'St. Paul would be proud of faith-filled Malta'
Editor’s Note: While working for the Denver Catholic Register, I was able to visit the island of Malta for the Feast of St. Paul’s Shipwreck. In honor of the closing of the Year of St. Paul, the article is reprinted here, with permission. -- David Myers
The narrow street in Valetta, the capital city of Malta, was alive with band music and fireworks as hundred of faithful waited under a sea of confetti for the highlight of the annual five-day Feast of the Shipwreck of St. Paul.
In 60 A.D., while on his way to Rome to stand trial for heresy, St. Paul, along with St. Luke, was shipwrecked off the coast of Malta and made a brief visit to the Mediterranean island, setting a course of Catholic identity that has flourished over the centuries.
During his three-month stay on Malta, 60 miles south of Sicily, St. Paul converted the Roman governor, Publius, after healing his sick father. Publius would become the first bishop of Malta, which led to the conversion of nearly the entire populace.
Almost 2,000 years later, the country, with a population a little larger than Wichita’s, has 365 churches and an 85 percent practicing Catholic population. The faith of the Maltese, all of whom learn English as a first language, can be seen in the large number of festas, one of which is celebrated nearly every weekend to honor a town’s or village’s patron saint.
During the highlight of the Feast of St. Paul’s Shipwreck, as distant cannons boomed and a massive crowd erupted in cheers, a 300-year-old colorful, wooden statue of the saint, carried by several strong-armed men, emerged from the doors of the Church of St. Paul Shipwrecked to be processed throughout the streets of Valletta.
Like most cities in Malta, Valetta is a living, breathing history text, its churches containing masterpieces dating back hundreds of years, its native limestone construction still holding true after the passing of centuries.
During a visit to a limestone quarry, the five Catholic reporters from the United States invited to Malta met Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who was touring the island with his wife and son, Father Paul David Scalia.
Valetta was built in 1566 by the Knights of St. John after they defended the island from an unsuccessful three-month siege by an Ottoman fleet. The order of Knights were established in Jerusalem in 1099 to care for sick pilgrims in the Holy Land. Later, the Knights of St. John were forced to take on a militaristic role, and after Emperor Charles V ceded Malta to the Knights in 1524, they defended the island against numerous military threats.
Napoleon overthrew the island in the late 1700s. Malta officially became part of the British Empire in 1814 as agreed in the Treaty of Paris, and on Sept. 21, 1964, Malta achieved its independence. The republic of Malta joined the European Union in 2004.
The Knights of St. John, also called the Knights of Malta, continue to be a stronghold in the church today, most recently providing medical attention to the suffering in Zaire. The Cross of St. John, which contains eight points, each representing a Beatitude, can still be found on many structures throughout Malta.
Like St. Paul, pilgrims traveling to Malta today may be instantly taken by the friendliness of the Maltese. When asked about life on the island, Raymond Booker, who was taking a break from his work at a local hotel to get in a little fishing, smiled and softly commented, “It’s a nice and quiet place. No problems; no fights.”
It’s not difficult to become enveloped in the rich atmosphere of Malta, as well as the beauty of the environment. The island is blanketed with rolling hills; stone fences criss-cross the countryside, limestone buildings with wooden balconies line the streets. Tiny cafes and stores are found around every corner, as are the museum-like churches.
One such church, in the city of Mosta, contains a vast dome through which a German bomb fell during World War II. Miraculously, and to the surprise of the parishioners, the bomb simply bounced and rolled down the aisle.
The Church of St. Paul Shipwrecked in Valletta contains a relic of the bone from the wrist of St. Paul, as well as a portion of the column on which he was beheaded.
A short drive to Rabat brings one to the grotto where St. Paul is said to have lived during his three-month stay.
It’s difficult to drive for more than a few minutes without seeing the Mediterranean on the horizon. A mecca for European tourists, Malta is known for its hot summers and sandy beaches.
To the north lies the emerald green island of Gozo. After a brief ferry ride across the Mediterranean, one can experience a culture similar to Malta, if not even more laid back. There, one can still find people riding to work in two-wheel, horse-drawn buggies.
The Basilica of Ta’Pinu was built on the site where a peasant woman is said to have heard the voice of the Virgin Mary in the latter part of the 19th Century. Two rooms adjacent to the sanctuary are filled with crutches, baby clothes and other items placed as reminders of miracles attributed to the shrine.
As on Malta, the influence of the Catholic Church abounds. Shrines can be seen adorning nearly every private abode, even alongside a lonely country road.
As Pope John Paul II said when he visited Malta in 1990, St. Paul would be proud of what Malta has become. While growing economically, Malta has not let commercialism overpower its people’s devotion. Malta has stood fast in faith over the centuries, offering a celebration of history, faith and strong moral values to any weary traveler.