Gozo and Comino formed part of the diocese of Malta since the arrival of Christianity on our shores around AD 60. The bishop of Malta was also bishop of Gozo and Comino. However, due to the very poor means of communications and his ever-increasing burdens, the bishop of Malta rarely visited the island of Gozo. More than one bishop, in fact, never set foot on the island. The priests and the people had longed for a long time for a bishop closer home, but it was only late in the eighteenth century that they began stepping up their efforts to establish Gozo as a separate diocese.
The first petition for the establishment of a diocese was forwarded by Archpriest Saverio Cassar of the Matrice and Collegiate Church of Gozo on 29 October 1798. Yet due to the very abnormal political situation then prevailing in Malta because of the French blockade, this first attempt never gained ground. On 30 December 1836, the Gozitans, for the second time, petitioned a diocese to Pope Gregory XVI. Difficulties could not be surmounted and the second attempt failed too.
The Gozitans hence decided on a more direct line of action. On 9 June 1855, three representatives of the Gozitans brought up the matter of the diocese in a private audience with Pope Pius IX. The kind Pontiff pitied the petitioners and promised his support. Matters however would have soon got stalled once again were it not for two born great leaders: the indefatigable Don Pietro Pace (1831-1914), a young priest from Rabat then concluding his University studies in Rome; and the energetic (Sir) Adriano Dingli (1817-1900), the eminent Crown Counsel of colonial Malta who was of Gozitan extraction.
Though hundreds of kilometers apart, they began working hand in hand to see the wishes of their fellow islanders fulfilled. The latter employed all his authority to gain the approval of the British Government – an indispensable authorization as Gozo and Malta were a Crown Colony. The Colonial Office in London gave the important approval on 25 October 1860. The former, Don Pietro Pace, was at the same time evening out all difficulties at the Vatican.
However, it was only after the unequivocal consent of the British that Archbishop Alessandro Franchi, Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, set in motion the long procedures for the establishment of the diocese. First there were several problems to be overcome. These concerned the deficiency of a proper endowment for the bishopric; the candidate that was to be chosen as first bishop of Gozo; and the setting up of a Seminary – then an indispensable institution with the establishment of every diocese. Problems of a financial nature were overcome through the generous contributions of well-to-do Gozitans. Don Michele Francesco Buttigieg, Archpriest of the Gozo Matrice and Collegiate Church and a great promoter of the diocese, was suggested for the bishopric as he possessed all necessary qualifications. As a Seminary, the promoters proposed for the purpose the convertion of the Church-owned Saint Julian Hospital .
Events hence quickly headed to a conclusion. On 16th March 1863, Archpriest Michele Francesco Buttigieg was elected Auxiliary Bishop of Malta with instructions to reside in Gozo. The Gozitans however continued to press for their original demand and Pope Pius IX at long last conceded to their wishes. Through the Bull Singulari Amore – With remarkable love, of 16 September 1864, the islands of Gozo and Comino were separated from the diocese of Malta and established an independent diocese. On 22 September 1864, Bishop Buttigieg was elected the first bishop of Gozo. He made his solemn entry into the Cathedral Church of Santa Marija on 23 October 1864.
One hundred and fortynine years afterwards, the Diocese of Gozo, led by Bishop Mario Grech, the eight pastor of the diocese, still strives strenously to fulfill its purposes – which can be summed up in one word: evangelization – in face of the challenges brought about by modern times. Though one of the smallest in the Roman Catholic Church, with a population of around 30,000, the diocese has one of the most high, if not the highest, seminarian-population and priest-population ratio in the world. With just over two hundred priests, a quarter of whom are working abroad throughout the five continents, the Diocese is certainly trying to fulfill its purpose of its being in a laudable way.