“Consequently, I hereby declare that the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time is to be devoted to the celebration, study and dissemination of the word of God. This Sunday of the Word of God will thus be a fitting part of that time of the year when we are encouraged to strengthen our bonds with the Jewish people and to pray for Christian unity. This is more than a temporal coincidence: the celebration of the Sunday of the Word of God has ecumenical value, since the Scriptures point out, for those who listen, the path to authentic and firm unity” (no.3).
With these words Pope Francis instituted the Sunday of the Word of God thanks to the Apostolic Letter in the form of a Motu Proprio, Aperuit illis, given on 30th September 2019, the liturgical Memorial of Saint Jerome, on the inauguration of the 1600th anniversary of his death. It was the same Jerome who boldly affirmed: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” (Commentary on the Book of Isaiah, Prologue: PL 24,17B).
God has never ever abandoned His Church. Even in a tiny country like Malta. In fact, in His unfathomable providential loving care, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort (2 Cor 1:3) sent a great man amongst us to dedicate his life both scholarly and, most of all, pastorally, to God’s Word. I am referring with great admiration, love, respect and gratitude, to my Capuchin confrere, Fr Donat Spiteri OFM Cap. Having lived with this dedicated person to God’s service, I can easily declare with the utmost conviction, that Fr Donat was a living icon of what it really means to celebrate, study and disseminate God’s Word. But who was this tiny priest in stature but a giant in his ardent love for the Bible?
Fr Donat Spiteri OFM Cap was born on Friday October 13, 1922, in Marsa. His parents were Spiridione and Antonia née Cassar. Feeling that he was called to be a friar, following closely Jesus Christ in the footsteps of St Francis of Assisi, he joined the Franciscan Capuchin Order. After his period of initial formation he was finally ordained a priest on March 13, 1948. Due to his remarkable intellectual abilities, Fr Donat was sent to Rome to further his studies at the Gregorian Pontifical University. In this Jesuit prestigious university the hardworking Maltese Capuchin earned his Licence in Theology (Dogmatics). Then, he also studied the Holy Scriptures at the Pontificio Istituto Bibblico in Rome where he did his licence in the Holy Scripture. Upon returning to Malta in 1954, Fr Donat was entrusted with the responsibility of teaching young Capuchin students who were still in their initial formation stage.
His organisational capabilities put him at the centre of serving God’s people in an extraordinary way. In fact, between 1958 and 1967 he was parish priest of the Holy Trinity Church in Marsa, the same parish where I am in now. Throughout those years, Fr Donat was certainly instrumental in the construction of the St Pius X parish centre. After the fruitful stewardship of Marsa Parish the Capuchin superiors chose Fr Donat for another important pastoral work, this time to lead San Ġwann parish church. In fact, from 1983 till 1991 we find Fr Donat serving as a parish priest of Our Lady of Lourdes in San Ġwann, a ministry which he lovingly fulfilled.
Throughout the years he served in San Gwann, he again felt the need to gather the lay movements under one roof. Hence, out of his pastoral zeal and reading the signs of the times, Fr Donat built the parish centre of San Ġuzepp. Furthermore, he got personally interested in restoring the Sta. Margherita Chapel, which now houses the Eucharistic Jesus for daily adoration.
Trailing carefully on the sure iter of the Fathers of the Church Fr Donat never abandoned his academic ministry. As a matter of fact, from 1966 to 1988, he was both a lecturer as well as a Professor of Biblical Studies at the Faculty of Theology at the University of Malta wherein, together with Rev. Prof. Karm Sant and others, set up the Malta Bible Society, of which he was also a President. The main achievement of this Society was the publication of the Holy Bible in Maltese. The translation commenced in 1966 and continued until it was finally published in 1984. Since then, the Bible was revised again, taking another five years. Thus, the second edition was published in 1996. As the teaching and interpretation of the Bible were his life’s mission, Fr Donat was instrumental in opening Dar il-Bibbja in Floriana, as a Bible Centre.
He is also the author of numerous books of theological and biblical themes, of which il-Ktieb tas-Salmi (Book of Psalms), Dizzjunarju Bibbliku (Bible Dictionary), Temi Teoloġiċi (Theological Themes), l-Evanġelji ta’ San Mattew u San Luqa (The Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke), il-Ktieb ta’ l-Atti ta’ l-Appostli (The Book of the Acts of the Apostles), together with many others are being published by the Malta Bible Society. Fr Donat was also a regular contributor in articles to the local press and various religious magazines such as Dawl Franġiskan, besides lecturing and explaining the Holy Bible on the local media. He also toured various parishes in Malta and Gozo where he gave Biblical courses.
This great apostle of God’s Word had surely left his indelible legacy of reading, loving and living God’s Word. Personally speaking, I have been blessed of living with this exemplary friar during my post-novitiate Capuchin formation in Floriana. It was certainly my delight when my two post-novitiate directors allowed me to help Fr Donat by proofreading some of his books. A book which we really worked hard upon and, as a result, I keep treasuring for the rest of my life, is Id-Didachè, which he published in 1999.
In 1974 Fr Donat felt the need to spread further Bible reading into the Maltese households. Thus, he launched the small booklet Kliem il-Ħajja (the Word of Life) which has become synonymous with him. This booklet is issued every quarter and both helps and simplifies the daily reading of the Bible. He was the editor since its origin as well as its Director General. Today, this booklet finds its way in many homes throughout Malta and Gozo – and also amongst our Maltese emigrants abroad. It is worth mentioning that over 20,000 Kliem il-Ħajja booklets are distributed thanks to the many volunteers. On the 30th Anniversary of this publication, he inaugurated a Kliem il-Ħajja office and library inside the Capuchin Friary at Floriana, where most of this booklet is prepared. All those interested in Biblical studies have now another place where to study the Bible into more depth, besides going through the many works of Fr Donat.
Civil authorities have duly recognized his magnificent work. In fact, Fr Donat was honoured with the Ġieħ il-Marsa and Ġieħ San Ġwann by the respective Local Councils as an appreciation for his service to their respective communities. On December 13, 2009, Fr Donat was also awarded the Midalja għall-Qadi tar-Repubblika (Medal for Service to the Republic) by H.E. the President of Malta Dr George Abela, on behalf of the Government and people of Malta.
After his demise, on June 14, 2015, he was remembered again for his work and dedication to the community by the San Ġwann Local Council. The latter commemorated a square in the locality, Misraħ Patri Donat Spiteri, named for his honour. Fr Donat died at the Christus Sacerdos, Home for Elderly Priests, at Fleur-de-Lys, on December 19, 2011, aged 89. He is buried at the vaults of the Franciscan Friars Minor Capuchins at the Santa Maria Addolorata Cemetery.
Christ’s words are the approval of Fr Donat’s faithful witness to God’s Word. Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master’ (Matt 25:21.23).
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap