On the first day of the civic year, the Church invites us to celebrate Mary Theotokos – Mother of God. In his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul describes this great mystery by reminding us that God sent his son to be born of a woman; this is Paul’s description of the mystery of the Incarnation. In the gospel reading we see the shepherds who visit Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, and repeat what they had been told by the angels: ‘a saviour has been to you!’
It is difficult to understand how God could disguise himself so well under the image of a created human being. Mary held her new-born child, pondered on who this child would turn out to be and treasured in her heart all that was said about him.
Understandably, the early Church too struggled to understand who Jesus really was. Amidst many controversies, at the Council of Ephesus in the year 431, she finally came to understand that Jesus was truly God and equally truly human, and that his mother deserved to be called ‘Mother of God.’
In 1931 the Church celebrated fifteenth centenary from this historic moment. De Piro, who lived the Incarnation every day of his life, celebrated this moment with the Church. In the 1932 issue of the almanac he published an informative article about this event.
Mother of God! Mother of God! Mother of God!
After spending two years working hard, preaching the gospel and facing serious opposition, the Apostle Paul, our father, finally succeeded in gathering all the books on magic, and burn them in the main square of the city of Ephesus. Unfortunately, this bonfire also reignited the pagan devotions of the Ephesians who, shouting ‘Long live Diana!’ rose in a vicious rebellion against Paul and the other Christians in their city. (Cf Acts 19) Paul did not abandon this ungrateful city. In a letter written from Rome, Paul reminded the people of Ephesus that they needed to respond to the wonders God had worked among them, by leading a holy life. Paul spoke of the graces they had received through Jesus Christ, and listed their duties as Christians. (Eph 4:17-32)
St Paul’s words were not in vain. Centuries later, Ephesus expressed its devotion to Mary by erecting a magnificent basilica in her honour, the venue where the Church Fathers congregated to celebrate for the Third Ecumenical Council. At this council the bishops joined the pope in condemning the Nestorian heresy. When he council declared Mary Mother of God, like a flash of lightning, a holy disturbance erupted in Ephesus. Not a rebellion against Paul’s Christian teaching, but against heresy, and in support of the teaching of the Church, gathered around Pope Celestine I, Peter’s successor, represented at Ephesus by St Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria. The cry ‘Long live Diana!’ could no longer be heard in the streets and squares of Ephesus; people ran out in the streets, carrying burning torches and shouting: ‘Long live Mary, the Mother of God.’
St Cyril, who attended the council as Nestorius’ opponent, wrote to the people of Alexandria about his experience.
“The Holy Synod was held on the 22nd June 431 in Ephesus, in a large church dedicated to Mary Mother of God; around two hundred bishops participated in this council. After a day-long discussion we agreed to condemn Nestorius, the heretic, who had not even dared to attend. The council voted to depose Nestoroius, and remove him from the order of bishop.
All day long the people of the city waited for the council’s decision. When they heard that the heretic had been stripped of his office, as with one voice, they all praised the council and glorified God that the enemy of the faith had finally been struck down.
As we left the church, crowds accompanied us with burning torches, to the houses where we were staying. It was late in the evening. There were joyful celebrations and illuminations everywhere; some women walked in front of us, burning incense.”
Once again, the Church had been victorious because, in time of trouble, it gathered around the Vicar of Christ and heeded his words. To commemorate this victory, to the angel’s greeting to Mary, the bishops at this council added a prayer which we still repeat to this day: ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.’
Pope Pius XI wrote to Cardinal Sincero, Secretary of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, and expressed his wish that the fifteenth centenary of the Council of Ephesus be celebrated in a fitting way by the oriental and the western Church. Mary, honoured in this council as Mother of God, is mother of all Christians.
At the pope’s request, in Rome and throughout Italy, everyone started preparing for this celebration. This anniversary was celebrated with a National Marian Congress and at its conclusion, a procession was held with the image of Our Lady, venerated at the Liberian Basilica, under the title of Salvation of the Roman People. The whole world joined, in different ways, in celebrating this anniversary of the council of Ephesus and the greatness of Mary, Mother of God and our mother. Malta, devoted to Mary since the early days of the Church, also responded to the pope’s appeal. A festive celebration was held on Sunday 25th October, at the Floriana Granaries; the whole world learnt of the devotion of the Maltese people towards Mary, through the Vatican Press.
The suggestion by the beloved Bishop of Malta was an inspiration. He desired that the remembrance of the Council of Ephesus be solemnly celebrated by including the devout image of Our Lady, venerated at the Greeks’ church in Valletta under the title of Mary ‘Our Lady of Damascus,’ in the celebrations.
This image of Our Lady is called Damascene because, for a long time, it was honoured in the city of Damascus, where, as we know from scripture, since the beginning of the Church, there had been an important group of Christians. This community attracted the zeal of Paul of Tarsus, in favour of the Law of Moses, and eventually played an important part in the conversion of the Apostle, our father. It is believed that this image is the work of St Luke, who was deeply involved with Church in Damascus, and is therefore no great surprise that he would have given them this image of Mary, to encourage their devotion towards her.
We will narrate the amazing story of how this image came to be in Malta, enhancing the treasures of our Christian Church. This image was greatly honoured by the Christians in Damascus and they were favoured with many graces. When the city was taken over by the Turks, the Christian faith and religion were gradually destroyed; and this cherished image of Our Lady was abandoned. In 1415 this image left Damascus; all on its own, as if held by miraculous hands, and accompanied by a burning light, it travelled across the seas and entered the harbour at the island of Rhodes, where the Knights of St John lived. Some sailors say that when they saw the mysterious light, they determined to followed it.
