The earliest settlement of Christians on the island of Gozo dates more or less to the time that other Christian communities were sprouting along the Mediterranean coastlands. Little can be gleaned from paltry archeological remains and we have just as little reliable information about the Gozitan Christians prior to the 12th century. The earliest ecclesiastical artifact that possibly takes us back to the 13th century is a beautifully formed metallic tabernacle, taking the form of a Byzantine pyx with lock, which was unearthed in the early 19th century from the old façade of St George’s parish church.
The late Middle Ages afford some first light but it is not until the 15th century that our history books begin to fill up with historical details that show an active “Gozo parish”. This parish, dedicated to St George, which extended to all the island, included in its territory a collegiate church within the castello, two sacramental churches dedicated respectively to Our Lady “outside the walls” and to St James, the conventual churches respectively of the Augustinian and Franciscan friars and numerous other chapels either huddled inside the ħaġar(settlement) or scattered across the island.
A developing local Church
Up to the early 17th century, the parish community of Gozo was confined to the ħaġar, later called “Rabat”, meaning “town”– today’s historic centre of Victoria – and its more or less distant outcrops. These outcrops started to acquire a separate identity from the Rabat parish in 1678. Xewkija was the first to go it alone, closely followed by Għarb, so that they both became independent parishes in one year. Ta’ Sannat, Żebbuġ, Nadur and Xagħra followed in 1689. Until 1864 Gozo was part of the diocese of Malta and depended on a bishop who resided in Mdina, the old capital city of that island. Only rarely did he venture to visit his flock on Gozo. When he did he invariably coincided it with the feast of St George, in April. He would call his flock into the parish of Rabat and, in its church say Mass and administer the sacrament of Confirmation.
Due to the difficulties conditioning communication between mainland Malta and tiny Gozo, it is well documented that during the Middle Ages many Gozitan Christians died without having received the sacrament of Confirmation, that is the sacrament which could only be administered by the bishop. Nevertheless they did not disregard Gozo and performed their administrative through their respective representative on the island – a trusted priest styled as vicarius foraneus.
Priest of the Gozitans
One such representative of the bishop of Malta was the Gozitan parish priest of St George’s, Fr Lawrence de Apapis, who lived between 1501 and1586. Because of his ministry as parish priest, Fr Lawrence is described by a Vatican document as presbyter Gaulorum or “priest of the Gozitans”. In fact De Apapis was more than a priest for the Gozitans: he was notary public and social worker, judge and advocate, evangelizer and redeemer of slaves who did his best to take care of the flock entrusted to him to the extent that he was one with it when in 1551 it was carried into slavery in the Ottoman-ruled city of Constantinople.
After the establishment of the settlements of Xewkija and Għarb as independent parishes (1678) to be followed, ten years later by Żebbuġ, Ta’ Sannat, Nadur and Xagħra (1689), the next most important event that contributed towards the establishment of the Gozo diocese was an enhanced social identity that the Gozitans experienced vis-à-vis Malta in the dramatic events of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The lure of freedom and identity
The swells of the French Revolution, when they reached the Gozitan shoreline in 1779, brought with them the totally unpalatable experience of an oppressive regime right in the midst of the islanders. The parish priest of St George’s once again emerged as the leader of the island, and within a couple of months he drove the Napoleonic oppressors out of Rabat. A local administration was set up and it apparently gave the locals the sample of a greater freedom. It would not last long!
Nevertheless, it is no surprise that by the mid-19th century, with the taste of a short lived affirmation of civil self-determination still fresh in their collective experience, coupled with the emergence of seedling liberalism, the clergy and the people of Gozo started a movement for the acquisition of ecclesial autonomy for their island. Gozo had by then grown in population and it included people who had received until then unattained levels of education. One of them was Fr Pietru Pace, a young priest from St George’s parish. Together with other leading Gozitan personalities he started to lobby with the then British colonial government, and with the Apostolic See in Rome, for the dismemberment of the Gozitan ecclesial territory from Malta. The Catholic people of Gozo wanted its establishment as a separate diocese so that they would have their own bishop living in their midst. It would also mean equal ecclesiastical status with the island Malta.
Gozo becomes an independent diocese
The then bishop of Malta – who ironically happened to be a Gozitan priest and also from the parish of St George’s, and an ardent supporter of Gozo as a diocese until he became bishop! – proved to be adamantly opposed to the idea. The Gozitans however were just as adamant and they were lucky to have leading them two born leaders: the untiring Fr Pietru Pace, a young priest from St George’s parish, who would later become bishop, first of Gozo and then of Malta, and Dr Adrian Dingli, of Gozitan descent, who was then Crown Advocate of British Colony of Malta. Both were well placed to serve Gozo’s interests. Fr Pace, a Rome graduate, was on friendly terms with one of the more important Roman noble families and through them had the ear of Pope Pius IX. Dr (later Sir) Adrian Dingli was not only an acknowledged anglophile but was also well placed in Malta to entice the ear of the British administration to his tune. The British Colonial Office gave its consent to the establishment of the new Gozo diocese in October 1860. The Vatican, three years later.
In 1863, the parish priest of St George’s, Mgr Mikiel Franġisk Buttigieg, who hailed from Qala but was a spiritual son of the parish of Nadur, was elected auxiliary bishop of Malta with the instruction to continue residing in Gozo. At the time, apart from being the parish priest of Rabat, Mgr Buttigieg was also the archpriest of the collegiate church within the precincts of the Gran Castello. Pope Pius IX established the new diocese of Gozo within the year. It comprised the islands of Gozo and tiny Comino and bishop Buttigieg became the first diocesan bishop.
He nevertheless continued to carry out his pastoral work as parish priest at St George’s church until his death.
The bishops of Gozo
Since its foundation, the Gozo diocese has been governed by nine bishops, including the current one who is His Excellency Mgr Mario Grech. Following bishop Mikiel Franġisk Buttigieg (1864-1866), Gozo was led by Pawlu Micallef as apostolic administrator (1866-1868), Anton Grech Delicata (1868-1876), Pietru Pace (1877-1889), Giovanni Maria Camilleri (1889-1924), Mikiel Gonzi (1924-1943), Ġużeppi Pace (1944-1972), Nikol Ġ. Cauchi as apostolic adsministrator (1967-1972) and as diocesan bishop (1972-2006), and Mario Grech since 2006. In 1975 bishop Cauchi assumed for himself and his successors the role of dean of St George’s collegiate chapter.
Contacting the Curia and the other parishes
The diocese of Gozo is one of the smallest local Churches in the world with the highest priest population ratio in the Roman Catholic Church. It is made up of about 25,000 Catholics who are organized in 14 parishes, and to date has above 200 priests and religious. Over 25% of these priests are serving the Catholic Church in various countries of the world. The Bishop’s Chancery Offices are situated in Republic Street, Victoria VCT 1000, Gozo; tel: 21 556 461, 21 556 427, 21 551 211; fax: 21 551 211; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: www.gozodiocese.org.