The Collegiate Church of Senglea became a basilica a century ago
Less than four months had passed since the rescript authorizing the solemn coronation of the statue of Mary Bambina was issued by the Holy See on April 25, 1920. The feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin in September 1920 was that of ‘a particular enthusiasm.
Due to the difficult circumstances of the First World War, outdoor festivities had been suspended since 1913. Proposals for the celebrations to take place on September 4 of the following year were transmitted and considered.
As preparations for the coronation accelerated and enthusiasm grew among the inhabitants of Senglea, the desire grew for the collegiate church to be elevated to the dignity of a basilica. This title is the greatest privilege that popes can grant to churches. To acquire the honor of a minor basilica, the collegiate church of Senglea had to prove, before the Holy See, that it had sufficient religious and artistic references.
Rightly, Senglea feels grateful to Pope Benedict XV, since the decrees for the coronation of the statue of the Bambina and that of the basilica were issued in his name. However, there were others who had worked with a persistent effort to convince officials that Senglea deserved these honors.
Regarding the title of basilica, Senglea should never forget the Benedictine Dom Mauro Inguanez, OSB, and Canon Goffredo Lubrano. It was these two priests born in Senglea, with the consent of Canon Giuseppe Adami, archpriest of Senglea, who initiated the collaboration with Cardinal Antonio Vico, prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, in Rome. After the feast of the Bambina celebrated in September 1920, they promptly opened the ball, knowing that a formal petition was to be addressed to the supreme authorities of the Church in Rome.
Archpriest Adami wrote the petition, which describes the significant events in the city and parish:
Senglea received the title of Invicta because she remained undefeated during the Great Siege of 1565; it has a parish church built as a memorial of this great victory; Pope Pius VI raised it to the honor of the Insignis collegiate church in 1786; there is a strong devotion to the Virgin Mary, whose statue miraculously arrived in the city and had been venerated for about 300 years; in a short time, a golden crown was to be placed on the head of the Bambina, because on April 25, 1920, the Holy See had issued the rescript of the coronation; the devotion to the Bambina was more than evident as the people generously contributed to the golden crown. It was also specified that the church had been consecrated on October 20, 1743 by Bishop Paolo Alpheran de Bussan.
This supplication was read by Archpriest Adami and approved by the Chapter at a meeting held on September 21, 1920. On September 27, a Chapter delegation presented it to the Archbishop of Malta Mauro Caruana, OSB, who assured them of its indispensable support before The Holy See.
On January 3, 1921, Pope Benedict XV promulgated the decree Ad perennandam memoriam by which he adorned the collegiate church and parish of Senglea with the title and dignity of minor basilica. With this papal document was written another golden page in the history of Senglea.
The joyous chime of the bells of the collegiate church, which had become a new basilica, announced the arrival in Malta of this document on January 19, 1921. The following Sunday, January 23, Mgr Emanuele Vassallo, the diocesan secretary, visited Senglea and, from the pulpit , publicly proclaimed the apostolic letters of the basilica. It reads:
“For eternal memory. In the town of Senglea, on the island of Malta, there is a church built in honor of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known as “Our Lady of Victories”, erected in memory of the glorious victory against the Turkish army in 1565 It was built in thanksgiving for the deliverance of the city from such great danger.
On January 3, 1921, Pope Benedict XV promulgated the decree Ad perennandam memoriam by which he adorned the collegiate church and parish of Senglea with the title and dignity of minor basilica.
“Our predecessor Pius VI, with cherished memory, decorated this church with the title and honor of Collegial Insignis. Now, on the occasion of the joy aroused by the event of the coronation of the statue of the infant Mary, whom they call Maria Bambina, venerated with great devotion in this temple, the chapter and the clergy, in collaboration with the organizing committee set up to celebrate this feast with dignity and devotion, asked us to have the pleasure of raising this holy temple, known for its antiquity, beauty and grandeur, and also distinguished for divine worship and religious celebrations that take place there, under the minor basilica.
“When we recalled the glorious memories of this church, we judged that we would accept their calling. And we do it wholeheartedly. This is why we listened to the advice of Venerable Brother Cardinal Vico, Prefect of the Congregation of Rites, evaluated what was presented to us, and examined whether there are the necessary conditions in a church which has resorted to this title. .
“After having scrutinized all this, with our apostolic power and with the power of this decree which never loses its value, we adorn this collegiate church and parish, dedicated to the Nativity of the Virgin Mary in the diocese of Malta, with the title and the dignity of the minor basilica. We also grant to this church all the privileges to which the minor basilicas of this city of Rome are entitled.
“We declare that this script must be and always will be held firm, valid and effective. It must have and receive its full effect. Those who deal with this, now or in the future, should forever grant these rights. We judge and declare that it should be so. From now on, anything that is stated otherwise will be considered worthless and unnecessary. Anything an authority does, if it tries to go against it, will be null and void.
“Issued from Rome, Saint Peter, by the power of our Fisherman’s seal, January 3, 1921, the seventh year of our pontificate.
“Signed: Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, Secretary of State.”
The Te Deum was sung and a telegram from Cardinal Gasparri, with the papal blessing for the people of Senglea, was read.
Many wanted the church to have the papal altar and canopy installed before the coronation feasts. Although the period from February to August was too short, determination prevailed. By mid-February, architect Andrea Vassallo had completed the design and plans for the canopy. On May 27, the high altar was dismantled. In order not to waste too much time, the inhabitants of Senglea themselves worked tirelessly and for free to complete the task, under the guidance of architect Vassallo. On June 12, the first stone of the canopy was laid and blessed by Bishop Caruana. Work continued unabated until August 26, when the project was completed and inaugurated.
A century has passed since these events, and today it is up to us to celebrate this jubilee. However, we must not only stop at what we are commemorating, but also remember that this church, which has received the dignity of a basilica, is the consecrated place in which God dwells. In this place, all of us, as a Christian community, must come together to communicate with our God and let him speak to us.
A badge of the basilica is the Umbraculum. This large bell-shaped umbrella is made up of alternating yellow and red silk stripes. These colors refer to Rome and the papacy, and are therefore a sign of the link that exists between the basilica, the Holy See and the papacy. Accordingly, they should remind us of the respect and submission we must have towards the Pope.
Another badge is the Tintinnabulum. It is a small bell mounted on a shield bearing the pontifical symbols of the tiara with crossed keys. Originally, this bell rang permanently with the dual function of calling the faithful and marking the passage of liturgical processions in Rome. In the ringing of the Tintinnabulum, we must recognize the voice of the Lord who calls us to be true Christians always and everywhere.
The high altar of the basilica is called “papal” because it resembles that of the major basilicas of Rome. This altar is covered by the magnum ciborium, also called a “baldachin” or “canopy” erected on four columns. The ciborium consecrates this very place on which the solemn and liturgical worship of the church is offered to God, by Christ, in the Holy Spirit. It is related to the ark of the covenant, which covers and surrounds the Holy of Holies; it is the sacred tent. Let us therefore seek to enter under the refuge of the ciborium and to approach the altar to participate in the sacrifice of our salvation and the Eucharistic meal.
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