Titular Bishop of Sidonia and Apostolic Delegate, Diplomat, and Scholar

Leonardo Abela was born in Notabile, Mdina, the son of Magnificent Giovanni and Maddalena née Cassar. Rev. Leonardo was a relative of Rev. Licas Vella and Fra Johannes F. Abela. Their grandfathers, Pietro and Silvestro were cousins, while Rev. Lucas Vella was uncle of Fra Johannes F. Abela from his mother’s side.

Leonardo from his young age showed a predisposition for the priesthood. He studied in Malta and abroad and was set to be one of the most influential and powerful Maltese prelates after the Great Siege of 1565 or better in the second half of the sixteenth century and the dawn of the seventeenth century.

Leonardo Abela was granted many benefices and sinecures in both Malta and Gozo from the very outset of his long ecclesiastical and administrative career. From 1557, Abela started receiving and accruing lands when he was still an adolescent and a very young cleric well before his ordination.

He received the Minor Orders from Malta's Bishop Cubellas on the 15 May 1563 and was ordained Subdeacon at the hands of the same Bishop of Malta on 5 May of the same year.  He was barely 22 years old when he was nominated Canon of the Cathedral at Mdina on 15 September 1566 and was assigned the Santa Venera canonical prebend.

In 1566, he was one of two ecclesiastics appointed in solidum or conjointly as vicar capitulars to govern the Maltese See according to a new procedure in the wake of local Bishop's demise. He attended the Chapter's meetings till December 1569 when he decided to further his studies abroad. His resignation was accepted by the Chapter after he had bound himself to serve the Chaptar once he returned to the island as a graduate. Abela had been present and contributed very diligently to the Chapter's meetings from 1566 to 1569 but he had always entertained the desire to enhance his knowledge overseas. He was given 25 scudi sponsorship by the Chapter on the understanding, by stipulation that once he returned to Malta at the end of his five-year course, he would render his services by respreseting the Cathedral in the event of any judicial proceedings.

Incidentally, Abela had never made the Profession of Faith on his appointment as Canon of the Cathedral and had to wait some years to regularise the matter, so much so that but his canonry income was not forfeited thanks to Mgr Pietro Dusina's invervention who secured for him a Papal dispensation for the irregularities concerned in 1575.

In 1570, Leonardo was still in Malta performing the duties of procurator of the Cathedral but he went to Rome in the middle of the year as he received Dimissoray Letters authorising him to be ordained deacon in the Italian city.

By 1574, Abela finished his studies in Canon and Civil Law in Rome. On 29 October his tutor, Dr Antonio Vellio presented him to be examined publicly by the College of Consistorial Lawyers for the relevant doctorate. Abela was on that occasion described as Rector of the most Ancient and Noble Eustachian Academy: Rector Antiquissimae et Nobilissime Academiae Euctachii. His performance was given unanimous approval by the examiners. He was the first Maltese priest who qualified for the Juris Utriunqsue Doctor (JUD) according to the records of such degree in Rome, although he was also mentioned as doctor legum Canonicus Ecclesiae Milevitanae namely that he was an LLD. rather than a JUD graduate.

By 1577, Leonardo returned to Malta and Bishop Royas de Portalrubio appointed him his Vicar General by virtue of a letter from Rome of 22 February of the same year and registered in Malta on 8 July of the year. But Leonardo was, therefore, absent from Malta in the course of the Apostolic Visit by Mgr Pietro Dusina in 1575.

On 19 August 1577, the Cathedral Chapter elected him Vicar Capitular in the wake of Bishop Royas's death and the Maltese See's vacancy. He directed the Diocese of the island for a whole year until Reverend Tommaso Gargallo was elected Bishop of Malta. At the time, Leonardo was deriving 114 annual uncias from his canonry, benefices, and sinecures in Malta and Gozo. On 20 June 1578, the Holy See ratified and sanctioned such an election. At the interval, the Sacred Congregation of the Council, on 14 December 1577, had already appointed him executor in Malta of Mgr Dusina’s visit to the island.

In August 1578, he left Malta again on a feluca seeking to acquire for himself this dignity. He failed to attain his aim as this was granted to another priest.

Nevertheless, he was adamant to proceed with his research and training in the Diplomatic Corps and in the Oriental languages of Syriac, Chaldean, Hebrew, and Arabic.

On 15 October, Abela was described as confessor and interpreter of the Arabic Language in a letter of recommendation to Pope Gregory XIII by Cardinal Giulio Antonio Santoro, Procurator of the Orientals in Rome and in charge of manuscripts in the Semitic language in the Vatican, who requested the Holy Father to provide the Maltese prelate with some assignment. Abela remained in Rome as his interests went beyond the domestic See. He directed himself to wider horizons that belonged to the Universal Church.

Meanwhile, Abela had established close relationship with the Patriarch of Antioch Ignatius Na’matullah who was in retired settlement in Rome but was aiming at seeking and establishing the union of the Syrian Jacobite Church with the See of Rome. Abela compiled, probably at this time, a Pro Memoria deatailing the various theological and liturgical topics that separated the two Churches. Moreover, Abela prepared the Latin translation of the original report in Arabic written by Na’matullah when the Patriarch was nominated one of the members who were left in charge of proposing the reform of the Calendar. Abela’s translation was presented to the Pope in March 1580. In November of the same year, Rev. Leonardo together with the Chadean Jacobite Deacon Abdelnur, was appointed by the Patriarch of Antioch Ignatius Dawudash. in terms of a letter to Pope Gregory XIII, as his singular and general procurator in Rome to intervene on his behalf with the same Pontiff to obtain the confirmation and approval of his title of Patriarch of Antioch. On 20 February 1581, Rev. Leonardo's mission bore fruit when Pope Gregory XIII in a Secret Consistory countenanced Dawudash’s appointment as Patriarch of Antioch.

