History of the Commissariat

History of the Commissariat of the Holy Land

The Commissariat: Origins and Development

Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) visited the Holy Land in 1219-1220 during the Fifth Crusade. He landed in the Crusader port of Acre and went to Damietta in Egypt, where he met the Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil and was cordially welcomed because of his simple witness of poverty and peace. The Sultan, who was the ruler of Palestine, gave to Francis and his brothers permission to visit freely the Christian Holy Places, especially the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

The Franciscans soon settled in these Holy Places, although they initially suffered martyrdom and persecution. By 1333 the King of Naples had bought for the Franciscans the Upper Room or Cenacle where Jesus celebrated the Last Supper. There the Franciscans built their first friary in the Holy Land, from where they could celebrate the liturgy in the Holy Sepulchre. In 1347 they settled in Bethlehem. Pope Clement VI founded the Custody of the Holy Land on 21 November 1342 and declared the Franciscans as the official Custodians of the Holy Places in the name of the Catholic Church. From that moment the Franciscans settled in all the important shrines, including the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth in 1620.

The Commissariats for the Holy Land were established over 600 years ago on 14 February 1421, when Pope Martin V addressed the Apostolic Letter His quae pro ecclesiasticarum, in which he encouraged the appointment of Commissaries in the Franciscan Order, who would organise an annual collection in aid of the Holy Land Mission and spread the message of the Holy Places.

The mission of the Franciscans in the Holy Land has always been that of celebrating the liturgy in the Holy Places, accompanying the Christian pilgrims and taking pastoral care of the local Christians by providing them with education, housing, jobs and other basic needs of life. In order to help the Franciscans in their mission the Church established what it calls “Commissariats of the Holy Land” in all the Catholic countries of Europe and the world. In Malta the Holy Land Commissariat is one of the first that have been established.

On 26 February 1636 the Holy Land Commissary in Malta, Fr. Cornelio da Cassia bought a house adjacent to Ta’ Ġieżu Franciscan Friary in what is now Santa Luċija Street, Valletta. The house belonged to Caterina Metaxi, wife of the Greek Catholic Papas. After solving legal matters in which the Congregation of Propaganda Fide was involved, and after relinquishing some rooms in the friary which had served as a Commissariat, by 1656 this building became the official residence of the Commissary of the Holy Land, and it still serves this purpose. The house, which is connected internally with the friary itself, became an Hospitium Terræ Sanctæ, that is, a hospice where missionaries to the Holy Land would stop in Malta on their way to Palestine or on their way back to Italy. Its rank as a Commissariat was similar to the General Commissariats of Palermo, Naples and Venice, which also catered for missionaries going to the Holy Land.

In 1721 the Commissary Fr. Angelico decided to rebuild the Commissariat, which was too small to accommodate the number of Franciscan missionaries who made use of it for lodging while waiting for a vessel of the Order of the Knights of St. John to transport them to the Holy Land.

The Order of St. John provided the daily food rations for the missionaries from the Sagra Infermeria, the Hospital of the Order. It also issued their passports and letters patent. The Archives of the Commissariat still contain the registers that show the expenses incurred in the transport of luggage as well as other expenses of these friars, some of whom had to spend a period of quarantine at the Lazzaretto, because of fear of the plague being carried by persons coming from the Levant.

Besides the missionaries some Maronite religious would also stop in Malta, as well as some pilgrims. The work of the Maltese Commissary in favour of the missionaries continued up till the end of the 19th century, when shipping in the Mediterranean became easier and more efficient.

The Holy Land Commissary had also to face cases of religious who had fallen into slavery and then found their way to Malta. They would have to ask for funds in order to pay the ransom for these missionaries. During the period these friars remained in Malta the Commissary provided them with all their needs until they could resume their journey.

While residing in the Commissariat the missionaries took part in all the regular acts of the Valletta community, like prayers in the choir and meals in the refectory. The Commissary had a table reserved for him and the missionaries. In 1730 the Guardian in Valletta placed other friars on that table and a dispute broke out which ended in front of the Minister General and the Congregation of Propaganda Fide. An agreement was reached so that this table would be used by the Commissary and Holy Land missionaries. To this day a wooden coat of arms of the Holy Land attests to this right and hangs upon the table of the Commissary in the Valletta refectory. It bears the date 12 March 1731.

