Source: Melita Historica : Journal of the Malta Historical Society. 3(1961)2(24-30)

[p.24] The Nomination of Mgr. Vincenzo Labini to the See of Malta*

Anth. Zammit Gabarretta

                        Ladies and Gentlemen,

            It is my intention this evening to speak to you of the Nomination to the See of Malta of Bishop Vincenzo Labini. I have chosen the appointment of this Bishop, as the subject of my lecture here, for a twofold reason. Vincenzo Labini was the last Bishop to be nominated to the See of Malta under the Rule of the Order of St. John; and secondly, his nomination offers an interesting object of study to the student of Maltese Church History for the peculiarities it entails.

            On the 18th March 1780, Bishop Pellerano resigned from ruling the Diocese of Malta. The reasons which he brought forward to justify his resignation before the Holy See, and which were formally registered among the records of the Dataria, speak of his ill health and his advanced age — he was by that time seventy-eight years old: “per le nostre corporali indisposizioni ed avanzata età.” [1] There might have been other reasons besides these here mentioned. The diplomatic relations between the aged Bishop Pellerano and the Order of St. John in Malta were not very friendly and in his “Storia di Malta” Canon Panzavecchia refers to the repeated petitions of the Order of St. John before the Holy See to substitute that Bishop of Malta with a more zealous and prudent Pastor: “Queste reiterate istanze vinsero finalmente la renitenza di Pio VI, e Pellerano ebbe in fine l’imperiosa proposta di rinunziare al vescovato.” [2] Whatever might have been the reason, Mgr. Pellerano delegated the Reverend Francesco Checchetelli, who, on the above mentioned date, appeared before Cardinal Bernardino Giraud, and on behalf of Mgr. Pellerano who was too weak of health to appear personally before His Eminence, formally resigned the Maltese Diocese, [3] which was thus rendered vacant.

            A new Bishop had to be appointed. But, what was the procedure adhered to at the time for the appointment of a new Bishop to the Maltese Diocese?

            In answer to this question, we have to bear in mind that the Holy See did not select and appoint the person of its choice to rule the See of Malta. The Diocese of Malta, even under the Rule of the Order of St. John, was subject to the Royal Prerogatives which the Sovereign Lords of Sicily had obtained from the Holy See — and one of these prerogatives was precisely the choice of the Bishops of the Dioceses under their sovereign sway. Hence it is, that again and again, in the records of the Vatican Archives which deal with the appointment of the Maltese Bishops the Diocese of Malta is described “de jure patronatus Regis Regni Siciliae.” This phraseology is also repeatedly found in all the Royal Presentations of the candidates to the Maltese Bishopric up to the year 1807, when the King of The Two Sicilies, Ferdinand IV, presented for the last time the Maltese Ferdinando Mattei to be nominated Bishop of Malta by the Holy See. [p.25] The same terminology is also met with in the Bulls of nomination of the Maltese Bishop, wherein it was explicitly stated that the nominated Bishop had been previously presented to the Holy See by the Sovereign Lord of Sicily, to whom the Maltese Diocese belonged “de jure patronatus.”

            It would be out of place, were I to deal here with the juridical basis of this claim of the Kings of Sicily over those dioceses under their sway. I may refer those who are interested in this question to consult Jungmann’s “Dissertationes Selectae in Historia Ecclesiastica.” [4]

            Suffice it here to say that Emperor Charles V, as King of Sicily claimed and retained the right to nominate the titulars of the Sicilian Sees; the Holy See then gave them the investiture. Malta as subject to the King of Sicily underwent the same fate with regard to the appointment of her Bishops.

