Founding the Seminary
The Council of Trent (1545-1563) founded the Seminary institution for the formation of priests, making it obligatory for all dioceses to set up this institution. The purpose for establishing the seminaries was to provide the right environment wherein the candidates to the priesthood could be provided with the formation that would make them good pastors of the Christian community.
What constitutes an adequate preparation of the clergy both on the intellectual and spiritual levels in the Seminaries remains an ongoing dilemma, but it is generally assumed that the grouping of seminarians in Seminaries gives candidates for the priesthood a better spiritual and cultural education.
The Seminary in Malta
The Seminary was instituted in Malta in a rented house in Notabile, Malta, on March 25, 1703. The Seminary opened its doors to six students who came from six different parishes. It was transferred from Mdina to other places in the diocese of Malta by different Bishops who deemed it necessary to make the shift to offer a better formation to future priests.
Bishop Gaspare Gore Mancini (1722-1727) transferred the Seminary to Valletta in 1723 but five years later Bishop Alferan de Bussan (1728-1757) wanted the Seminary to return to Mdina. In 1740 it was housed in a new building, blessed on May 20, 1742, situated near to the Cathedral Church.
At that time there were 1,679 priests in the diocese of Malta. The number of Maltese priests declined in the second half of the eighteenth century, a decline caused by the pressure that was brought about by the higher standards of education and intellectual formation that was asked of the candidates to the priesthood by the Holy See and by the Maltese Ecclesiastical authorities.
A radical reform
In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Maltese clergy was divided into two categories on the intellectual level, with only the higher clergy being eligible to vote in elections. In 1858, Bishop Pace Forno (1857-1874) wanted to make “a radical reform in the Seminary”.
Taking the Seminary from Mdina to Floriana marked also a change in the curriculum of ecclesiastical studies, introducing new subjects of study such Holy Scripture, Hebrew and English languages, Sacred Eloquence. Bishop Pace Forno also granted degrees in Theology at the Seminary, with the permission of the Holy See, from 1860 to 1874.
Investigating Seminary life
Stricter demands were imposed on candidates for the priesthood by the Apostolic Administrator Bishop Antonio M. Buhagiar (1885-1888). Bishop Buhagiar removed the possibility that future priests would be trained by individual priests who provided them with private tuition. There were now only two ways by which the candidates to the priesthood could follow their ecclesiastical studies: either at the Seminary or at the Faculty of Theology within the University of Malta.
Whether attending lectures about Ecclesiastical studies at the Seminary or at the University, students could live outside the Seminary with the authority of the Rector of the Seminary at the time of Monsignor Buhagiar and sometime after. The Holy See, however, sent Cardinal Pietro La Fontaine as an Apostolic Visitor in Malta in 1909 with the mission to investigate the Seminary life.
Following this visitation and upon the recommendation of the Sacred Concistorial Congregation, Bishop Pietro Pace (1889-1914) ordered that all students, whether studying at the Seminary or the University, had to reside at the Seminary.
These reforms in the educational system of the seminarians brought about two main consequences in the Seminary life. All ecclesiastical studies were now under the control of institutions approved by the Ecclesiastical authorities, namely the Seminary and the Faculty of Theology, but these policies could have also contributed to the decline in the number of candidates to the priesthood.
A new home
Bishop Gaetano Pace Forno transferred the Major Seminary to the Casa de Manresa, formerly a Jesuit retreat house, in Floriana in 1858 and he carried out a thorough reform in its curriculum of studies. The Major Seminary remained at Floriana for about fifty years, as it was transferred once more to Notabile after the Apostolic visitation of Cardinal Pietro Ia Fontaine in 1910.
When Monsignor Angelo Portelli (1914-1915) was nominated Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Malta, the Seminary was transferred from Casa de Manresa in Floriana back to Mdina, “where the seminarians could pray and study in a more silent and recollected atmosphere.” This stay in the old city was only of a short duration as Bishop Dom Maurus Caruana (1915-1943) in 1921 brought it back to Floriana.
‘An ardent desire to be useful in serving others’
The reform of the Seminary continued to make great strides forward when Monsignor Giuseppe De Piro was Rector of the Seminary. De Piro’s eleven-page report dated from August 27, 1920, at the end of the second scholastic year of his rectorship, lauds the teaching of Philosophy and Theology under Archbishop Caruana and raises concerns, amongst others, about the revolutionary spirit that had infiltrated the Seminary.
During the Second World War the building of the Seminary was hit three times and sustained considerable damage. For a short period the Major Seminary was transferred to the Oratory at Birkirkara.
Twentieth century Malta grew increasingly aware of the need of holy vocations. The future priest was to look up to the Maltese priest himself, not only during Mass but also while hearing confessions, preaching, assisting the dying for long hours and accompanying the deceased to Church and to cemetery. A local document issued from the Maltese Diocese in the first half of the twentieth century described the priestly vocation as an ardent desire to be useful in serving others.
A changing world
Archbishop Guzeppi Mercieca (1976-2006) decided to move the Seminary back to the Mdina area and to its present place, in Tal-Virtù, Rabat, on September 28, 1977. Formerly known as the Mater Admirabilis Training College, the present complex has a history of its own.
The foundation stone was laid by the Governor Gerald Creasy in 1952 and was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1954. The main chapel was consecrated by Archbishop Michael Gonzi (1943-1976) on 31 May, 1955.
Under the direction of Monsignor Lawrence Gatt, the now Archbishop’s Seminary was transferred to tal-Virtù in two stages: on November 15, 1977, the Minor Seminary started lessons in the new premises and the next stage took place in September 1978 when the Major Seminary moved to Tal-Virtù, also housing the Faculty of Theology until 1988.
Seminarians have the formation programme at this place while all students read for their degrees at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Malta. Formation at the Archbishop’s Seminary now also includes collaboration with other institutions, in Malta and abroad, seeking an adequate preparation for future priests to minister in a changing world.