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Bellarmino Bagatti ofm (1905-1990)


Fr. Bagatti On October 7, 1990, at the Franciscan Friary of Saint Saviour in Jerusalem, Father Bellarmino Bagatti of the Order of Friars Minor brought his earthly life to a close. His funeral was a particularly moving occasion attended by a great throng of priests, men and women religious, laity and friends both Arab and Israeli, who had come to pay their last respects to a man they had both loved and admired. The Mass was presided over by the Patriarch Emeritus of Jerusalem, His Beatitude James Beltritti, assisted by Bishop Selim Sayegh, the Auxiliary Bishop in Amman. Present in the assembly were prelates of many different Christian communities and representatives from the biblical and archaeological schools of Jerusalem.

Father Bagatti was born in Lari (Pisa, Italy) on November 11, 1905. When he was seventeen years old he took the habit of Saint Francis at Mount La Verna in Tuscany. He was ordained priest six years later. In 1931 he was sent to the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology in Rome, where in 1934 he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Christian Archaeology upon presenting his brilliant thesis on Il Cimitero di Commodilla o dei Martiri Felice ed Adautto sulla via delle sette chiese. Soon afterwards it was published as the first number in the Institute's "Roma sotterranea cristiana. Nuova Serie".

Since 1935 he has held a chair at the "Studium Biblicum Franciscanum" in Jerusalem, teaching Christian archeology and topography of Jerusalem. In 1941 he collaborated with Father Sylvester Saller, OFM, in beginning the series "SBF Collectio Maior". In 1951, together with Father Donato Baldi, he co-founded the review "SBF Liber Annuus". From 1968-1978 he was the director of the Studium. Under his guidance the Institute widened the scope of its course offerings and its activities and also added to the number of its teachers and students. For many years he also taught at the "Studium Theologicum Hierosolymitanum" of the Custody of the Holy Land. He guided generations of students on fieldtrips both in the Holy Land and elsewhere. In recognition of his work he received a host of honors and distinctions: Knight of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy (1955), Knight-Commander (1966), Correspondent Commissary of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology (1977), Correspondent Member of the Pontifical Roman Academy for Archaeology (1979), Correspondent Member of the Roman Pontifical Theological Academy (1982).

Father Bagatti also took an active part in many international congresses in the field of Archaeology, Scripture, origin of the veneration of the Blessed Virgin and Saint Joseph and Apocryphal literature. He contributed to dictionaries and encyclopaedias such as the "Enciclopedia Cattolica", "Dictionnaire de la Bible Supplément", "Dizionario Patristico e di Antichità Cristiane", and the like. He was responsible for various new editions of ancient works on Palestinology, such as descriptions of journeys in the Holy Land and illustrations of shrines and monuments of the 14th, 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries. He added introductions and notes. His own works include over twenty books and several hundreds articles. A complete list will appear in Liber Annuus 40 (1990).

At the time of his seventieth birthday he was honored by the publication of two volumes of archaeological, exegetical and patristic studies presented by scholars from various parts of the world and from a variety of cultural institutions.

His work in excavations was done in Rome: the Cemetery of Commodilla (1933-34); in the Holy Land: the Shrine of the Beatitudes (1936), Visitation at Ain Karem (1938), Emmaus-Qubeibeh (1940-44), Bethlehem (1948), Dominus Flevit on the Mount of Olives (1953-55), Nazareth (1954-71), Mount Carmel (1960-61); in Jordan: Mount Nebo (1935) and at Khirbet el-Mukhayyat at various times.

He was a man always disposed to step in and help with courses run for the development and updating of religious and clergy. In 1969 he inaugurated a "Course for biblical-theological updating". Every year it draws around one hundred men and women religious from the Middle East, that is, Israel, Jordan, Cyprus and Lebanon. Many are the pilgrims, especially priests and seminarians, who will remember the lectures he gave on the shrines and Christian antiquities of Palestine.

His work is well known to scholars throughout the world. The Shrines of the Holy Land are no longer considered merely pious traditions of the Franciscans. Father Bagatti's excavations have shown that in many cases the tradition has in effect tenaciously preserved the memory of places where the Christian assembly worshipped. At these places there has been a succession of buildings one after another, in the same location, from the very first decades of the Christian era. Thanks to his work and that of his fellow Franciscan Father Emmanuele Testa, the primitive Jewish-Christian Church, of which the New Testament and patristic literature speak, has been given an actual visual reality, and documented from the point of view of archaeology. Father Bagatti directed his attention to the humble remains of Christian monuments found here and there in the villages of Palestine and the neighboring regions. That love of art, which he had breathed in during his Florentine youth, never left him. When he was no longer able to participate in actual excavations, Father Bagatti dedicated his energies to iconographical studies. His encounter with the Jewish-Christian mind led him to the apocryphal literature, which he appreciated as a witness to the Christian faith born of Jewish origins and sometimes as a vehicle for ancient reminiscences concerning Gospel personages and places.

Those who where fortunate enough to know him personally always appreciated his welcoming kindliness, always ready to make suggestions and to encourage; a scholar who put his extensive knowledge and prodigious memory at the disposal of anyone who cared to ask. A free mind, a serene master of his subject, he avoided any kind of bitter and sectarian polemics, accepting the truth no matter who expressed it; open to cooperating with any who wished for it, he offered his own contribution with simplicity and modesty. Father Bagatti was a true Friar Minor, humble, a gentleman, affable, cheerful and a hard worker. A true Priest, he was highly regarded by many as a spiritual guide. "His memory is blessed for ever"! (I Mac 3,7).


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