            When Charles V ceded Malta as a feud to the Order of St. John, it was expressly stipulated that the “jus patronatus” to the bishopric of Malta was to remain with the Emperor and his successors, as Kings of Sicily. The Imperial Charter still preserved among the records of the Archives of the Order of St. John in the Royal Malta Library, in fact, reads: Preterea quod Jus Patronatus Episcopatus Melivetani remaneat prout est dispositioni et presentationi nostrae, ac successorum nostrorum Regni praedicti Siciliae: ita tamen quod ... in quemcumque casum vacationis deinceps secuturum dictus Magnus Magister et Conventus dicti Ordinis S. Joannis habeant nominare Viceregi Regni praefati Siciliae tres personas eiusdem Ordinis: quarum una saltem sit et esse debeat ex subditis nostris, nostrorum ac in dicto Regno successorum, idoneas et sufficientes ad ipsam pastoralem dignitatem exercendam ex quibus sic nominandis Nos nostrique successores in Regno praedicto presentemus et presentent ac presentare debeamus et debeant ad dictum Episcopatum eum quem idoneorem judicaverimus aut judicaverint.” [5] This procedure was normally adhered to throughout the years the Order of St. John ruled Malta. The Grand Master and his Council used to submit three candidates to the Sicilian Viceroy of which one was chosen by the King of Sicily and submitted to the Holy See for the appointment to the Bishopric of Malta.

            It was indeed with just pride that the Order of St. John jealously guarded this right which practically controlled the choice of the Bishops of Malta. Throughout the several vacancies that occurred in the period that the Order ruled the Island, only once do we find direct interference from the Courts of Rome and Naples, which induced the Grand Master and the Council to choose an individual suggested to them from outside.

            This happened in 1780, when the aged Bishop Pellerano resigned the government of the diocese. The joy, which perhaps the members of the Order of St. John in Malta might have felt at the news that the imprudent Mgr. Pellerano was going to resign the government of the Maltese See must have been short-lived. They were soon to find out that the next Bishop was to be a person imposed upon them by the Neapolitan Court of King Ferdinand IV. The Grand Master the Order of St. John, in fact, Manoel De Rohan soon received despatches from the Court of the King of the Two Sicilies signed by the Marchese [p.26] della Sambuca and bearing the date of the 4th March 1780 — that is, a fortnight previous to the actual resignation of Mgr. Pellerano before the Holy See. The Marquis wrote to Grand Master De Rohan:

                        “Eminenza,

                     Desiderando il re che vostra eminenza, nel dover nominare a cotesto vacante vescovado, faccia cadere la sua nomina sulla persona del Padre Dottor Vincenzo Labini teatino, soggetto fornito di tutte quelle ottime prerogative, che meritano i riguardi e della maestà sua e dell’eminenza vostra, e sono le più desiderabili per cotesta Chiesa; mi ha sua maestà comandato di palesare, come ho l’onore di eseguire, queste sue reali premure a vostra eminenza, dei di cui sperimentati sentimenti la maestà sua è nella maggior sicurezza. Io la supplico intanto a persuadersi che sono nel mio particolare pieno del maggior rispetto.” [6]

            Nor were these letters from Naples the only despatches that reached Grand Master De Rohan to make him include Vincenzo Labini among the three nominees for the vacant bishopric. Other letters came from Rome, for on the 4th April, 1780, the Cardinal Secretary of State Pallavicini directed this message to the Grand Master:

                        “E.mo e R.mo Sig.r mio Oss.mo

                     Per l’organo di questo diligentissimo Sig.r Ambas.re del Sagro suo Ordine Gerosolimitano sarà pervenuta a Vostra Eminenza la formale autentica rinuncia del Vescovato di Malta fatta da Mons.r Fra Carmine Giovanni Pellerano, che per l’avanzata ed inferma sua età, riconosce di non essere in caso di amministrarlo con spirituale profitto del gregge, che gli era stato commesso. Al seguito di tal rinunzia dovrà adunarsi costà quel Consiglio cui corrisponde la formazione della Terna de’ soggetti, fra quali cade poi la scelta del Vescovo nuovo, allorché cotesta Chiesa Vescovile viene vacare. I molti riflessi per li quali la provvista della Chiesa stessa si rende ora, benchè sempre importantissima, più importante ancora del solito non isfuggiranno al certo alla illuminata mente di Vostra Eminenza, ne a quella de Soggetti a quali appartiensi la formazione della terna già detta; non potendogli ad ogni modo non tener presenti il Santo Padre, ne valutati, la paterna zelante sua sollecitudine lo astringe a sospirare, chi i nuovi Candidati tali sieno tutti da potersene ripromettere il più provido e salutare governo della Chiesa di Malta. E siccome i più appurati riscontri rendono giustamente persuasa la Santità Sua, che il Fra Cappellano Conventuale Vincenzo Labini unisca in se i requisiti più desiderabili, o conducenti all’uopo suddetto, di questa sua persuasione non sa lasciare oscuro l’Eminenza Vostra, persuaso, ch’ella non solo sia per valutarla quanto a sè medesima, ma per renderne comune la contezza ai rispettabili formatori della Terna surripetuta, cosicché si vi trovi effettivamente compreso. Mi ha ingiunto dunque Sua B.ne di renderne consapevole V. Em. Nella fondata persuasione, che saprà fare l’uso il più acconcio, e il più proficuo della notizia,    che si comunica.

