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When your life’s a mess, think of St. Paul’s shipwreck

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Daniel Cilia | Daniel Cilia

Close up of the titular painting by Stefano Erardi (1547–1628) of Rabat’s Parish Basilica of Paul | Photo by Daniel Cilia ©

Jean Pierre Fava - Malta Tourism Authority - Daniel Esparza - published on 02/10/24

Today, Feb. 10, Malta commemorates St. Paul’s shipwreck on its shores – the event that made the Apostle Paul the Father of Faith for an entire island.
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“Of all the gifts brought to these shores in the course of your people’s history,” Pope Benedict XVI told the Maltese when he visited the country in 2010, “the gift brought by Paul was the greatest of all, and it is much to your credit that it was immediately accepted and treasured.” 

Indeed Paul’s arrival was a gift. But it came about because of a catastrophe. It is a perfect example of what Paul himself would explain in his letter to the Romans (8:28): “All things work together for good.”

Benedict XVI was referring to the famous passage in the book of Acts commonly referred to as Paul’s Shipwreck, and his meeting with Publius, the chief of the island who eventually became its first bishop. The text in Acts reads:

Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold.  Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days. His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured. They honored us in many ways; and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed.

Acts 28, 1-10

Paul was shipwrecked off the northwestern coast of Malta on his way to trial in Rome in the year 60 AD, and spent the unnavigable winter months there. 

During those three months he established the very roots of Maltese Christianity — Christianity in the archipelago thus being as ancient as that in Ephesus, Jerusalem, Corinth, and Rome itself.

Memories of St. Paul

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Pope Francis in St. Paul’s Grotto during his Apostolic Visit in April 2022 | Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Malta. Photo by Ian Noel Pace ©

St. Paul’s Grotto in Rabat is where the Apostle is said to have stayed. It is, thus, one of the most venerated sites on the Maltese islands.

It is from here that Paul is thought to have preached and spread the word of God and thus gave the islanders their Christian Faith. As a result of this, the cavern became a place of worship; many important personalities have gone on pilgrimages here, including Pope Benedict XVI, St. Pope John Paul II, Fabio Chigi (who later became Pope Alexander VII), Admiral Lord Nelson and, more recently, Pope Francis. 

A parish

Rabat was known as a parish from time immemorial. The De Mello Rollo indicates La Cappella di San Paolo de Fora (Saint Paul’s Grotto) which was the parish church of Rabat and Mdina together. Mdina was founded as Maleth by the Phoeniceans in the 8th century B.C. and later renamed Melitæ by the Romans. At Mdina, there was the Bishop’s Cathedral while at Rabat there was the seat of the parish for both Rabat and Mdina combined.

In Malta, apart from its Metropolitan Cathedral in Mdina, and many other churches and sites dedicated to St. Paul, one also finds a Collegiate Parish Church in Valletta, the capital,  dedicated to the actual Shipwreck. Construction of this church began in the 1570s, making it one of the first edifices to be erected in Valletta.The Maltese historiographer Gio Francesco Abela describes the church in his Descrittione di Malta (1647) as “a most beautiful temple.”

The church houses a relic of part of St. Paul’s right wrist bone, and one of the four marble pillars of the table on which the apostle was beheaded in Rome in AD 64 – donated by Pope Pius VII in 1818 in recognition of services rendered by the collegiate chapter during the plague outbreak of 1813.

The main altarpiece, depicting the shipwreck of St. Paul, is by the artist Matteo Perez d’Aleccio (1547 -1616), of the School of Michelangelo; and Melchiorre Gafa (1635 – 1667) sculpted the titular statue of St. Paul at his bottega in Rome, which is the prototype for all other statues of St. Paul in Malta.

The church also holds numerous objects d’art of silver, gold, and precious stones, mainly donated by Grand Masters and Bishops.

Building of the fortified City of Valletta began in 1566, right after the miraculous victory on the 8th September 1565 against the Ottomans – The Great Siege. In fact, Valletta is named after Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Vallette; and the first building was a church dedicated to the Nativity of the Mary and Our Lady of Victory, as thanksgiving to the Blessed Virgin Mary for granting this victory on her birthday.

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Relic of part of St. Paul’s right wrist bone at St. Paul’s Shipwreck Collegiate Parish Church | Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Malta. Photo by Ian Noel Pace ©

Uninterrupted 2,000-year Christian tradition

In 2021, Aleteia had the opportunity to speak with Professor Stanley Fiorini (Senior Research Fellow, University of Malta. Emeritus Professor of Mathematics) about this uninterrupted two-millennia long tradition of rich Christian heritage.

