THE SOCIETY OF THE HOLY NAME
The devotion to the Holy Name of God started in the Middle Ages. It was the result of an appeal delivered by several Council Fathers at the Second General Council of Lyons (1274), the fourteenth General Council of the Church.
On the 20 September 1274, a little more than two months after the closure of the Council, Pope Gregory X sent the Breve Nuper in Concilio to Blessed John of Vercelli, Master General of the Dominican Order (1264–1283), inviting him and the members of his Order to do their best to carry out the Council’s wish. Through their preaching, they were to propagate the devotion to the Holy Name of God.
The Society of the Most Holy Name of Jesus started strictly speaking in 1316, on the occasion of the first centenary of the foundation of the Dominican Order. It was Pope Honorius III who, in 1216, formally approved the foundation.
The Society flourished and spread throughout the world through the preaching of the Dominican friars. There is no doubt that the Dominicans began preaching the devotion to the Holy Name in Malta soon after their establishment in Malta towards the year 1452. There is also a great possibility that the Society of the Holy Name was set up on these islands, although there are no precise details about this.
The Society in Gozo.
The Society in its present form was re-introduced in Malta on 19 November 1928 and in Gozo on 15 November 1931. The first meeting in Gozo was held at the Nadur Parish church. On the 27 November, it was also set up in Victoria, and, two days later, on 29 November, at Ghasri.
That month marked the first major recruitment drive by the Dominican Fathers in the diocese of Gozo. It was led by Father Gerard Paris, the apostle of the Society in these islands. Although Fr Paris and his group managed to enrol a considerable number of members, no congress was organised in Gozo during these first years of the Society on the island.
The following year, on 4 September 1932, the Society was set up in Għajnsielem, and on the 20 November of the same year at Qala. The Society was introduced in the parish of Xagħra on 5 February 1933. Two years later, on 10 February 1935, it was set up at Xewkija. On 7 November 1937, it was initiated at Fontana. Soon after, the beginning of the Second World War slowed down the activities of the Society. It probably stopped functioning in several parishes.
Nine years passed before any activity was witnessed. On 5 May 1946, that is nine years after it was founded at Fontana, the Society started its activity at Ta’ Sannat. The tenth branch of the Society was established at San Lawrenz on 26 May 1946. On 16 December 1946, the Society was set up at Gharb. On 5 January 1947, it was founded at Zebbug, on 30 March 1947, at Ta’ Kercem, and, finally, on 12 July 1959, at the newly founded parish of Munxar.
The First Diocesan Congress
In the years after the war, the membership of the Society in Gozo exceeded one thousand. Fr Paris, the National Director of the Society, decided that it was time to organise the first diocesan Congress. Bishop Joseph Pace was glad to hear the news and Monsignor Luigi Galea, the Diocesan director, began preparations immediately.
At that time, Mgr Galea was helping Guzeppa Debono, the foundress of Lourdes Home – a home for orphan and abandoned children – to build a new residence overlooking Mgarr harbour. He got the idea of killing two birds with one stone; he would hold the Congress at Għajnsielem and, in conclusion, he would hold the ceremony for laying the foundation stone of the new Home. After various discussions with Bishop Pace and Fr Paris, it was agreed to hold the first Congress and the ceremony on Sunday, 25 August 1946.
It dawned a bright summer day. Fr Paris led a large pilgrimage of Society members from Malta and, in the afternoon, the Maltese joined a huge crowd of Gozitans upon Ghajnsielem Parish square. From there, praying and singing, they proceeded towards the Lourdes Chapel where the ceremonies were going to be held. The following is an eyewitness account.
“The pilgrims, gathered in front of the Grotto of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lourdes, provided a poignant picture and afforded an external sign of devotion towards the Holy Name of God and the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was possible to feel an unusual sensation, a strong attraction towards Heaven and Holy Mary.
Mgr Joseph Pace, Bishop of Gozo opened the Congress by a blessing. This was followed by the melodious chant of the Litany and other hymns. Fr Paris delivered the first address in which, in strong terms, he showed the ugliness of blasphemy and the punishment it attracts, persuading his listeners that this horrible vice should be eradicated. He hoped that the Congress would act as a basis to revitalise the society of Gozo.
Mgr Galea also addressed those present. He urged the pilgrims so that, from that day onwards, each and everybody should be active and effective and strive to help the Society grow in numbers. At the end, he read out a telegram sent by the Society in Gozo to His Holiness Pope Pius XII in which he was begged to bestow his Apostolic Blessing on all those present.”
The laying of the foundation stone of Lourdes Home followed. The ceremony was concluded with the singing of the Te Deum and the Eucharistic blessing delivered by the Bishop.
The Society Revived
This Congress served to revive the Society in Gozo and in the following months, as we said above, it was set up in three parishes where it had not yet started to function.
The diocesan Director resigned in May 1948 and was succeeded by Fr Alan Fenech, a Dominican friar, who was frequently in Gozo to lecture at the Gozo Seminary. He immediately started to organise prayer meetings and Eucharistic Adoration in various parishes to invigorate the Society. Slowly but surely, he succeeded.
The Society started to function regularly in many parishes and the membership exceeded three thousand in a few months. The first Diocesan Committee was set up through his efforts and with the help of Dr. Joseph Pace LLD – of Paceville fame – who was an active member of the Society. The Committee members were: Mgr Michael Cefai, archpriest of the Cathedral Church; Mgr Prof Fr Salv Tabone, who later became Diocesan Director; the just mentioned Dr Joseph Pace; Dr. Francesco Masini; and Dr. Joseph Paris. Through their hard work, the effective work of the Society in Gozo flourished.