                     A me, dopo di avere soddisfatto il Pontificio comando, non rimane, che il debito e l’onore insieme di baciarle affettuosamente le mani.
                        Roma, 4 Aprile, 1780.

Di V.ra Em:za
Aff.mo Serv.re
L. Card. Pallavicini.” [7]

            [p.27] Though couched in most polite diplomatic terminology, the letter of Cardinal Pallavicini no less than that of the Neapolitan Court amounted to dictating to the members of the council of the Order to give their first preference to Vincenzo Labini. And when these despatches were read at a sitting of the Council on the 29th April 1780, there was universal surprise at this blatant interference with the rights of the Order over the Diocese of Malta. [8] How was the energetic Grand Master to react? Or did he secretly know beforehand the step which the Courts of Naples and Rome were to take to put on the Maltese Episcopal throne, the person they favoured? Such questions inevitably came to the mind of all those who participated in the meeting of the Council that day. But, in spite of their justified indignation the members of the Council had to accept the person proposed, and the prudent De Rohan thought it best to comply with the request of the Neapolitan and Papal Courts. As Panzavecchia puts it: “La dipendenza che avea l’Ordine da un monarca, dal di cui regno l’isola ritraeva la propria sussistenza, soffocò le tumultuanti voci, dei più determinati balì, che si erano sollevati contro quel violento atto di prepotente intervenzione.” [9]

            And, in conclusion, the Vice-Chancellor of the Order Fra Luigi d’Almeyda was directed to write to the Prince of Stigliano Don Marcantonio Colonna then Viceroy of the Bourbon King. of the Two Sicilies in Palermo to submit the names of the three candidates nominated by the Venerable Council for the See of Malta: “In primo luogo, Fra Vincenzo Labini, Professor di Sagra Theologia, Cappellano Conventuale della Veneranda Lingua d’Italia, nato in Bitonto, suddito di S. Maestà Re delle due Sicilie.” [10] Fra Raimondo Albino Menville and Fra Francesco Silvestri were the other two proposed candidates.

            The Palermitan Viceroy did not delay to inform His Majesty King Ferdinand IV of the Two Sicilies of the Council’s decision, and on the 3rd June 1780, His Majesty formally proposed the name of Mgr. Labini to the Holy See to be appointed Bishop of the See of Malta. The original letter of King Ferdinand is still preserved in the Vatican Archives among the records of the Dataria, signed by His Majesty and countersigned by the Marchese della Sambuca. It reads:

Santissimo Padre

            Per la rinuncia fatta dal Commendatore Fra Don Giovanni Pellerano vacando il Vescovado dell’Isola di Malta, la di cui Nomina e Presentazione a Me tocca in virtù del Mio Sovrano Diritto, ho posto in uso per discarico della Mia Coscienza tutti i mezzi necessari per aver Soggetto idoneo, e meritevole, che assicurasse il miglior Servizio di Dio, e ’l buon Governo ed Amministrazione di quella Chiesa: Ed ho quindi eletto e nominato il Fr. Cappellano dell’Ordine di S. Giovanni di Gerusalemme D. Vincenzo Labini di Bitonto; nella di cui Persona concorrono le lodevoli circostanze di vera pietà, di irriprensibil Costume, e di esemplar condotta, non meno che della più soda e sana dottrina, e di una sperimentata prudenza e saviezza; colla riserva di quelle Pensioni, che corrispondono al solito pensionabile su quella Chiesa, a favor di quelli che saranno da Me nominati nella Nota, che a suo tempo sarà in Mio Nome presentata alla Santità Vostra. Prego intanto Vostra Santità a disporre che a Mia Presentazione si spediscano al menzionato [p.28] Dr. Vincenzo Labini le Bolle, e gli altri Requisiti del sud.to Vescovado di Malta coll’enunciata riserva di Pensioni, e col favore, ed equità, che sia possibile; Nel che riceverò particolar grazia dalla Santità Vostra, la di cui Persona Nostro Signore conservi nel felice e prospero Governo della Sua Chiesa.