The Commissary of the Holy Land also organised the annual Collection Pro Terra Sancta in all the parishes of Malta, and he personally visited these parishes by turn every Sunday in order to collect funds for the Holy Land. When the French soldiers were shut inside Valletta by the Maltese in 1798-1800 during the blockade, the Commissary was in the parish of Mosta and could not return to Valletta, but had to remain in the Rabat friary until the end of the blockade. The French also entered the Commissary to loot any silver or money they could find, but they were disappointed since they found hardly anything of value to carry away with them.

During the 20th century the Holy Land Commissariat in Malta gradually assumed the structure it has nowadays, becoming a centre for propaganda in favour of the Holy Land, organising the annual Collection, and also taking care of missionaries who would still arrive, although in smaller numbers.

In 1955 the Commissariat embarked on the publication of its official Review, which was originally called Leħen l-Art Imqaddsa (Voice of the Holy Land), and subsequently became L-Art Imqaddsa (The Holy Land). It is a Biblical Review on the Holy Land and is published on a quarterly basis and is also available on-line in this website.

With the onset of air travel the Commissariat also began to organise pilgrimages to the Holy Land. These gathered momentum during these last decades and are nowadays one of the main activities of the Commissary and his team. Thousands of Maltese pilgrims have visited the Holy Land with the Franciscan friars, and many have decided to repeat their pilgrimage. The Commissariat regards this as a unique experience of evangelisation and as an efficient tool to help the Holy Land mission.

Nowadays the Commissariat of the Holy Land in Malta is a well-organised hub of activity in favour of the Holy Land Mission, which the Franciscans regard as the “pearl” of their missions.

Maltese missionaries in the Holy Land

The presence of Maltese Franciscans as missionaries in the Holy Land has been continuous. Many friars left the island as missionaries both to the Holy Places as well as to parishes of the Custody. The call to become missionaries in the Holy Land has been part and parcel of the life of the Maltese Franciscans for centuries. The geographical position of Malta at the centre of the Mediterranean, in the main shipping lanes to the coasts of Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and Cyprus, was instrumental in encouraging many friars to go to this mission. So was the fact that the Maltese language is akin to the Semitic languages, and therefore Maltese friars could learn Arabic with relative ease and work among the ethnic Catholics of the Holy Land.

After the establishment of the Congregation of Propaganda Fide (1622), the teaching of Arabic was more organised, so much so that during the same year a College was founded in Rome in the friary of San Pietro in Montorio. In 1625 another College was founded in the Ognissanti friary in Florence and in 1700 another College was established in the friary of San Bartolomeo all’Isola Tiberina, also in Rome. We have mentioned these three friaries since Maltese Franciscan missionaries had many links with them. The College of S. Pietro in Montorio had as its first Lector of Arabic Fr. Tommaso Obicini da Novara, and after him Fr. Ludovico da Malta (31 March 1626). Among the students who frequented the College of San Bartolomeo all’Isola we find Fr. Isidoro Cesare Rapa from Gozo (†1753). He had been approved and sent to the Holy Land on 22 April 1723.

Ever since it was founded in 1622, the Congregation of Propaganda Fide showed an interest in the organisation of studia and colleges of Arabic. The name of Malta was at the forefront in this endeavour. The first studium was established in the Rabat friary in 1632. It was then transferred to the Valletta friary. We know the methodology and the books used, not only because the Congregation took care of these didactic means, but also because the books and manuscripts still exist to this very day in our archives. These manuscripts shed light also on the didactic system which followed the programme of studies of the College of San Pietro in Montorio, where maximum importance was given to the use of Catechism and the Sacred Scriptures. In order to write textbooks the friars made use of the help of an elderly Muslim slave scribe. His name was Ali ibn Yahya l-Zawawi Bu Yusuf. In this way many Maltese missionaries could learn Arabic here in Malta and then proceed to the Holy Land mission.

Among the many Franciscans who worked in the Holy Land we find a good number of lay brothers who were sacristans in the Holy Places, notably in the Holy Sepulchre and in Bethlehem. Others became parish priests in such places as Aleppo in Syria, Cyprus and many parishes in Egypt. The presence of Maltese Franciscans in Egypt was enhanced by the fact that many Maltese migrants settled there until the mid-20th century, and they needed Maltese priests to take pastoral care of them.

Two Maltese friars also became Custodians of the Holy Land. Fr. Salvatore Antonio Vassallo was Custos from 19 April 1817 to 13 July 1820. Fr. Francesco Saverio Bugeja was Custos from 24 June 1835 to 9 July 1838.