On the 21 September 1952, the Committee organised a grandiose Congress at Victoria: the second diocesan Congress. The cortege proceeded from It-Tokk to Pjazza Tomba. The Leone and the La Stella bands accompanied with Eucharistic hymns. There were three speeches: Fr Paris spoke about the hideous vice of blasphemy; Luigi Camilleri, Chief Justice and a Gozitan, reiterated the necessity of struggling against blasphemy. Fr Accursius Xerri, a Franciscan minor, spoke about the beauty and magnitude of the Name of God. In between the speeches, the two bands played religious piece alternatively.
Three resolutions – similar to those taken at the first congress and in all the others that followed – were anonymously approved. Those present bound themselves:
(1) to honour Gozo and never offend Him with blasphemy and to do their best to admonish those who blaspheme, if necessary by legal means.
(2) to attend functions organised by the Society, especially the procession held in the parishes on the second Sunday of each month, to venerate the Name of God and to atone for blasphemy; and
(3) to do their best to spread the devotion to the adorable Name of God throughout Gozo.
Members of the Society
The members of the Society were divided into three categories:
(1) priests and seminarians,
(2) male section, and
(3) female section.
The above-mentioned resolutions indicate the main duties of members.
First and foremost all members had to make sure that they do not blaspheme themselves, or give false testimony, or err in any way that profanes God’s name. They were also to be prepared to correct blasphemers, whenever the need arises, vigorously, but with love. In case they failed to listen, it was imperative to lodge a report with the police. Blasphemy was and, technically, still is punishable under Maltese law.
Secondly, members bound themselves to go to confession and receive Holy Communion on the second Sunday of each month. They were also to take part in the procession with the statue of Jesus of the Society. In this procession, held in various parishes, a small statue of Jesus was carried. Participants were granted a plenary indulgence.
Thirdly, they had to do their best to spread the majestic and magnificent devotion to the names of God and Our Lord Jesus Christ throughout Gozo; to encourage others to join the Society; and to propagate amongst themselves the salutation: May Jesus Christ be praised!
Congresses organised on a regular basis
The Society was now firmly re-established in Gozo. The Congress held at Victoria had the desired effect and talks began to be held regularly in many villages. On Sunday, 6 July 1952, although it was in the peak of summer, a talk about the greatness of the Name of God was delivered at Nadur inside a church full to capacity. After Benediction, about five hundred parishioners were enrolled in the Society. At about the same time, the Society was very active at Xagħra, where the membership surpassed seven hundred.
The organisation of the Society was at its best and from 1952 onwards Congresses started to be held regularly.
The third Congress was held at Nadur on 30 August 1953. The main streets were decorated as if it was the village feast. Two speeches were delivered. Fr Tarcisius Gatt, the Diocesan Master of Ceremonies, spoke about the beauty and greatness of the Name of God; Dr. Francesco Masini LLD, a well-known lawyer, spoke about the ugliness of blasphemy and the curse it draws on the nation. At the end of this Congress, Bishop Joseph Pace announced that once a year each parish was going to organise a day against blasphemy.
In those days, groups were mad about precedence in processions. As one can gather from the Society’s periodical Militia Christi, on which most of this information is based, this precedence was also adhered to in the society’s Congresses. So, the Nadur branch always used to lead the procession because, as we have already mentioned, it was there that the Society was first established.
They were followed by members from Victoria and then the rest. Ta’ Kerċem members marched last until 1959, when the last place was taken by those of Munxar. The oldest branch of the Society used to lead the cortege, exactly the opposite of what used to happen in the well-known procession of St Gregory. This procession wended its way from the Cathedral to Ta’ Kerċem every 12 March. The last established parish of Munxar marched first, while the members of the Cathedral Parish, the oldest, walked last.
The congresses were held once a year in one parish after another. The Congress proper was preceded by several days of preparation with talks inside the church, in clubs, and in bars. The talks centred on the hideousness of blasphemy and the necessity of veneration towards the Holy Name of God. Various prayer meetings also held for different categories of the parish. This helped a lot to reduce blasphemy – one of the negative hallmarks of these islands.
There were only three occasions between 1952 and 1967 when the Congress was not held. In 1959, Fr Paris, the National Director, was not feeling well; in 1964, the days of the Congress coincided with the celebrations of the first centenary of the diocese; and, in 1966, the general elections precluded such Congress. On 3 September 1967, the Congress was held at Munxar. This was the last Congress of the first series, as no Congresses were held in Gozo in the following ten years.
The Society in later years
The national director of the Society, Fr Paris was by now well advanced in years and with failing health. This seems to have been the main reason why Congresses were suddenly stopped.
Fr Paris died on the 10 July 1973 and Fr Angelicus Vella O.P. was appointed National Director in 1974. Four years later, Congresses started to be organised again with the help of Dun Karm Scicluna, the Diocesan Director, and Mr Joseph Refalo, the newly-appointed President of the Society in Gozo.
The first Congress after the ten-year lull was held at Xaghra on the 22 January 1978. The main speaker of this fifteenth Congress was Mr Peter Paul Grech, Head of theSecondary Schools in Gozo. He spoke about the spitefulness of blasphemy. In the week before the congress, home visits were held for the first time. Besides, visits to bars and other places frequented by people were intensified.
From that year onwards Congresses were organised regularly again. The twenty-fifth Congress was held at Nadur on Sunday, 17 April 1988. The Holy Name in the teachings of the Apostles Peter and Paul was the theme of the address delivered by Mr Peter Paul Vella, a member of the Society of Christian Doctrine.
The hard work of the Society of the Holy Name of God in the Diocese of Gozo was not in vain. A better social education to children and the young generation has begun reaping fruit. It is everyone’s hope that the Society and each and everyone will succeed to eradicate the hideous vice of blasphemy to the greater praise of Jesus Christ.