Abela was one of the few genuinely prominent Maltese scholars and men of letters of his time. He was not only inevitably set to rise to important ecclesiastical offices but became one of the outstanding scholars and men of letters across Europe.

On 11 April 1581, Abela was proposed by Cardinal Santoro in a letter to the Pope Gregory XIII as Papal Nuncio to deal personally with the problems in the Eastern regions. Indeed, Leonardo Abela was first appointed Bishop of Sidon in Asia Minor in partibus Infidelium by the Pontiff before he was definitely assigned such commitment and thus rose to the post of Nuncius Apostolicus ad partes Orientales. Abela was assigned the office by a Secret Consistory held on 20 July 1583. He was described on that occasion as a Maltese priest, doctor in both laws and expert in Arabic and Chaldean, and who wrote an Arabic grammar and Chaldean instructions. He was also empowered to exercise the pontificalia both in Syria and other places occupied by the Turks. Abela’s Episcopal Consegration was presided by Cardinal Santoro himself on 19 August 1583.

Abela's mission was specified in a Brief addressed by Pope Gregory XIII and was bound to take place in Lebanon, Syria, Mesopotamia (now Iraq), Assyria, Egypt, and other Oriental provinces and regions. He was an Apostolic Delegate or Nunzio empowered to meet Heads of the Maronites and the Coptics. He undertook to convince the Patriarchs to be submissive and come nearer to the Pope in Rome.

On 16 July 1583, Abela arrived in Aleppo where he spent four years of reconciliation of the Christians of the East – amongst whom were the Jacobites, Nestorians, Melkites, and Armenian churches – with the church of Rome. Abela submitted a detailed report to Pope Sistus V where he described his successful mission and where he also met the Armenian Patriarch, who professed to the Catholic faith. Abela met the Patriarch David during his mission in Mesopotamia and worked hard with him to reach a compromise between Rome and Christians of Armenian rite. Abela’s mission in the eastern countries was very hectic ranging from reporting his activities to the Pope in Rome and converting local people to Christianity.

In 1583, Abela with all his prestigious titles, experience, celebrity and important posts in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church, wielded remarkable influence on the committee that worked on the introduction of the new calendar of Pope Gregory XIII, namely the Gregorian Calendar, especially in the Middle East. He was one of the signatories of the report leading to the reform.

Abela highly probably during his stay in the Eastern Provinces started collecting oriental  codes for which he became renowned in Rome later in life. He graced his biblioteca by filling it up by around 150 tomes in Arabic and other Oriental languages which he collected in his journeys.

Abela reached Rome in February 1587 and during his voyage, he stayed for two months in Malta after some absence. He was warmly welcomed by Bishop Gargallo and honoured by Grand Master Hughes Loubenx de Verdalle during his sojourn in his motherland. Abela, Melitae nobili genere orto, enjoyed great fame and he would often be seen in the company of the Grand Master both in his carriage and at his dinner table at his Palace.

Abela continued to maintain good relations with some Jacobite Bishops notwithstanding the fact that interest in Oriential matters was somehow shelved under Pope Sixtus V. At this time, Abela formed part of a commission under the chairmanship of Patriarch Na’matullah that had to prepare some writings in Arabic against Islamic teaching. In 1593 Abela was a member of the society left in charge of publishing a polyglot Bible, while in 1594 and 1597, he was the principal instigator and took active part in the preparations for the union of the Coptic Church with the See of Rome.

At the turn of the seventeenth century until his death, Abela was renowned in Rome both as a remarkable linguist especially for his fluency in Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldean, and Syriac and for his proficiency in other Eastern languages, and still more for the contents of his library that contained about one hundred and fifty volumes in Arabic and other Oriental languages.

Bishop Abela returned to Rome to continue working in the Diplomatic Service of Pope Sixtus V, and was nominated Vice Regent of the Cardinal Vicar of the city, Cardinal Giuliano Rusticucci on 17 May 1591. His duties were mainly the conferring of ordinations. Abela ordained Maffeo Barberini, later Pope Urban VIII, as priest. In the same year, he was bestowed by Apostolic Letters, in commendam, the church of St Nicholas in Malta.

During the first decade of the seventeenth century, he waa renowned in Rome both for his proficiency in Eastern languages and still more for the contents of his library that contained about one hundred and fifty volumes in Arabic and other Oriental languages. Luckily enough, on his demise he was in debt with the convent of San Stefano degli Abbisini and these immediately laid their hands on his library hoping that its contents would fetch a good price when they would be auctioned. The superiors of this community commissioned one of its members to compile a detailed list of its contents. Some of these codes could have been acquired during his four years mission in the East. Pope Paul V was successful in preventing the dispersal of Abela’s library as His Holiness himself acquired it from the said convent paying them what was their due.

Abela's services throughout his stay in Rome were considerably exploited by the Cathedral Chapter in Malta. He still retained the canonical prebend assigned to him decades before, as he was still one of its members.

On 1 April 1605, he was substituted by Bishop Metallo Bechion in his office of Vice Regent of Rome on the intervention of Cardinal Vicar given that his health had deteriorated seriously.

Bishop Abela died at his own residence in Rome situated within the parish boundaries of ‘Santa Maria in Via’,  and was buried in the Archbasilica of St John Lateran in front of the entrance of the sacristy. He remained the only Maltese to receive burial at the Papal Archbasilica. His nephews, Canon Johannes and Consalvo Abela placed a commemorative marble slab over his tomb with a Latin inscription.

This biography is part of the collection created by Michael Schiavone over a 30-year period. Read more about Schiavone and his initiative here.

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