CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

Print Version    Email to Friend
Beatification for the translator of the first Chinese Catholic bible

HONG KONG (SE): Father Gabriele Maria Allegra, a Sicilian Franciscan who devoted 40 years of his life to making a complete translation of the bible into Chinese, will be beatified in the cathedral church of Acireale in Sicily on September 29.

He will be known as Saint Jerome of China. The beatification comes some 10 years after Pope John Paul II recognised that a miracle had taken place through his intercession in 2002, as Vatican authorities decided to hold off due to the furore that erupted after they had chosen October 1, the anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, to canonise the Chinese Martyrs two years previously.

There was also concern, as Beijing had been critical of Father Allegra in the past for his anti-communist writings.

Father Allegra spent three years in Singapore between 1961 and 1963 as head of a social institute set up by the Vatican to produce and disseminate anti-communist literature around Asia.

With a bit of diplomacy in mind, it was announced by the Sicilian province of the Franciscans on August 15 that the ceremony would take place in his hometown and not Hong Kong, where most of his studious labours had been carried out and the cause for his canonisation begun.

Vatican Insider reported that the about to be beatified Franciscan was born Giovanni Stefano Allegra in San Giovanni la Punta, the province of Catania, in 1907. He entered the local Franciscan minor seminary in 1918 and novitiate in 1923.

In 1926, he went to Rome to study at the International Franciscan College.

However, it was in 1928 that a chance occurrence changed his life. He was attending the 600th anniversary of the first man who had attempted to translate the whole bible into Chinese, Father Giovanni di Monte Corvino, and decided that he would make that his life’s work.

After ordination in 1930, Father Allegra sailed for China and spent the bulk of the time up until the moment he died in Hong Kong in 1976 fulfilling his life’s dream.

He arrived in Hunan in July 1931 and went to work with the help of his Chinese teachers preparing a first draft, which he completed in 1937, when he was diagnosed as suffering from fatigue and returned to Italy for a rest and to continue his biblical studies.

In 1940, he tried to return to Hunan, but could not do so because of the Sino-Japanese War, ending up in Beijing instead. In the mix up, he lost his precious draft copy, but, undaunted, sat down to do it again.

He established the Studium Biblicum Francisanum in what is today the Chinese capital in 1945, but with a brewing revolution in China, moved it to Hong Kong in 1949.

His long years of work came to fruition on Christmas Day 1968, when the first one-volume Catholic edition of the bible was published in Chinese.

Known as the Studium Biblicum Version, it is still considered the standard text used in the Catholic Church today and is recognised as the translation most faithful to the original manuscript.

UCA News reported Cecelia Chiu, of the Hong Kong Catholic Biblical Association, as saying, “Its publication had far-reaching significance for the promotion of biblical ministry in Chinese-speaking communities around the world.”

Father Allegra had made his translation directly from the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

In 1975, a biblical dictionary was published in Chinese as the culmination of Father Allegra’s life work.

He died in 1976 and eight years later, the then-bishop of Hong Kong, John Baptist Cardinal Wu Cheng-chun, opened the cause for his canonisation. Father Allegra was declared venerable in 1994.

Chiu told UCA News that it is significant that Father Allegra was beatified in the year of the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, as the council fathers had stated in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation that “easy access to sacred scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful.”

The first complete translation of the bible in Chinese was published in 1822 by the British Bible Society and a separate edition followed in 1823 by a Robert Morrison. There is some debate over these dates, but they are generally accepted.

Father Allegra is the first person to have laboured long on Hong Kong soil to be honoured in such a way by the Church.

The Franciscans in Hong Kong will hold a prayer gathering on the day of Father Allegra’s beatification and a thanksgiving Mass on October 4.

More from this section