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Gabriele Allegra (December 26, 1907– †January 26, 1976) was a Franciscan Friar and scripture scholar. He is best known for performing the first complete translation of the Catholic Bible into the Chinese language. His Studium Biblicum Translation is often considered the Chinese Bible among Catholics. He awaits canonization.
He was born "Giovanni Stefano Allegra" in San Giovanni la Punta in the province of Catania in Sicily, Italy. He entered the Franciscan minor seminary at S. Biagio in Acireale in 1918 and the novitiate in Bronte in 1923. He then studied at the Franciscan International College of St Anthony in Rome as of 1926.
The future course of his life was determined in 1928 when he attend the celebrations of the 6th centenary of another Franciscan, Giovanni di Monte Corvino who had attempted a first translation of the Bible in Beijing in the 14th century. On that day, at the age of 21, Allegra was inspired to translate the Bible into Chinese; a task that took the next 40 years of his life. He was ordained a priest in 1930 and soon thereafter sailed for mainland China.
Mission to China
Allegra arrived at the mission in Hunan, southern China in July 1931 and started to learn Chinese. With the help of his Chinese teacher he prepared a first draft of the translation of the Bible around 1937. He was fatigued from the translation effort and had to return to Italy for three years where he continued his studies in biblical languages and biblical archaeology.
In 1940 he left Italy again and sailed from San Francisco for Japan on his way to China. In Kobe, he met the French Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin for the first time. He attempted to return to Hunan again, but the Second Sino-Japanese War had already started and he was forced to go further north to Beijing instead. This had an unfortunate side-effect in that during his trip through the Japanese occupied territories, he lost his only copy of the draft of the translation of the Bible that had taken him seven years to complete. So he had to start the translation effort from scratch.
Because he was an Italian citizen, and the Chaplain at the Italian Embassy, the Japanese occupiers of China did not intern him for long, and he could continue his translation work. As of 1942, he became actively involved in assisting other missionaries to survive their internment in the Japanese internment camp at Weihsien, in northern China, and managed to obtain the release of several prisoners.
The Bible in Chinese
Allegra organized a team of Chinese Franciscan priests to work with him on the translation of the Bible and he inaugurated the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Beijing in 1945, dedicating it to Saint John Duns Scotus. But as the Chinese Civil War ended, the Chinese Communist Party took over China and Allegra and his team had to leave for Kowloon, Hong Kong.
In 1948 the first three volumes of the Old Testament were published by the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Chinese and over the next 12 years eight more volumes with explanatory notes were produced by the team, including the New Testament. In 1954 along with four Chinese friars he went to the Studium Biblicum in Jerusalem to study original biblical texts for about a year. He lived mostly in Hong Kong thereafter, and he organized the 1st Ecumenical Bible Exhibition in Hong Kong in 1965.
Christmas day in 1968 witnessed the culmination of his 40 year effort with the first publication of the one volume Chinese Bible. In 1975 the Chinese Bible Dictionary was published.
His life and writings
Given that he entered the seminary at age 11, being a Franciscan was the main focus of his life. His archived letters show his determination to translate the Bible into Chinese and his fascination with the study of scripture. Yet, at times his letters show the softer side of a man who missed the sound of Church bells in Rome. In a letter to Father Margiotti he once wrote:
- "I would like for a single instant to find myself in Rome ... as when the bells once used to be loosed on Holy Saturday morning!"
But he chose to work in the orient to the end of his life.
Work to the end
He was known for working too hard, often resulting in the deterioration of his health. He used to say:
- "The most enviable fate for a Franciscan who doesn't obtain the grace of martyrdom, is to die while he is working".
In a letter he wrote: "The work upon the Bible is hard and intense, but I must work because if I stop, I will never get up again."
Although the translation of the Bible was the main focus of his life, and he has usually been viewed as primarily a scripture scholar, he took time to help the poor and the sick, particularly the lepers. Although he frequently visited his "beloved lepers" in Macau, he never contracted the disease. He used to spend many of his holidays (often also Christmas and Easter) with them .
In his later years he suffered severely from heart trouble and high blood pressure. A rest and recovery period was recommended in Italy, but he chose to return to the Studium Biblicum in Hong Kong to work to the end. He wrote: "Everybody thinks that I'm sick: I can still work, so let's go on! The ideal is worth more than life!"
Although his main focus was the translation of the Bible, he was also well read on other biblical and philosophical matters. He was an expert on the philosophy of Saint Duns Scotus and introduced Teilhard de Chardin to some aspects of it that shaped de Chardin's thoughts on the subject. His expertise on that topic was internationally respected and Oxford University invited him to give the 700th centenary lecture on Saint Duns Scotus.
With the publication of the Chinese Bible in 1968, Allegra found time to focus on his other interests, which included the detailed study and analysis of the book Poem of the Man God by the Italian writer and mystic Maria Valtorta, on the life of Christ. Allegra viewed Valtorta's writings as having an extraordinary source and in a 1965 letter to Father Fortunato Margiotti he wrote:
- "Do you know that the Poem of the Man God has detached me from my studies of Holy Scripture? And it makes me weep and laugh with joy and love..... the Finger of God is here!"
He also wrote:
- "I hold that the work of Valtorta demands a supernatural origin. I think that it is the product of one or more charisma and that it should be studied in the light of the doctrine of charisma."
He wrote a detailed series of notes analyzing and supporting the work of Maria Valtorta.
Marian Movement of Priests
Books and memoirs
Allegra wrote two books, one on the primacy of Christ, the other on the Virgin Mary's Immaculate Heart. He started writing his memoirs in 1975, but died while working on them in Hong Kong in 1976.
His canonization process
From his early days, Allegra was viewed as a favorite son of the Catholic Church. Pope Pius XII said of him:
- "Tell this young priest that he has my special blessing and that I will pray for him every day. He will meet with many difficulties, but let him not lose courage. Nothing is impossible for him who prays, wills and studies. I shall not live to see this work completed, but I shall pray for him in heaven".
The cause for his canonization was started in 1984 by Bishop John Wu in Hong Kong, 8 years after his death. He was declared venerable by the Holy See in 1994 and his decree of beatification was promulgated in 2002. He was the only scripture scholar to be beatified by Pope John Paul II.
In 2009 a web cast in English and Chinese was named after Allegra.
- Gabriele Maria Allegra and P. Teilhard de Chardin, "My conversations with Teilhard de Chardin on the Primacy of Christ": ISBN 9780819904294
- Gabriele Maria Allegra, "Mary's Immaculate Heart: A way to God" ISBN 0819908754
- Catholic Archives
- Studium Biblicum Franciscanum Hong Kong
- Gabriele Allegra on Maria Valtorta
- Letters of Gabriele Allegra