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The solemn entry of the first bishop of Gozo 150 years ago

Archbishop Pietro Pace (1831-1914) by Ignatio Cortis. Courtesy of Cathedral Museum, Gozo. Right: Sir Adrian Dingli (1817-1900) by Ignatio Cortis. Courtesy of Cathedral Museum, Gozo

Archbishop Pietro Pace (1831-1914) by Ignatio Cortis. Courtesy of Cathedral Museum, Gozo. Right: Sir Adrian Dingli (1817-1900) by Ignatio Cortis. Courtesy of Cathedral Museum, Gozo

­­­­­­Sunday, October 23, 1864, will forever remain one of the most important days in Gozo’s history. At the break of dawn, people of all ages and walks of life left their homes and villages to throng the main street of Victoria and the Citadel to witness the solemn entry of the first bishop of Gozo on a white mare.

On September16, Blessed Pope Pius IX had acceded to the requests of the priests and people of Gozo and established Gozo and Comino as an autonomous diocese. They had striven for 66 long years to achieve this goal.

It is fitting to remember the protagonists on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of this event.

It all began on October 30, 1798, hours after the Gozitans had taken their island into their own hands. Archpriest Saverio Cassar (1746-1805), who led the uprising against the French, addressed a petition to King Ferdinand III of Sicily to grant permission for the establishment of a bishopric on the island.

The petition was address to the king for two reasons: he had become the formal sovereign of the Maltese archipelago and, through a privilege conceded to his predecessors, he had the right to promote the establishment of episcopal sees in his territory. The petition was favourably received, but due to the Napoleonic wars, it never materialised.

Another attempt was made in 1836. On December 30, three representatives of Gozo – Canon Gaetano Bondì, Canon Francesco Portelli, and Notary Nicolò Tabone – personally presented a petition to Pope Gregory XVI, beseeching him “to be kind enough to dismember the islands of Gozo and Comino from the diocese of Malta and erect them into a separate diocese”.

The Gozitans despatched a similar petiton to King William IV of Great Britain to further their cause and begged Sir Henry Frederick Bouverie, the Governor of Malta (1836-1853), to give them his support. Once again to no avail.

Gozitan representatives Canon Michelangelo Garroni, Canon Gaetano Bondì and Don Pietro Pace during their audience with Pope Pius IX on June 9, 1855, by Paul Camilleri-Cauchi. Courtesy Cathedral Gozo/Anthony GrechGozitan representatives Canon Michelangelo Garroni, Canon Gaetano Bondì and Don Pietro Pace during their audience with Pope Pius IX on June 9, 1855, by Paul Camilleri-Cauchi. Courtesy Cathedral Gozo/Anthony Grech

After a hibernation 18 long years, the Gozitans decided on a more direct line of action. On June 9, 1855, three representatives of the Gozitans – Canon Michelangelo Garroni, Canon Bondì and Don Pietro Pace – brought up the matter of the diocese at length in a private audience with Pope Pius IX.

The kind Pontiff pitied the petitioners and promised his support. Matters, however, would soon have stalled once more were it not for two great leaders who entered the scene to direct the proceedings.

Due to a host of political reasons, it soon became clear that the Vatican would not takle the matter into consideration without the approval of the British Foreign Office

The first was the indefatigable Don Pietro Pace (1831-1914), a young Gozitan priest then completing his University studies in Rome. The other was (Sir) Adrian Dingli (1817-1900), an eminent son of Gozo then slowly establishing himself as the de facto Governor of Malta.

Towards the end of 1854, the British Colonial Office appointed Dingli as crown counsel in Malta. He was trusted by the Colonial Office and he soon became one of the most authoritative officials after the governor.

These great leaders vowed they would not rest until their dream of a diocese came true. The former was to pave the way at the Vatican; the latter was to obtain the indispensable approval from the British.

Due to a host of political reasons, it soon became clear to the promoters that the Vatican would not take the matter into consideration without a crystal clear approval of the British Foreign Office. The Vatican sought this approval on September 12, 1860. In turn, the foreign secretary, Lord (John) Russell, sought the views of the Colonial Office.

The letter of Sir John Gaspard Le Marchant of October 25, 1860. Courtesy of The National Archives, LondonThe letter of Sir John Gaspard Le Marchant of October 25, 1860. Courtesy of The National Archives, London

On September 26, Henry, Duke of Newcastle, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, asked the Governor of Malta, Sir John Gaspard Le Marchant, whether there is any reason to object to the proposed appointment. The Governor discussed the matter with none other than Dingli, his Crown Counsel, and on October 25, Le Marchant drafted his approval.

In the letter, which stretches to 32 pages and has 17 lengthy enclosures appended, the Governor not only consented to the proposed erection of a diocese but also expounded on the bountiful benefits that would be reaped as a result. The import of this despatch was unfathomable: suffice to say that October 25, 1860, it marked the beginning of the longed-for solution.

After further considerations, the Colonial Office conveyed the approval to the Foreign Office. On November 21, Lord Russell acceded to the proceedings and duly informed Odo Russell, their representative in Rome, about the whole matter. Early in December, Russell passed on the British approval to Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli, the papal Secretary of State. Russell continued to play a central role in the story until its conclusion.

