The church was the centre of the village. The priest of its community. The priest and the village then were related to one another as the day and the sun. The farmer gave the food of earth, the priest gave the bread of heaven. The loss of a priest meant the end of a legacy, and one of these legacies I wish to narrate again. That of Francis Buhagiar.

Francis was born in Żabbar on November 16, 1918. He was baptised by the late Mgr Leopold Farrugia, treasurer of the metropolitan chapter. After receiving primary education in Żabbar and Cospicua, he went to St Paul’s secondary school and then to the Liceo. Thinking at the back of his mind of his call to the priesthood, at the Liceo, he decided to study the classics.

A seed sprouts in the hearts of some for the service of others. That a young man dedicates his life in service to others is a miracle. Francis’s choice was one of these miracles. Many, I am sure, expressed sympathy for this choice.

The community gave Francis support, it was the cradle of his vocation, the stake that supported him and the child that listened attentively to him.

Francis entered the seminary at a tender age. There he was educated in philosophy and theology. Thomism, a philosophic tradition inspired by Thomas Aquinas, for years the founding block of Catholic theology and philosophy formed Francis’s mindset.  The validity of Thomism for the expression of faith has been expressed in the encyclical, Aeterni Patris, of Leo XIII.

In 1939, the war reached Malta and his family moved to Gozo. The move led Francis to swap seminaries. While in Gozo, he started to receive minor orders, they being porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte. Then he went on to receive the major orders that of subdeacon, deacon and finally the presbyterate.

On August 1, 1943, he said the last Ad sum, the final yes, to become in the words of St Paul, everything for everyone, to suffer the martyrdom of heart and will, which according to St John Maria Vianney are precious to God. Finally he became priest.

His first Mass was in Nadur, where a sermon was given by Can Martin Camilleri. Fr John Farrugia and Dr Nicola Scicluna were witnesses. On September 5 he celebrated his first solemn Mass in Żabbar. 

On that day Wistin Caruana of the Carmelites preached and Can Frans Camilleri and Mgr Emmanuele Brincat were witnesses.

The habits the priest wears are a sign of profound meaning. Among these signs one finds the maniple. The embroidered band is worn on the left arm. Tradition has it that priests were so moved by the sacrifice of the Mass that sometimes they were driven to tears. Many witnessed tears on Dun Frans’s face, when mentioning Our Lady. Something he did in most, if not all of his sermons. To cry is to have courage. To cry in public is a sign of deep love for the object that is being loved. The profundity of the man can be found in such small acts.

After his studies he was made prefect of studies and two years later he was entrusted under Mgr Arturo Bonnici in the secretariat of the Curia.  Furthermore he was asked to teach Italian at De La Salle College.

The coronation on September 2, 1951, revamped the devotion of the faithful towards Our Lady

In Żabbar, where he was assigned as a priest, he militated as director of the Società Mutto Soccorso San Francesco. This guild was founded on November 17, 1903 in Żabbar. The statute suggests that care for the material and spiritual well-being of its members when alive and for the families of a deceased member, were the prime aims of this guild. Members of the society paid a membership fee every year that would guarantee that such aims were fulfilled. Moreover, he was director of the Xirka tal-Isem Imqaddes t’Alla and in the Catholic Action. Branches of the former are found locally and of the latter scattered throughout the world.

In the feast organised for the coronation of the effigy of Żabbar he was part of the committee. The coronation on September 2, 1951, revamped the devotion of the faithful towards Our Lady.

Encouraged by the clergy, the people of Żabbar commissioned various artefacts, among which one finds the silver cornice hanging to date over the painting of Our Lady, the largest Via Sacra in the island of Gio Battista Conti and the chandeliers.

With ardent zeal Fr Frans collected money for a silver lamp which to date hangs in the main nave. Designed by Joseph Galea the oil lamp was inaugurated on the 11th anniversary from the crowning of the effigy.

Bearing the coat of arms of Archbishop Gonzi, Rev. Jos. Zarb, Grandmaster Wignacourt and Hompesch, the oil lamp cost Lm2,000.

He himself collected money for a silver pedestal for Our Lady’s statue. It was commissioned by a Milanese firm. Inspiration for the pedestal was taken from a former pedestal which is  found in the parish of St Sebastian in Qormi. The new pedestal was inaugurated on September 8, 1983.

For the quarantines, Corpus Christi and the Sacred Heart of Jesus he used to embellish the altar with flowers. He was responsible for the preachers. To refund expenses he would personally collect money door to door.

His daily ritual consisted of going to the Curia from 9am till noon. He used to celebrate daily the afternoon Mass and on Sunday that of 9.30am.

Moreover, he authored a book that was translated in three languages and penned a piece in Żabbar, A Living History.

Fr Frans passed away on June 28, 2001. He was buried in tomb number 181, at the local cemetery.  The legacy of this priest is a lesson for the priest of today, crippled as they are by a crisis of identity. Fearing to be preachers in their vestments. Afraid and belittling the value of their habits. Unattended to their duties, lost in a midst of clerical abuses that belittle the boat of Peter, embittered by nonessential dogmatic squabbles.

The fire of tradition as it came burning to the present generation by such heroic figures as Fr Frans, has been left unattended.

The life of Fr Frans is one complete lesson for the new generation of priests. Requiesciat in Pace, Fr Frans.

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