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from issue no. 04/05 - 2011

History of the Pontifical Maronite College

Forge of patriarchs, orientalists and future saints

by Pina Baglioni

The Procurator Monsignor Elias Boutros Hoyek, the future Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites, in the center of the photo in the front row, and the Rector of the College, Father Gabriel Moubarak, third from the right in the front row, with students of the College, the photo dates from 1893 [© Pontifical Maronite College]

The Procurator Monsignor Elias Boutros Hoyek, the future Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites, in the center of the photo in the front row, and the Rector of the College, Father Gabriel Moubarak, third from the right in the front row, with students of the College, the photo dates from 1893 [© Pontifical Maronite College]


In the entrance hall of the Curia of the Jesuit General House in Rome, one can view an old map that shows the first five national Colleges, built during the sixteenth century, all in the vicinity of the Roman College (the Gregorian University of the time) so that the seminarians could get to class quickly: they were the English, the Germanic-Hungarian, the Armenian, the Greek and, of course, the Maronite, which, unlike all the others, was a College of a Church sui iuris present especially in Lebanon and Syria, with rites and liturgy derived from the Syro-Antiochian tradition. And which boasted full communion with Rome, despite the extreme difficulty of communication between the Holy See and the Middle East.

The contact between the Holy See and the Maronite Church was consolidated during the Crusades, when Christian armies had received great help from the Maronites. And one consequence of the refound relationship was the journey to Rome of Patriarch Jeremiah of Amshit for the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. In the following centuries, the popes sent missionaries and apostolic visitors to Lebanon to assess eventual doctrinal problems among the faithful of Saint Maron. The Maronite Church was then a frontier Church, shut in among the mountains of Lebanon and isolated not only from Rome but also from the rest of the world because of the need to protect itself from the pressure of the Ottomans.

One of the most brilliant results of the papal legation in Lebanon between 1578 and 1580 was the foundation of the Maronite College in Rome, established by Pope Gregory XIII in 1584 with the Bull Humana sic ferunt. The objective was to train aspiring priests in Rome who, on returning to their country, might have a decisive impact on the relationship between the pope and the patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites. Who, in turn, might foster relations with all the other Eastern Churches.

The first establishment in Rome, the direction of which was entrusted to the Jesuits, was a house near the church of San Giovanni della Ficozza, a few meters from the present Gregorian University and the Trevi Fountain, in a street that would later be called “Via dei Maroniti”. The first four students, already in Rome, were increased on 31 January 1584 by six more from Aleppo, Syria.

In Rome, young boys of eight to nine began to arrive to do their primary schooling, then later, courses in Philosophy and Theology. Having already learned the grammar of the Semitic languages at home, these boys easily assimilated Latin, Italian, French and Spanish. So much so that the saying ‘learned as a Maronite’ soon became current. After concluding their studies, many were called to the courts of Europe as translators and ambassadors. Those who returned to Lebanon, instead, opened schools throughout the country. Thus the Maronites who had studied in Rome made the languages, history, institutions and the religions of the Middle East known throughout Europe. Also thanks to them, the first liturgical books were printed in Syriac. The first, in Rome, in 1585.

In 1662 the Patriarch Youhanna Mahlouf asked the Pope to remove the Jesuits from the direction of the Maronite College because of financial mismanagement and the loss of vocations. From then on the College was to have only Maronite rectors.

Among the figures who brought luster to the Pontifical College in Rome Stephen El Douaihy, the Maronite patriarch now on the path to beatification, stands out. Towards the end of the seventeenth century he wrote the Annals, the first history of the Maronite Church from its origins. He also encouraged the rebirth of the great Maronite religious orders, which had leveled down to the norms in force in the Latin world, by reintroducing rules based on the teachings of Saint Antony Abbot, the founder of monasticism. The work of El Douaihy was also crucial for the reconciliation of Eastern Orthodox Christian communities to the Holy See. Among other things, the first patriarch of the Syro-Catholic Church, Ignatius Michael III Jarweh, was a student at the Maronite College.

