibate judo expert,” which was somehow fitting. The man could not be easily categorized.

In 2002, I did a piece on the Knights and their headquarters in downtown Rome. The building had a prime location on Via Condotti but the décor inside was definitely faded grandeur. I later figured out that instead of spending money to refurbish their own offices, they had financed a state-of-the-art public clinic in the lower part of the building.

Bertie was modest and affable, with a dry wit. I began my interview by asking him how one addresses a grand master, and I’ll never forget his almost apologetic answer: “I suppose the easiest is, ‘Your Highness.'”

At that time, Bertie was annoyed — in the way one might be annoyed by flies at a picnic — by the counterfeit orders that were springing up on the Internet, with names and symbols similar to the Sovereign Military Order of the Knights of Malta. Some were selling memberships and titles.

“They’re an absolute pain,” he said.

The Knights — the real ones — have since upgraded their own U.S. and international Web sites, and they’re a good place to check for news about the upcoming choice of a new grand master.

PHOTO: Knights of Malta Grand Master Fra Andrew W.N. Bertie stands next to a painting of himself in more traditional costume at the Knights’ headquarters in Rome in this 2002 file photo. The lay Catholic religious organization is the world’s oldest chivalric order, existing for 900 years. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

Using ‘Big Brother’ to explain the Jesuit election process

Logo for Jesuit General CongregationFather Carlo Casalone, an Italian delegate to the Jesuit General Congregation, said it was interesting that “Grande Fratello,” the Italian version of the televison program “Big Brother,” had its season premiere Jan. 21, just two days after the Jesuits elected their new superior general, Father Adolfo Nicolas.

The Jesuit election was preceded by four days of prayer and “murmuratio,” private one-on-one conversations in which one voting delegate could ask another voting delegate concrete questions about the practical abilities and spiritual gifts of a third Jesuit. There were no candidates and no campaigning. A Jesuit could not volunteer to speak to others on behalf of his favorite. Each delegate could only ask concrete questions about another or respond to concrete questions about another.

Father Casalone told reporters Friday that the election process “was the opposite of the communication style used by ‘Grande Fratello.’ If you go to the ‘Grande Fratello’ Web site, you can spy on the house 24 hours a day. The private sphere is placed in the public sphere indiscriminately.”

The Jesuit election process, on the other hand, takes a large group of men (217 voting delegates) from around the world and tries to help them identify the one person who can best lead almost 20,000 Jesuits working in universities, parishes, schools, social centers, refugee camps and literally hundreds of other settings.

The Jesuit method, he said, “involves getting to know a person profoundly while maintaining discretion and privacy,” the very thing “Big Brother” and its clones is designed to destroy.

And although the entire General Congregation is surrounded by a bit of that same discretion, the Jesuits recognize that their members around the world, their collaborators and their friends want to know something about what is going on inside. So, Jesuit Fathers Daniel Villanueva and Pierre Belanger have come to the rescue. The two recently revamped the General Congregation Web site and keep it updated, including with comments from those watching from the outside. Father Villanueva, a Spaniard, is finishing his degree at the Weston School of Theology in Massachusetts and Father Belanger is based in Montreal where he directs JESCOM-Canada.

Is McCain pro-life?

Now that Sen. John McCain appears to be this year’s presumptive Republican presidential nominee, one developing storyline is whether he’ll have the support of the pro-life movement this fall. A glimpse into that debate can be found in the pages of the National Catholic Register. A column last week headlined “McCain Sits Down for Life,” which took the senator to task for being “weak” on the issue, led to a strong defense of his record this week by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., whose own race for the White House last fall had been endorsed by numerous pro-life leaders.