Centenary of the birth of Venerable Gabriele Allegra

A hundred years ago on Dec. 26th Giovanni Stefano Allegra was born in San Giovanni La Punta (Catania). He became a Franciscan friar, priest and missionary, taking the name “Gabriele Maria”.

A hundred years ago on Dec. 26th Giovanni Stefano Allegra was born in San Giovanni La Punta (Catania). He became a Franciscan friar, priest and missionary, taking the name “Gabriele Maria”. Today he is known as an outstanding figure in the Catholic Church of China in the 20th century and even so as a “St. Jerome of China”.

After having heard so much of him in our Franciscan circles, I had the grace of meeting him a few years before he died: a small man with a great heart and an even greater genius. In September 1973, while I was still a student, I took part in the Congress of Franciscan Biblists of Italy in Rieti and I recall even today the impression he made on me by the way he preached, always modest and serene, an ardent homily in which he spoke of the Incarnate Word, that became the Sacred Scriptures; and a vigorous denunciation of the excesses and divisions existing in the Church at that time, particularly among biblical scholars.

As we await the proclamation of his beatification as petitioned  by the Minister General of the Franciscan Order to the Pope, let us recall briefly his life, especially the work that rendered him an “apostle of the Word of God” in China.

Gabriele was the first of eight children from an economically modest but spiritually rich family. Two sisters and a brother were consecrated to the religious life like he was. Attracted by the missionary ideal, he entered while still very young the Franciscan Order. During the year of his novitiate, while venerating the arm of St. Francis Xavier that was brought to Sicily, he received the gift of the missionary vocation from Our Lady. His superiors quickly recognized the signs and sent him to Rome for his theological and missionary studies. Here, thanks to various circumstances and providential readings, among which was the “Story of a Soul” by St. Therese of the Child Jesus, the call to go to China grew in him.

In his autobiography he recounts that during the solemn commemoration of the 600th anniversary of the great missionary Blessed John of Monte Corvino, the speech of the then director of the magazine “Le missione francescane” was for him like “a lighted match thrown into a powder keg”. On that occasion he heard that the Catholics of China still did not have a Bible translated from the original languages. He himself wrote: “It was another powerful electric shock… thus two and a half years before I departed for China, my decision was made: I am going, or better, I will go to China to translate the Sacred Scriptures”. It was an inspiration from heaven for this young aspirant missionary; a vocation that he followed throughout his life even during the moments when it became a painful martyrdom.

In 1931 he left for China. Thanks to his acute intelligence and hardwork, Fr. Gabriele was able to speak Chinese in only a few months. Faithful to the heavenly inspiration, he organized this life project: “To want little but to want it at all cost; not to waste time, to study the Chinese language and Sinology (history, geography, etc.) 5 hours a day and 3 hours dedicated to biblical studies (Greek, Hebrew, exegesis). The remaining time will used for the spiritual life: prayer, Divine Office, spiritual reading etc.” Thus on April 11th 1935, the feast of the Sorrowful Mother to whom he had a tender devotion, he began alone the translation of the Bible from the original languages beginning with the Book of Psalms.

The intense rhythm of work and the austere life took a toll on his health and in 1939 he was forced to return to Italy where he remained till 1941. He took advantage of this by resting but above all to deepen his biblical knowledge. There were many requests and proposals for him to remain in Italy but Fr. Gabriele was resolute: his place was in China and his mission remains the same; the translation of the Bible into Chinese. Immediately before the outbreak of the war, he was able to make a brief pilgrimage to the Holyland and visit the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum and the biblical school of the Dominicans in Jerusalem; the two institutes that inspired him to found the Studium Biblicum in China.

After an adventurous journey of 4 months, he reached Beijing where he took up again his work. In May 1945 he succeeded translating the entire Old Testament. These were not easy years, but Fr. Gabriele was not discouraged by the disturbances brought about by the 2nd World War and the Sino-Japanese war. During an internment of 15 days, he translated the Book of Esther. Still in 1945, having earned the esteem and support of his superiors and fellow friars, he founded the Studium Biblicum where he gathered several collaborators whose mother-tongue was Chinese. With them, he embarked on revising the Old Testament and writing a commentary on it. But even this work underwent enormous difficulties because the Studium Biblicum was transferred several times until it reached Hong Kong. In 1954 the work on the Old Testament was brought to completion. it consisted of 8 volumes of over 6,000 pages.

At this point and before starting to translate the New Testament, he and his collaborators spent time to study at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem between 1954 and 1955. They then returned to Hong Kong and very soon published in 3 volumes the translations of the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline Letters, The Catholic Letters and the Apocalypse. On Christmas 1968 the Bible in one volume was published, which Fr. Allegra called the “Christmas Bible” or the “Bethlehem Bible”.

Having brought to an end this immense undertaking, Fr Allegra with his collaborators and indeed the entire Franciscan Order merited the recognition and appreciation of the Catholic Church. He then began to compile the Chinese Bible Dictionary that complemented the Bible. But even the realization of this work cost him obvious and hidden sacrifices. But Fr. Allegra never lost sight of his goal and in April the “dream of [his] youth” was rewarded with the publication of the Dictionary. Thereafter he spent several months writing his “Memories” (autobiography) which his superior had asked him to write under obedience. It is a precious text for the understanding of the history of the Chinese Bible, and a source for understanding the soul and personality of this great yet little Franciscan. On Jan. 26th 1976 he died a holy death in Hong Kong to the regret of many who considered him a man of God.

As can be imagined, the work or process for the public recognition of his sanctity began soon after; and this has reached its first goal. As of 2002 everything is ready for the beatification of Fr. Gabriele. It only awaits the decision of Pope Benedict XVI.

Giovanni Claudio Bottini

Studium Biblicum Francescanum, Gerusalemme

This article first appeared in Squilla dei fratini di S. Antonio. A bimonthly for vocation animation for the Friars Minor of Abruzzo, no.6 Nov.-Dec. 2007.

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