The patron saint and protector of Gozo
Anton F. Attard (March 19) wrote to challenge the statement that from very ancient Christian times "Gozo revered St George as its patron saint, while the cult of St Ursula as co-protectress of the island was added early in the 17th century". This statement appeared in a recently published catalogue of Gozitan Pauline exhibits entitled St Paul - Faith And Iconography.
We must thank Mr Attard for the occasion that he provides to state the following:
1. St George, venerated throughout the Christian Church as an early fourth century martyr, is indeed the titular of the ancient parish church of Gozo. The introduction of the cult of St George in Gozo goes back to Byzantine times (c. 533AD).
2. Up to the 16th century there was no other saint who was venerated by the Gozitans as their protector other than St George. Nor could there have been, since up till then, saints became patrons through popular devotion rather than by official designations. Many saints were venerated on the island and they included St Andrew, St Anthony the Abbot, St Margaret and St Catherine, as well as St Lawrence to whom the first church that was constructed in the castello was dedicated. But none of these saints was as popular as St George whom the people of the island identified in unity.
3. St Ursula was designated protector of Gozo by a local Synod in 1620. The fact that it was an official Church organ that designated St Ursula as protector, is evidence that hers was a cult that was being introduced by imposition ex alto. The Synod was a tool in the hands of the influential archpriest who was hell-bent on taking the Rabat parish of St George under his control. The introduction of the hitherto foreign virgin saint as protector was a clear attempt to dislodge St George from the heart of the Gozitan people. In fact, the Synod saw to it that a new solemnity of St Ursula substituted that of St George, and this process of denigration of the Great Martyr continued until even his image was removed from the painted ceiling of the (later) cathedral church.
4. The designation of St Ursula as protector of Gozo was not an enhancement, not even an endorsement, of an established cult. We have absolutely no evidence that up to the 17th century Gozo offered any veneration to St Ursula. No churches, chapels and altars were dedicated to her. Nothing that regarded this British/German virgin saint reflected the history, identity, rights and dignity of the Gozitans. She may have had some resonance with virgin womanfolk - among whom we have no reason to assume that the castello's archpriest and canons could be counted. St Ursula was an entirely foreign paradigm and odd intercessor.
5. The cult of St Ursula in fact never took root in Gozo. Notwithstanding the endeavours of the archpriest of the castello church to champion it by means of annual processions, empty tales of miraculous deliverances and questionable relics, the people of Gozo never took their overlords' patroness as their own. Not even in the castello church that hosts the virgin saint's relic.
6. On the other hand, St George has always drawn devotees and people from all over the island who stop by his holy image to request his intercession before God. Moreover, since the erection of the diocese of Gozo, all the diocesan bishops have promoted his cult. In 1903 Bishop Giovanni Maria Camilleri OSA summoned all the people of Gozo to keep him in their hearts as their holy protector while in 1969 Bishop Nikol Ġ. Cauchi not only confirmed his commemoration as obligatory for the diocese but in 2003 also re-established his memorial as a festivity to be kept in all the churches of the city of Victoria.
In this short write-up no offence is intended towards St Ursula, whatever one may or may not believe about her, and every respect is paid to the religious women living in the monasteries that from the 16th century onwards cropped up under her name. The Ursulines of Malta are a cherished presence among us. Nor indeed do we have any objection to St Ursula as one of the patron saints of Gozo.