It was only after this unequivocal reply by the British that the Sacred Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs – the congregation that dealt with matters in which religious and political interests were intermingled – started to tackle seriously the other related problems.

These concerned the deficiency of a proper endowment for the bishopric; the candidate who was to be chosen as first bishop of Gozo; the setting up of a seminary; the never-ending resistance to the diocese from certain ecclesiastics in Malta; and the perturbed political situation in the Papal States that further complicated matters.

In the letter, which stretches to 32 pages, the Governor not only consented to the proposed erection of a diocese but also expounded on the bountiful benefits that would be reaped as a result

Slowly but surely, these difficulties were solved one after another. One of the most problematic was the setting up of a seminary, which was then a sine qua non for the establishment of every diocese. The related problems were threefold: there had to be a building spacious enough to accommodate boarding facilities and lecture rooms; there had to be enough funds for such a large-scale institution to function and survive; and there had to be a number of professors in ecclesiastical sciences to lecture to those preparing for priesthood.

These seemingly insurmountable difficulties were also solved. The former Church-owned St Julian Hospital for women was to be converted into a seminary.

Bishop Michele-Francesco Buttigieg. Courtesy of Cathedral Museum, GozoBishop Michele-Francesco Buttigieg. Courtesy of Cathedral Museum, Gozo

In the meantime, Pace and Dingli put all their weight in their respective spheres of influence to hasten a solution.

In the secret consistory of March 16, 1863, Pope Pius IX appointed Michele-Francesco Buttigieg, archpriest of the Gozo matrice, as titular bishop of Lete in partibus and Auxiliary Bishop of Malta with instructions to reside on the island of Gozo. On June 14, 1863, Mgr Buttigieg made his solemn entry in Gozo.

From then onwards, events quickly headed to the desired conclusion. On July 14, 1864, the Vatican initiated the proceedings for the eventual establishment of the diocese.

On September 14, Archbishop Alessandro Franchi, secretary of the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, briefed the Pope on the final developments. That same morning, the Pope formally conceded to the diocese and the redaction of the Bull, a papal document issued for important matters and referred to by its first two or three Latin words.

The Bull Singulari Amore of September 16, 1864. Courtesy of Cathedral Archives, Gozo/Paul FalzonThe Bull Singulari Amore of September 16, 1864. Courtesy of Cathedral Archives, Gozo/Paul Falzon

It is indeed an honour to Gozo that the initial words of the Bull, Singulari Amore (With Remarkable Love), perhaps suggested by the Pope himself, declare the papal love for the Gozitans. Through this document, Pope Pius IX established Gozo and Comino as a separate diocese directly subject to the Holy See. It also established the matrice of Santa Marija, or mother-church of Gozo, as the cathedral of the new diocese. The Bull, dated September 16, 1864, is one of the treasured documents at the Gozo Cathedral Archives.

Early in the morning of Sunday, October 23, 1864, the members of the 28 confraternities of the parishes of Gozo, the friars of the three mendicant Orders, all the priests of the island, and the Cathedral Chapter, proceeded from the cathedral to meet the new bishop at Il-Flora, the crossroads of what is now Republic Street. At the same time, Buttigieg exited from the convent of the Capuchins and made his way to the same spot in an open carriage pulled by young people. A 12-year-old boy delivered an address of welcome.

The solemn entry of Mgr Buttiegieg in the cathedral of the new diocese on October 23, 1864, by Paul Camilleri-Cauchi. Courtesy of Cathedral Gozo/Anthony GrechThe solemn entry of Mgr Buttiegieg in the cathedral of the new diocese on October 23, 1864, by Paul Camilleri-Cauchi. Courtesy of Cathedral Gozo/Anthony Grech

The bishop was robed in full pontifical regalia in a chapel set up purposely on the spot. The 71-year-old bishop then mounted a white mare, according to tradition and custom, and proceeded to the cathedral under a canopy carried aloft by six eminent gentlemen. A young boy marched in front with the Bull Singulari Amore on a silver plate.

A fanfare of trumpets greeted the procession at the entrance of the Citadel. “At nine, amidst the deafening cheers and enthusiastic ap­plause of his devoted flock... the new bishop made his solemn entry into the citadel and cathedral of the new diocese,” records a contemporary source.

Buttigieg then celebrated his first pontifical Mass, whose music was specially composed for the occasion by Giorgio Mercieca. The orchestra was under the direction of Vincenzo Bondì, Maestro di Cappella.

A Te Deum of thanksgiving, also composed for the occasion, concluded the religious ceremony. The following day, Governor Le Marchant made an official visit to the bishop. He was also accorded a rousing welcome.

After 150 years and despite the challenges brought about by modern times, the diocese of Gozo, now led by its eighth bishop, Mgr Mario Grech, still strives strenuously to fulfil its purpose which can be summed up in one word: evangelisation.

Though one of the smallest in the Catholic Church – with a population that, according to the 2011 census, has risen to 31,296, the diocese is certainly trying to fulfil its purpose in a laudable way.

The full story of these events is published in the book by the author, Religion and Politics in a Crown Colony. The Gozo-Malta Story. 1798-1864.

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