                     Napoli 3 Giugno, 1780.

Umilissimo Figlio di V. S.

Ferdinando

            Il Mar.e della Sambuca. [11]

            On receiving these letters of King Ferdinand, Pope Pius VI did not immediately issue the Bulls of Nomination. Certain canonical dispositions had to be observed. The Council of Trent [12] and, later on, Pope Gregory XIV in his Constitution “Onus Apostolicae Servitutis” [13] had laid down that a thorough examination of the candidate had to be set up previous to his being promoted to the episcopal dignity. And such canonical examinations were always held in the case of the Diocese of Malta even though the candidate to the Bishopric used to be presented to the Holy See by the Sovereign Lord of Sicily. The Vatican Archives still preserve the records of these canonical inquiries concerning the candidates to the See of Malta. Several witnesses used to be summoned by the Papal Court, and these had to submit a double report — one concerning the state of the Diocese in question, and another concerning the future Bishop: his lineage, birth, career and learning were all passed under review. [14] The Holy See had to be sure that the candidate to the Bishopric was sufficiently equipped with all the requisites that one expects in a Bishop, previous to his formal nomination in the Secret Consistory.

            Volume 179 of the records known as the “Processus Consistoriales,” informs us that Pope Pius VI on the 16th June 1780, delegated Cardinal Bernardino Giraud to carry out the canonical investigations concerning Vincenzo Labini. [15] That day, in fact, His Eminence summoned to his Office, in the presence of the Notary Public Pietro Spada, four witnesses who had to furnish him with the necessary informations concerning the state of the Diocese of Malta and its future Bishop. The witnesses, as registered by this Notary Public, were:—

            R.D. Nicolaus Savona Scarpello D. Gasparis filius, Presbyter Melitensis Diocesis, Sacrae Theologiae Doctor.
R.P.D. Paulus Gatt, Presbyter Melitensis Diocesis, Sacerdos Oratorii S. Philippi Neri Civitatis Sengleae.
R.P.D. Antonius Barretta Clericus Neapolitanus Religiosus expresse professus Congregationis Clericorum Regularium Theatinorum nuncupat(ae).
R.P.D. Agnellus Caracciolo Subdiaconus Neapolitanus Religiosus expresse professus sup.tae Cong.nis.

            The first two witnesses, being Maltese, furnished His Eminence with a report concerning the Diocese. The other two spoke of Vincenzo Labini.

                     [p.29] The Reverend Cleric Antonio Barretta from Naples in his report to Cardinal Giraud asserted:—