The knights recognised the image as that venerated in Damascus, and, receiving it with great respect, guarded it with great affection. When, in 1522, Rhodes fell to the Turks, the knights decided to take this cherished possession with them, and in 1530, they brought to Malta. This image was kept in Vittoriosa for some years until, in 1587, it was placed in the church where it is today. This most dear image of Our Lady has rightly been chosen to be at the centre of the feasts commemorating the Council of Ephesus.
A special three-day preparation was held in all Maltese parishes. Preachers, specially chosen by the bishop, preached at each parish. The centenary celebrations were inaugurated on the evening of Tuesday 20th October, with a solemn procession carrying the miraculous image of Our Lady of Damascus, from the Greeks’ church to St John’s Co-Cathedral. Mgr M. Gonzi, Bishop of Gozo, presided at this event, assisted by the Maltese cathedral chapter. When the procession arrived at St John’s, Fr Paul Galea, the Episcopal Vicar, delivered a heartfelt, moving sermon, devoted towards Mary. With skilfully chosen words, matching the occasion, he reminded everyone that in Malta, the devotion to Mary started with the arrival of St Paul, the Apostle, our father. His companion, St Luke, was not content with leaving us one image of Our lady; he left us two! One painted on rock at Mellieha; the second one is painted on timber, now housed at the cathedral.
Since those early days, the Maltese have always shown great veneration toward these images, recently crowned by Bishop P.P. Pace. Fr Galea reminded us that the first titular of the cathedral was the image just mentioned, and that nearly half the parishes in Malta and Gozo, together with the Gozo cathedral, are dedicated to Our Lady. He spoke about the beautiful and devout habit in all families, to pray the Rosary together every evening.
Fr Galea also mentioned the widespread devotions towards the Carmelite scapular and the cincture in honour of Our Lady. He then spoke about the images of Our Lady that had been crowned: the image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Valletta, the statue of the Immaculate Conception in Cospicua, the image of Our Lady ‘tal-Herba’ in Birkirkara, and statue of the ‘Bambina’ in Senglea. Finally, reflecting on the words of the hymn ‘Sub tuum praesidium confugimus, Sancta Dei Genetrix,’ (we fly to your protection, O Holy Mother of God), he explained how, with the crowning of the image of Our Lady of Damascus, in Malta there will be a memory of the celebrations of the fifteenth centenary of the Council of Ephesus.
After opening the festivities, three days of Marian Diocesan Congress meetings were held. The meetings were held in Italian at St John’s Co-cathedral, and in Maltese at the Jesuits’ church. The best and most qualified speakers, ecclesiastic and lay, participated; each, to the best of their ability, speaking in honour Our Lady, developing nine arguments. (1) Mary Theotokos (Mother of God); (2) the divine maternity and the bride and Christian mother; (3) Malta and Mary; (4) the divine maternity of Mary in Catholic dogma; (5) the divine maternity of Mary and cleanliness of the soul; (6) before and after the definition of Mary Theotokos; (7) Mary Mother of God and our mother; (8) the Greek Church and the Virgin Mary; (9) the Council of Ephesus and the primacy of Rome.
The Greek Rite Pontifical Mass, celebrated at St John’s on the 24th of October, the eve of the last day, further embellished these centenary celebrations. The celebrant was Mgr. Paul Schirò, titular bishop of Benda, assisted by other priests of the same rite. For this occasion, the resident Greek Catholic priest was joined by other priests, who came over from Sicily. The ceremonies of this concelebration were truly moving. The sharing of the left-over Eucharistic bread among all the clergy present, filled everyone with joy. This ceremony was performed with all humility by the bishop himself, after he had finished the sacrifice and removed his pontifical vestments.
The festivities concluded solemnly on Sunday 25th October. In the morning, the bishop of Malta celebrated Pontifical Mass at Saint John’s, in front of the image of Our Lady of Damascus. As usual, he was assisted by the cathedral chapter. That afternoon, the miraculous image of Our Lady was carried in procession to the Floriana granaries. It seemed as if the whole Maltese population had turned out for this event; a small crowd would not have filled that large open space the way it was on that day. The speech for the occasion was transmitted from a speaker in the bell tower, so that everyone could hear clearly.
The crowd was overjoyed when Mgr. Caruana, the Bishop of Malta, assisted by the Bishops Mgr. Gonzi and Mgr. Schirò, crowned first the Child and then Our Lady. As the bishop moved closer to kiss the crowned image, the whole crowd exploded in an enthusiastic applause. At that moment everyone felt united with the bishop in an act of devotion and love towards Mary.
The 25th October was a truly delightful day. Eighteen years later, we were reminded of the day of the Eucharistic Congress. We cannot decide what we should treasure most: the procession to Floriana; the moment of the coronation; the singing of the Te Deum; the return procession to the co-cathedral; or the way the procession was welcomed at King’s Way (today known as Republic Street, the main street in the city), Valletta. An expression of great happiness and rejoicing could be seen on everyone’s face.
The return of the crowned image of Mary by the bishop to the priest of the Greek rite, was so moving. It reminded us of the very tender action which took place on Calvary when Christ recommended his beloved mother to St John.
In Gozo, the fifteenth centenary was commemorated by the bishop with the solemn consecration of the new church built around the ancient sanctuary of Our Lady at Ta’ Pinu. The people of our sister island expressed their deep devotion towards Mary.
In our missionary society we offered a floral tribute to Our Lady, by preparing a literary academy among the students living there. We concluded the academy with a resolution to make our small voice heard by requesting the bishop to place another pearl in Mary, Our Most Holy Mother’s crown, with the declaration of the dogmatic definition of the glorious Assumption of Mary. The Maltese population have always called Mary three times: Mater Dei, Mater Dei, Mater Dei (Mother of God). After the homily by the Bishop of Gozo, the people of Gozo too will now call her: Mater Dei, Mater Dei, Mater Dei.