A detailed study and list of Maltese Franciscan missionaries in the Holy Land can be found in: Ġorġ Aquilina OFM, Il-Franġiskani Maltin (Ta’ Ġieżu) 1482c – 1965c, Klabb Kotba Maltin, Malta 2011, pp. 117 – 149 and 553-653. In the OFM Provincial Archives there exists an unpublished study by: Ewġenju Anġlu Fenech OFM, Malta in the Holy Land. XV century – XXI century, Jerusalem 2001.

List of Commissaries from 1637 to the present

  • 1637  Fr. Archangelo from Senglea
  • 1639  Fr. Peter from Ħaż-Żebbuġ
  • 1640  Fr. Bonaventura Doneo
  • 1640  Fr. Cornelio da Cassia
  • 1642  Fr. Francesco da Malta
  • 1650  Fr. Santu Vella
  • 1653  Fr. Domenico Pace
  • 1654  Fr. Santu Vella
  • 1655  Fr. Michele Grech
  • 1657  Fr. Bernardino da Malta
  • 1662  Fr. Serafin Briffa
  • 1664  Fr. Michele Grech
  • 1670  Fr. Alfons Muscat
  • 1675  Fr. Agostino Famucelli
  • 1692  Fr. Anselmo da Malta
  • 1699  Fr. Liborio Caruana
  • 1706  Fr. Anselmo da Malta
  • 1716  Fr. Angelico Mifsud
  • 1740  Fr. Francesco Fontana
  • 1742  Fr. Pio Francesco Calleja
  • 1744  Fr. Francesco Fontana
  • 1755  Fr. Pio Francesco Calleja
  • 1762  Fr. Bernardin Bartolo
  • 1786  Fr. Gaetano Xuereb
  • 1790  Fr. Gaetano Mallia
  • 1797  Fr. Francesco Antonio Azzopardi
  • 1808  Fr. Sebastiano Barone
  • 1813  Fr. Salvatore Antonio Vassallo
  • 1815  Fr. Giovanni Felice Sapiano
  • 1821  Fr. Salvatore Antonio Vassallo
  • 1859  Fr. Giovanni Gaetano Galea
  • 1893  Fr. Samuele Vassallo
  • 1904  Fr. Giovanni Evangelista Spiteri
  • 1911  Fr. Vincenzo Xuereb
  • 1923  Fr. Luigi Daniele Attard
  • 1931  Fr. Alfons Maria Attard
  • 1943  Fr. Paolo Tabone
  • 1957  Fr. Nicola Magro
  • 1973  Fr. Valentino Cardona
  • 1977  Fr. Mikiel Catania
  • 1979  Fr. Albert Micallef
  • 1993  Fr. Marcello Ghirlando
  • 2002  Fr. Anthony Chircop

Tribute to two Maltese Franciscans who founded the web-site of the Holy Land Commissariat

The coming of the digital age in the 1990s marked for the Maltese Franciscans a moment of innovation in which they were at the forefront. Fr. John Abela OFM (died 19 December 2010) was the official web-master of the Order of Friars Minor and Director of the Order’s Communications Office in the General Curia for many years. He created the first web-sites of the Franciscan Order, the Custody of the Holy Land and the Maltese Franciscan Province, in which featured a special section dedicated to the Holy Land Commissariat. Fr. John Abela was a self-made artist in creating web-sites. After his death Fr. Raymond Camilleri OFM (died on 22 June 2022) took over his work and tried to keep the web-site alive, but alas his health worsened since 2016 and the web-site could not be updated satisfactorily. That is why we are presenting a new web-site with the relevant information that was already available on-line in the former web-site. Fr. Raymond Camilleri OFM was also instrumental in giving a new form to the Biblical Review of the Commissariat «L-Art Imqaddsa». We pay tribute to these two Franciscans who loved the Holy Land all their lives. Fr. John Abela was for many years one of the closest collaborators of the famous Franciscan archaeologist Fr. Michele Piccirillo OFM (died 26 October 2008), and took part every year in the excavations of the Byzantine basilicas of Jordan, under the direction of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum of Jerusalem. Fr. Raymond Camilleri lived in the Holy Land Custody for more than 10 years as director of the Franciscan Printing Press and Master of formation.

Fr. John Abela OFM

Fr. Raymond Camilleri OFM