            “La cognizione, che io tengo del Maestro R.do P. Fra Vincenzo Labini è principiata da sei anni in circa à questa parte nella Città di Napoli, in occasione, che Egli si portava nella nostra Casa detta di S. Maria degl’ Angioli, nella quale io dimoravo in qualità di Novizio ....... So, che è nato in Bitonto per aver letto la fede del Suo Battesimo ....... Sapendo per lo stesso motivo esser Egli nato legittimamente da Cattolici e Nobili genitori ......La sua età è di anni quaranta sei ....... Sono molti anni, ch’Egli è sacerdote, come apparisce dalla fede della sua ordinazione …… Hà menato una vita esemplare ed è dotato di lodevoli costumi e di piacevole conversazione e fama …... È Persona grave, prudente ed abile per esercitare Impieghi Ecclesiastici ....... oltre di che è in esso tutta quella dottrina, che si ricerca in un Vescovo per bene insegnare agli altri, deducendolo dalla stima, che comunemente si fà della sua Persona ....... Per lo spazio di anni quattro in circa, Egli è stato Lettore di Teologia Dogmatica si nella nostra Casa, detta dei SS. Apostoli di Napoli, che di Sagra Teologia nel Seminario Arcivescovile di Capua per il lasso di anni 12; Confessore non solo dell’uno o l’altro sesso, ma anche straordinario di Monache; Esaminatore pro-Sinodale ed al presente è Fra Cappellano Professo della Sagra Religione Gerosolimitana, ed in queste Cariche si è sempre portato con molta prudenza ed esempio di tutti ....... Lo stimo degno di essere fatto Vescovo della Chiesa di Malta, della quale è stato aggraziato dalla clemenza di Sua Santità in vigore della Presentazione fatta à suo favore dalla Maestà del Rè di Napoli, come Re delle Due Sicilie …… sua Promozione sarà di particolare vantaggio di quella Chiesa e profitto spirituale di quelle Anime per le rispettabili sue qualità.” [16]

            A similar favourable report was submitted by the last witness; Agnello Caracciolo, interviewed by His Eminence, Cardinal Giraud.

            And in corroboration to these reports, there were also submitted for examination by His Eminence three documents that furnished biographical data concerning Mgr. Labini. There was first the Birth Certificate, which stated:

            Perquisitis libris Baptizatorum Ven. Parolis Ecc.iae S. Jacobi Majoris Ap.li huius Civitatis Bitunti asservatis in Archivo Scripturarum Ep.alis Curiae praefatae Civitatis inter alios in eis adnotatos extat infra.ptus vlt.:

            A dì 29 Aprile 17 Trentacinque il M.to R.do P.re D. Carmine Scaraggi Monaco Cassinense con licenza di me sotto Parroco di S. Giacomo Maggiore. Ap.lo di questa Città di Bitonto ha battezzato Vincenzo, Onofrio, Giuseppe, Giacchino, Gaetano, Maria, Vitale figlio gemello legittimo e naturale del Sig.re D. Fabio Labini e della Sig.ra Donna Lucrezia Scaraggi nato il primo delli due alli 28 detto Mese giorno di giovedì ad ore quattro in circa di notte; lo tenne al Sagro Fonte il Sig.re D. Diego Scaraggi suo zio — Francesco Parroco Basso.

            Prout ex dictis Baptizatorurn libris apparet, quibus etc. et ad fidem etc.

                        Loco X Sigilli.                                                 Ita est P. Canc.s Ricci Cancellarius. [17]

            The second document which Cardinal Giraud examined was the certificate attesting the Ordination to the priesthood of Mgr. Labini. This Bishop of Malta [p.30] had been ordained priest on the 23rd September 1758 in Rome at S. John’s Lateran by Mgr. Francesco Mattei, Patriarch of Alexandria. [18]

                     After his Ordination, as a third document asserted, Vincenzo Labini taught Theology and Canon Law to the Students of his Order of the Theatines for four years, and for twelve years taught Theology at the Seminary of Capua. [19]

                     Convinced by such evidence submitted to him by the witnesses and the documents, that Vincenzo Labini was fit to govern the Maltese Diocese, Cardinal Giraud admitted the future Bishop to the Profession of Faith in Catholic Doctrine as stipulated by the Tridentine Council, [20] and assured His Holiness that there were no canonical impediments that hindered the appointment of Mgr. Labini to the See of Malta. As a matter of fact, three days later, on the 19th June 1780, Pope Pius VI appointed Vincenzo Labini, Bisibop of Malta, in the Secret Consistory summoned at the Vatican Palace. [21] Such a nomination carried with it the right to enjoy the income of the Maltese “mensa episcopalis …… cum reservatione pensionis trium millium scutorum monetae romanae, salvis antiquis, pro nominato Carmine Joanne Episcopo dimittente.”