Another giant of the College was Joseph Simon Assemani who, together with other members of his family, a whole dynasty of orientalists, enriched the Vatican Apostolic Library. Joseph Simon Assemani joined it in 1710 as scribe. Sent by Clement XI in 1715 to the East in search of manuscripts, he traveled in Syria and Egypt, where he managed to buy almost the entire library of the Coptic monastery of St Macarius and part of that of the Monastery of the Syrians in Nitria; he also brought to Europe the first Coptic fragments of the White Monastery. In 1717 all these manuscripts – now preserved in the Vatican Library – were brought by him to Rome, where he devoted himself to the study of the Syriac ones and then published the results at the Bibliotheca Orientalis Clementino-Vaticana. The first custodian of the Vatican library, in 1739, in collaboration with his nephew Stephen Evodia Assemani. He initiated the compiling of a catalogue of the Vatican manuscripts, of which only the first three volumes dedicated to the Hebrew and Syriac codexes were issued. Joseph Simon Assemani, as pontifical legate, was a leading figure in the Synod of Mount Lebanon in 1736, of which he assumed the presidency. It was he again who drew up a “Constitutional Charter” of the Maronite Church. The document, which was strongly impregnated with latinized norms and at first considerably challenged, because judged harmful to the ancient rite of Antioch, was in the end approved: the Maronite Church lived by that legislation up to the promulgation of the Code of Eastern Canon Law in 1991.

The life of the Maronite College was interrupted on 1 March 1798, when the French troops who had occupied Rome requisitioned the building, forcing students to take refuge at the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda Fide.

In 1891 Pope Leo XIII determined the reopening of the College with the Bull Olim sapienter, giving the Maronites half the amount needed to purchase a building in Via di Porta Pinciana. A few years later, on 3 July 1895, an area of building plots between Via di Porta Pinciana and Via Aurora was purchased for building the definitive College and the church of St Maron. The person who worked for the reopening was Bishop Elias Boutros Hoyek, who became patriarch in 1899. To get the Roman center for priestly formation going, he sought help from the French, the Turkish Sultan and the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph. The latter refused to give money, but accorded the Maronite seminarians hospitality at Villa d’Este in Tivoli, near Rome, for their summer holidays. After completing the task in Rome, the Maronite bishop opened another College in Paris. He was, among other things, the founder of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family, and also managed to create an eparchy in Egypt. He died in 1931 in the odor of sanctity, and his cause for beatification is currently underway.

Unfortunately in 1906 the College closed its doors again, this time because of a lack of students, and did not reopen again until 1920. Everything proceeded calmly until 1939 when, because of the imminent outbreak of World War II, there was yet another closure. Despite the problems with the College, the Procuracy of the Patriarchate of Antioch remained active; the procurator, in fact, continued to reside in the first house purchased in Via di Porta Pinciana in 1891.

From 1939 up to 1980 the building was rented out and used as a hotel. It resumed activity definitively on 15 September 2001, after the Jubilee, thanks especially to Bishop Emile Eid, procurator general of the Patriarchate of the Maronites from 1958 to 2003 who, in virtue of his perseverance and great force of character, insured that the glorious Maronite College could resume its existence.

It was he who, for ten years, pursued the conservative restoration of the building, succeeding in overcoming many bureaucratic and legal difficulties. He is considered one of the most important personages of the Maronite Church of the twentieth century thanks both to his great capacity to keep alive and fruitful the relations between the Maronite Church and the Holy See; and to his enormous theological culture.

As well as Monsignor Eid, it was Monsignor Hanna Alwan, rector for ten years, who took care this time of the restoration of the College. Alwan is a judge of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, professor in utroque iure at the Pontifical Universities and in charge of Europe for the Congregation of the Lebanese Missionaries, an order of patriarchal jurisdiction, Finally, he is postulator for the beatification of Patriarch Elias Boutros Hoyek. With the support of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, Monsignor Alwan has ensured the return to the College of Via di Porta Pinciana of all the Maronite students spread around other ecclesiastical structures, while also housing priests belonging to other Eastern Churches.

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