In spite of being featured in the Book of Acts, and of Paul’s shipwrecking and preaching in the archipelago, I dare say most Christians do not think of Malta as one of the early cradles of the Christian faith. It is documented, also, that Malta was one of the first Roman colonies to convert. There are then reasons to argue Malta can claim to have an uninterrupted 2000 years old Christian tradition. Why do you think this is not so well-known? Does it have to do with the many intricacies of Mediterranean history, like the ones you list in your article? 

First of all, the minuscule size of the island (a mere 100 square miles and an overall population of at most 10,000) does not favor visibility. Furthermore, this aspect of Maltese history has been overshadowed by the more visible Neolithic or Temple Period with overground and underground remains — which are indeed disproportionately numerous for the islands’ size. The fact that all these prehistoric, archaeological riches date back to 5500 B.C. is also, incidentally, a reflection of our religiosity — albeit non-Christian in this case.

Even in Acts itself there is no record that Paul made conversions among the Maltese; he is merely documented for having performed many miracles of healing. But imagining the energetic, mercurial Paul sitting idle for three months twiddling his thumbs and not raising a finger to preach the Gospel is simply inviable. [Here Professor Fiorini is in perfect agreement with Professor Arnold J. Toynbee, one of the greatest philosophers of history, who describes the Apostle Paul as ‘the great man of action in the Story of Man.’]

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Titular painting by Mateo Perez d’Aleccio | Photo by Daniel Cilia ©

Unfortunately, to this day, you still find academics who do not accept as fact anything not clearly stated black-on-white. This attitude suits them well in their attempt to refute some historical facts, such as the conversion of the island to Christianity by Paul, and the continuity of Christianity through the Arab period. I call these academics “latter-day iconoclasts.” Solid documentary evidence of the Pauline cult in these islands are the 6th-century references to Gaudomelite (Melite of Gozo) in the apocryphal Acts of Peter and Paul, and the 12th-century narrative in the anonymous Greek poem (published as Tristia ex Melitogaudo).

Christianity in the islands did not spread like fire; that much is true. We find evidence of pagan religions still doing well in the second century. Statues to Apollo were still being erected in Mdina. As elsewhere, the new religion began to come out in the open after Constantine’s edict of Milan in 313 A.D. Christian catacombs are known already from the 4th century. In fact, the earliest and most prominent evidence for Christianity are the catacombs, with their characteristic agape tables.

A later phase of semi-troglodytic churches becomes apparent in the 7th century (namely, the Bormla Church of St. Helen, and Tad-Dejr Byzantine basilica). Some lesser known (because in private hands) cave churches, like St. George at Fawwara, have distinctive Roman features. Later manifestations in the first millennium are the Byzantine basilica and baptistry at Tas-Silġ, a Christian presence at the San Pawl Milqi complex, the clear existence of a Bishop of Malta in 553 A.D., and the four letters addressed to Malta’s bishops by Pope St. Gregory the Great (592-604 A.D.)

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Saint Paul’s Catacombs, Rabat. The most important Christian catacombs outside of Rome. Today, the intricate, extensive Catacombs of Malta are the largest archaeological evidence of Early Christianity in Malta. In fact, these systems of catacombs are among the largest ones of all Christian traditions, second only to the ones found in Rome. Indeed, built between the third and eight centuries, Saint Paul’s Catacombs alone sprawl across an area of over 22,000 square feet

In your article on the Arabs in Malta, you refer to some historical sources that claim the archipelago was deserted for more than a century, and that there might have been a certain discontinuity in Maltese Christian traditions. However, you claim some churches were to a certain extent respected, so a Christian population might have remained there. Can you say more about that? 

Admittedly, the Church in Malta appears to have borne the brunt of the Islamic onslaught of 869, judging by its Bishop being found in jail in Palermo eight years later, and that Qasr Habashi at Sousse in Tunisia was built with masonry from the church of Malta. The proponents of the theory that there was a break with Christianity during the years 869-1091 appeal to two main sources: 1) This period had been, until quite recently, archaeologically sterile, producing evidence for neither a Muslim nor a Christian presence; 2) the recent re-discovery by Maltese historians of the 14th-century text of Al-Himyari, which states that after 869 these islands remained unpopulated for 180 years. This conclusion, if correct, has the obvious necessary corollary that ethnic discontinuity implies religious discontinuity, a fortiori.

