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.
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)