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The Maltese Franciscans
and the Holy Land

by George Aquilina ofm

The Maltese islands were early blessed by the Franciscan presence and we have no doubt that they were in the forefront to instil in our forefathers the love towards the holy sites of the Holy Land. Furthermore, Malta, geographically situated in the vicinity of Sicily, and with the friars depending directly on the Sicilian province had certainly came to know of the interest of the Church for the Holy Land with the subsequent crusades.

The Maltese historians today are pointing out to the difficult economic situation that our forefathers of the XV century had to bear together with the exorbitant taxes imposed by the feudal rulers. In 1492 the Maltese population was not able to collect thirty thousand silver florins to buy back their country from the hands of Gonsalvo Monroi. Nonetheless a few years afterwards Rome looked at the Maltese for their generous help and support as it had done with other stronger and bigger nations.

Pope Eugene IV with his brief Dum universalis of 13th January 1445 and Cum per alias of 1st February of the same year, chose two Franciscans from Sicily to preach and collect money for the needs of the Holy Land and the Crusade in Sicily, Malta and Lipari. These were Fr. Seraphim from Sicily, vicar of the Custody of the Holy Land and Fr. Lawrence from Palermo, provincial vicar of Palermo.

We can be certain that this was not a one time event. We know that the Franciscans, who already had been entrusted with the upkeep of the Mission of the Holy Land, visited Malta frequently. We know also that there were Maltese citizens who had joined the Franciscans in Sicily, as was the case of Marianus Hakim. We are certain also that our forefathers wanted that these Franciscans have a friary in Malta so much so that in 1482 they petitioned Pope Sixtus IV, a Franciscan himself. The said Pope, through the Bull Pia Fidelium of November 6th of the same year conceded this permission. To fulfil their dream our forefathers had to wait until they had sufficient financial resources for the new building. For this reason Pope Alexander VI, with his Bull Apostolicae Servitutis of January 27th 1494 reconfirmed this permission.

In this way we know that since the beginning of the XVI century the Maltese were already contributing for this mission through missionaries and even financial aid.

During the XVII century the Franciscans of the Holy Land were left almost alone to fulfil their mission and defend the rights of the Latin Church in the Holy Land. The Franciscan Order, spread throughout the world, had only one way to fulfil this mission: organise itself in a way as to be able to support this mission. This was the beginning of what became known as the Commissariats of the Holy Land were friars were to be entrusted to instil in the Christian world an awareness about the Holy Land and at the same time collect any financial help that might be needed.

On October 28th 1640 the Minister General of the Order, Fr. Benjamin from Genoa, decreed that in all the Provinces of the Order there should be a friar who would care for the Holy Land. In a short while the Commissariats were set up in various parts of Europe and in maritime centres like Genoa, Livorno, Cagliari, Naples, Palermo, Venice and Malta small hospices were set up in order to be able to give hospitality to friars coming or going to the Holy Land.

The Commissariat of Malta was one of those in the forefront for its importance. Not only because of the strategic position of the island of Malta but also because of the Order of the Knights of St. John who were always ready to offer any assistance. In fact the Commissariat of Malta existed prior to the decree of the Minister General of 1640 so much so that a wing of the Valletta Friary was already reserved for the Commissariat prior to 1636.

The Congregation De Propaganda Fide, which was established in 1662, showed keen interest in the mission of the Holy Land. In Malta the friars frequently insisted with the Inquisition to defend the interests of the Holy Land with all possible means. Certainly even trouble sometimes loomed overhead. Suffice to mention the incidents provoked by the Maltese seamen who used to attack the Turkish galleys or steal and invade the Turkish shores. When things like this happened the friars living in the Holy Land used to be treated badly by their Turkish rulers. Once a Turkish galley was attacked in the vicinity of Jaffa and they even fired on it. The authorities of Jerusalem immediately arrested all the friars and condemned them to death unless a conspicuous sum of money was paid for their ransom. A sum which in fact was paid with great sacrifices. Many a time even Rome asked the Great Master of the Order to prevent these incursions because they were causing a lot of suffering, imprisonment and persecution to the Franciscans in the Holy Land besides the loss of large sums of money.

The Commissariat of the Holy Land in Malta was the most important after that of Venice and Palermo. The service rendered was not only aimed at the Holy Land but also to all other countries of the East and those on the shores of North Africa, like Libya, Algiers, Morocco and Tunisia. Witness of this is the nomination of Fr. Archangel Zammit who in 1637 was chosen as procurator for the Mission of Ethiopia and the numerous names of friars written in the administration books of the friaries in Malta. These missionaries used to stop over in Malta and their stay could even be a long one especially if there was any epidemic or else during the winter season or had to wait for the arrival of a ship which would eventually sail for their destination. For this reason the Commissariat of Malta had to be enlarged in 1721 in order to have more space for the hospitality of the missionaries.

The Commissariat of Malta served also as a go between to free missionaries captured by Moslem sailors. They even paid for the ransom of Turkish slaves kept in Malta in order to exchange them for the freedom of the friars.

The remaining money used to be sent to Jerusalem. The collections for the Holy Land were done in all parishes of Malta and Gozo where the friar used to go from parish to parish, Sunday after Sunday. A system which survived till a few years back when the administration of the Diocese of Malta introduced the simultaneous collection in all the parishes on a particular Sunday of the year. The Order of St. John used to give its help generously as it was also decreed by the General Council of the Order "Varie provizioni si danno pure dall'infermeria a' poveri mendicanti e missionari che vanno in Gerusalemme, et a' pellegrini".

We can say that the civil authorities in Malta never hindered the activities in favour of the Holy Land, except the French! In fact these entered even in the Commissariat looking for money and arms. They found only 350 scudi from which 50 resulted missing! It happened that on that day the Commissariat in Valletta was closed because on the 2nd of September 1799, the day of the beginning of the Maltese uprising against the French, the gates of Valletta were closed and the friar Commissar who had left to make the collection in the parish of Mosta, had to wait two years in order to be able to get back to the Commissariat in Valletta!

The Maltese have always given their share and support. Till the second world war almost all the Maltese Franciscans had given some time of service in the Holy Land. Some even defended the sanctuaries with all their might. This was the experience of Br. Celsius Micallef who was even wounded in front of the tomb of the Lord. Others, like Br. Nicholas Borg, an architect and builder, rebuilt completely the church of St. Saviour in Jerusalem. Many Maltese friars were also nominated superiors at sanctuaries like those in Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Two Maltese friars even were elected as Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Saviour Anthony Vassallo and Fr. Francis Xavier Bugeja, and in whose time the Custos had jurisdiction also outside Palestine being nominated as Apostolic Prefect of Cyprus and Egypt and Apostolic Commissar of the East.

The Maltese friars worked enthusiastically even in another sphere: education. Many of them knew and were versatile in eastern languages, mostly Arabic. This was of great help for the Custody itself and for its colleges in Europe. To mention but a few: Fr. Ludovicus Muscat was one of the best teachers of Arabic of his time. He became the second rector of the Arabic College of St. Peter in Montorio, Rome. He even taught in Spain and Palermo and his manuscripts are still preserved in the Apostolic Library at the Vatican. Fr. Francis Flieles was the founder and first teacher of the Arabic language at the college (or school) founded in Malta in 1632. We can also mention Fr. Dominic Pace, Fr Sidor Cesare Rapa, Fr. John Paul Deguara and others who besides teaching in the Holy Land they also fulfilled this mission in Malta. They also worked as interpreters at the civil tribunals and in front of the inquisition. But suffice the above to give us an idea how this link Malta-Holy Land has survived for many centuries!


8/5/01 - Malta

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