For too long, medieval archaeology has been completely neglected as, also here, the focus of attention has been, mainly, the Temple (Paleo and Neolithic) Period. That explains “sterility:” no one had really looked for it. This is no longer the case.

Medieval archaeologist Nathanael Cutajar and his collaborators have produced ceramic evidence for continued occupation and commercial activity in the 9th and late 10th centuries. Furthermore, other researchers into the Holocene climate have analysed palinological data from sedimentary cores to bed-rock that show uninterrupted grain production in these islands from the Neolithic to the present, without any gaps. More recent interpretations of literary Arabic texts confirm this scenario (cf. Hitti, Ibn Idhari etc., in Fiorini / Zammit 2016 “Arab Malta” for details).  Al Himyari’s “depopulation” is just hyperbolic language, typical of similar narratives of the period.

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Remains at San Pawl Milqi complex. San Pawl Milqi means the Welcoming of Saint Paul

Historians often refer to Andalusia as an example of religious convivencia in the Mediterranean. We also know some of these claims are, to a certain extent, exaggerated or inaccurate. You also refer to Abdulrahman’s dominion of Iberia in your article. Would you say Malta might have been a different case of such relatively cosmopolitan conviviality, based on its continuous Christian presence? And, if so, how exceptional would this be in the overall Mediterranean context?

The animus existing between the long-suffering Christians and Muslims, expressed in the gobbet just quoted, dismisses ideas of any convivencia. This hatred is not only attested to in this poem, but finds expression also in incidents such as the case of murder of a Saracen by the Christians of Malta and of Gozo, a crime for which they were penalized by King Roger and were only pardoned in 1198 by Roger’s daughter, Queen Constanza. Also, worth recalling is the meaning of ‘Malti,’ the hated jailor in Andalucia, described in Ibn Quzman Muhammad’s poem of ca. 1150. It seems to have been the case that, in Andalucia, Christian jailers were employed to guard Muslim prisoners, as these would tend to sympathize less with them than their co-religionists; a Maltese jailer would be particularly valuable if he also spoke Arabic. (Cf. S. Fiorini and H.C.R. Vella, ‘New XIIth-century evidence for the Pauline tradition and Christianity in the Maltese Islands’: The Cult of St Paul in the Christian Churches and in the Maltese Tradition, ed. J. Azzopardi, (Malta: PEG 2006) 168.)

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In Rabat, one finds a network of Early Christian Catacombs called the St. Agatha Complex. Tradition has it that during the persecution of the Roman Emperor Trajanus Decius (AD 249-251), Agatha fled from her native land of Sicily and took refuge in Malta. The primitive chapel of St. Agatha’s Catacombs is decorated with a 4th-century fresco representing a scallop shell painted in various colors. It symbolizes the source of life, that is God. In the middle there is a cross with the Greek letter “R” (rho), and an artistic variation of the Greek letter “X” (chi), which signifies Christ. The fresco also has flowers on both sides, and a dove with leaves or flowers in its claws. This is the best-preserved fresco from the earliest age of Malta’s Christian age existing in the Catacombs

Is there any basis to claim some of the Berbers and Arabs populating Malta were themselves Christian? Is there any archaeological evidence that might point at this that you know of? 

Not to my knowledge if, that is, you are referring to pre-1200, but recall that a census of 1241 breaks down the population of 10,000 into 4,374 Christians and 5,626 Muslims (apart from a few Jews), of which the Christians constituted 55% of the Gozitan population and only 40.8% of the Maltese population.

By 1250, the year of death of Frederick II, the Muslims had been wiped out with those who stuck to their faith being exiled to Lucera (Maltese individuals can be identified among the exiles in Lucera in 1300), and the ones who stayed had to convert. You cannot explain otherwise the continuity of the Arabic language in Malta (as opposed to Sicily) and the profusion of Arabo-Berber placenames. These converts, who had everything to lose by remaining Muslim, must be the progenitors of the present Maltese people bearing hundreds of Arabo-Berber surnames, like Bugeia, Busuttil, Buhagiar (Abu-type surnames, that is), Sammut, Zammit, Borg, Abdilla, and several others. Especial attention to be given to Mohammed, which by the mid-15th century had already metamorphosed into a camouflaged Mamo. Other surname changes are visible when it ceased to be safe on the island to be called Dejf (Magro), Bsajla (Cipolla), Rqiq (Subtili) and others. Luttrell makes the perspicacious comment that the proliferation of countryside chapels – a chapel for every 25 persons – can only be explained as brandishing the Christian banner on the owner’s fields.

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