                     The Papal Bulls of Nomination were accordingly issued bearing the date of this Secret Consistory; but they had to pass through the Royal Court of King Ferdinand IV for the necessary Exequatur. They had to be examined by the Palermitan Viceroy Marcantonio Colonna lest they contained anything which went against the Royal Prerogatives enjoyed by the Sovereign Lord of Sicily over the Diocese of Malta. [22] On consultation with the Crown Advocate Michele Perremuto, the Viceroy brought forward a small objection to the terminology entailed in the Bulls nominating Vincenzo Labini Bishop of Malta. The Papal Court had described the Maltese Diocese by the phrase “de jure patronatus Carissimi in Christo Filii Nostri Ferdinandi Utriusque Siciliae et Jerusalem Regis Ill.s.” The Palermitan Viceroy claimed that such a right over the Diocese of Malta was based “ex fundatione principumque dotatione,” even though such an explanatory phrase had been left out from the Papal Bulls. And it was only on the explicit condition “absque ullo preiudicio eiusdem regii patronatus, ob dmissam in dictis bullis clausulam ex fundatione aut dotatione” that the Royal Exequatur was granted on the 10th July 1780.

                     Only then, could Mgr. Vincenzo Labini come over to Malta to take possession of his Diocese. And the galleys of the Order of St. John went out of the Grand Harbour of Malta to escort for the last time the newly elected Bishop of Malta where he arrived from Rome on the 7th September 1780.


*              This talk was given on the 20th April 1961 at the Catholic Institute to members of The Malta Historical Society.

[1]               Arch. Secr. Apost. Vaticanum Pr. Datariae, vol. 157, f. 74.

[2]                Can. F. Panzavecchia, L’Ultimo periodo della Storia di Malta sotto il Governo dell’Ordine Gerosolimitano — Malta, 1835, p. 176.

[3]                Arch. Secr. Apost. Vaticanum Pr. Datariae, vol. 157, f. 72. In resigning the Diocese of Malta, Mgr. Pellerano kept for himself an annual pension of 3,000 Roman scudi “liberi e franchi da qualunque peso e gravame imposto o da imporsi, come anche dal peso de cambii e recambii per la rimissione del denaro in Roma.”

[4]                Jungmann B., Dissertationes Selectae in Hist. Ecclesiastica, V. 45. Ratisbona, 1885. cf. Mgr. A. Bonnici, Reasons for the delay in the appointment of Bishop F.S. Caruana in Melita Historica vol. 1, no. 3, p. 156.

[5]               Royal Malta Library: Archives of the Order of St. John, Arch. 70.

[6]               Panzavecchia, op. cit., pp. 177-178. 

[7]                R.M.L. Archives of the Order of St. John, Liber Conciliorum Status Arch. 279, ff. 211v-212v.

[8]               Panzavecchia, op. cit. p. 178.

[9]               Ib. id.

[10]              R.M.L. Archives of the Order of St. John, Liber Conciliorum Arch. 161, ff. 22-28.

[11]              Arch. Secr. Apost. Vaticanum Pr. Datariae vol. 157, f. 138.

[12]              Sessions VII, XXII, XXIV.

[13]              Magnum Bullarium Romanum, Luxemburgi, 1727. Tom. II, pp, 762-765.

[14]             Arch. Secr. Apost. Vaticanum Pr. Consist, vol. 6, f. 624; vol. 33a, f. 655; vol. 64, f. 379; vol. 69, f. 305; vol. 77, f. 406; vol. 82, f. 742; vol. 109, f. 297; vol. 114, f. 443; vol. 147, f. 460, vol. 159, f. 31; vol. 179, f. 295; vol. 208; f. 371; Pr. Datariae.vol. 90, f. 139.

[15]              Arch. Secr. Apost. Vaticanum Pr. Consist. vol. 179, ff. 295-303.

[16]              Ib. id. ff. 298v/301v.

[17]              Ib. id. f. 302v.

[18]              Ib. id. f. 303.

[19]              Arch. Secr. Apost. Vaticanum. Pr. Datariae vol. 157, f. 137.

[20]              Arch. Secr. Apost. Vaticanum. Pr. Consist, vol. 179. ff. 299-300.

[21]              Arch. Secr. Apost. Vaticanum. Acta Camerarii vol. 89. ff. 112-113.

[22]              Archivio di Stato —Palermo: Regia Cancelleria vol. 1000, ff. 160-167v.