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A role model of Lay Ministry for our times 

Text & illustrations by Friar Raymond Falzon O.F.M.   
Chaplain for Maltese Emigrants in London, UK   

Kun xhud ta' twemminek
Be a witness of your faith

Kun appostlu fost shabek
Be an apostle amongst your friends

- Nazju Falzon

Within the complexity of the end of the rule of the Knights of the Order of St. John, the French invasion, and the British colonization we have the backdrop for the figure of Ignatius Falzon, a Maltese cleric, born in the city of Valletta on the 1st of July 1813. A man who was not threatened by the changes happening in his surroundings but who grabbed the opportunity to enrich himself and others through his dedication to stimulate and develop the spiritual dimension of the people who were in his pathway in life's journey. His sensitive, perceptive and a visionary personality inspired him to find meaning and sense to his own life and those he saw around him.

He was born and lived in what was considered and renowned at the time as the 'red light' district. This barmaids district were for those who wanted to alienate themselves from life and reality would run away and fill the emptiness of their heart through sex and alcohol. Ignatius saw and pained over the faith of those who were searching to feel fulfilled in life misguided by the lies of alienation, especially the foreigners who not having a sense of belonging because of their travels were the main victims. These were mostly British sailors on their way to the Crimean war engaged by the British empire and the French.

The Grand Harbour in Valletta was a haven for ships in the Mediterranean, especially after the cholera and disease threat that kept ships away from Malta for a while. In fact cholera hit the Island in 1813-1814 about 4,572 people died. The after effects and other breakthroughs of the disease went through 1837 and 1865.

Observation, prayer, discernment, a very good formation are essentials for a healthy development a mature one. Educated in the best way of the times by a family already established, his father Francesco Giuseppe Falzon, a judge, two brothers who were already priests and another brother, a lawyer. Ignatius was given a good education. He read Latin, English, Italian, Philosophy, Law and Theology. He became a lawyer in 7th September 1833 and received the various Minor orders (e.g. the ministry of reading or eucharistic ministers which are now being given officially by the church to the lay people) from the Church. Receiving the Minor orders of the Catholic Church made him a cleric but Ignatius never wanted to receive the Holy orders out of unworthiness of such a high ministry. An echo of the same feelings by an extraordinary man, Francis of Assisi who never wanted to be ordained priest for the same reason. It is believed that Ignatius was also a Franciscan tertiary as his brother priests were, and since he frequently attended and spent time in prayer in the Franciscan church of St. Mary of Jesus in Valletta, known as Ta' Giezu, were the family tomb was also located.

He was not lacking of any leadership skills and never used them to manipulate or play power games, but to minister the community of faith. His management abilities were shown in the organisation and group management, co-ordination and his ability to animate and keep alive the various organisations and Catechetical classes involving lay people and also priests.

A prophetical minister and a pioneer, role model of his ability to see the signs of times, echoed 100 years later by the documents of the Vatican Council 2, especially with the Constitution on the Church "Lumen Gentium" chapter 4 on LAITY issued on November 21st 1964 and the the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity issued by the same Council in 18th November 1965. This showed clearly his abilities of community building and a sense of being in touch with the heartbeat and the pulse rate of the needs of his fellow pilgrims around him.

He organised for the British sailors especially the Irish Catholics, a religious Association were people met to pray together and have spiritual formation, instruction in the faith, under the guidance of the first disciple of Christ, Mary his mother. In 1833 he started holding meetings in his family House in Straight Street, and later in 1840 in the Jesuit Church in Valletta.

A priest was always present for the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation. It is known that even when the sailors went to other posts they kept the experience alive through meeting together to pray and grow in faith.

Catechism classes for those interested to receive instructions and become full members of the Catholic faith, through baptism or full communion, were also offered. From Baptismal registers held in the parish we know that at least 652 Adult baptisms were recorded, all of them prepared by the cleric Ignatius.

It is important to note that his ministry was not based on proselytise system. He composed a prayer for Christian Unity, at the time called "For the conversion of England". It is here that we can see Ignatious as a role model and an open invitation for Christian unity workers.

He provided the sailors with a booklet, printed material, with the title of the comfort of the Christian Soul and Spiritual Maxims to be able to distribute and accompany them in their new posts and journeys.

Besides the pastoral work he became a source of trust and a contact between the sailors and their families. Many a time before leaving for war the sailors would entrust him with their belongings and instructions of what to do in case they die during the war. Almsgiving was also a part of his exercises, though many a time it was done through a third person.

The ministry made by Ignatius was also the reason why the Archbishops of Southwark London and that of Newport Cardiff wrote to the Pope in 27/28 January 1902, to move forward the cause of beatification of Ignatius Falzon that had already started.

Ignatius did not limit his ministry to the foreigner, but contributed to the local Church through catechism classes in different areas of the diocese, in Valletta and B'Kara. Beside catechism classes to children especially of poor families he used to give free legal advice to the poor who could not afford to pay for a lawyer. He was loved and admired by many for his simplicity, sensitivity and sense of presence towards the poor. Charity and alms, donations for causes were also part of his discipline beside love for humanity.

Prayer, Meditation and The Eucharist were sources of energy and grace that filled him with tender love towards God and gave him meaning for his life dedicated towards humanity. A particular account tells of how during such practices someone saw a flame of fire over Ignatius head in prayer and how a Franciscan Friar saw Ignatius in ecstasy and elevated above grounds after communion. Devotions and admiration towards particular role models of Christian living were also a source of encouragement. His devotion to Mary, to Joseph her Husband, to Joseph Benedict Labre' are well know to those who lived around him and saw him die.

Ignatius was born to eternal life on the same day he was born to this life, that is the 1st of July 1865, after attending mass celebrated by one of his brothers in their family private chapel in their home. He was anointed himself with oils for Spiritual strength. Ignatius passed the threshold of this life towards eternal life, surrounded and supported by his family and friends.

Today, as he was in his days and as he used to encourage and invite Christians of his time he is a witness of Faith and an apostle among his life companions and us, as a role model of a lay minister of the Church in the field of Christian Unity.

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