The Church is everywhere in Malta – Aleteia

St. Paul was shipwrecked off Malta in AD 60 and left behind an island that to this day is inhabited by some of the most passionate and shameless Catholics in the world.

Malta is a big church. You’ll have to go see for yourself, and as a former resident I think you’ll be glad you did. For those interested in the rich Catholic history of this Mediterranean island nation, here is a guide to help you plan your visit.

On his way to his trial in Rome in the year 60, Saint Paul was shipwrecked off the northwest coast of Malta and spent the winter there, miraculously surviving a fatal snakebite, which made him a ” god” for many. He converted the island’s governor, Publius (Malta’s first bishop and saint), healed the sick and won souls for Christ. To this day, the Maltese are among the most passionate and shameless Catholics in the world. The country has more than one church per square kilometer: 732 of them. The smallest of its islands, Comino, has a huge chapel, but only four residents, so that’s fine.

You have two years to see each church, once a day, or 14 if you only go on Sundays. I’ll get you started, with four stars and a humbler village church for good measure. We’ll start where most visitors do – in the capital, Valletta.

1. St. Paul’s Shipwreck Church (Valletta)

The dramatic front facade of one of the oldest and best-loved churches on the island towers over a very narrow street. you’ll have a hard time squeezing everything into a single photo. There are two relics inside: a wrist of Saint Paul and a piece of the column on which he may have died at the alleged site of his martyrdom in Rome. If you time your visit for the Feast of St. Paul’s Shipwreck (February 10), you’ll see the titular statue of St. Paul being carried through the streets of Valletta with all the bells and whistles; the streets will be lined with confetti. Maltese Catholics love to party!

The architectural imprint of the Order of the Knights of Saint John is particularly important in the capital. A short walk up the hill from St. Paul’s Shipwreck Church stands one of their masterpieces.

Liz Star

2. St. John the Baptist Co-Cathedral (Valletta)

Built by the Knights between 1573 and 1578, it was the Order’s convent church until their expulsion, and became a co-cathedral with St Paul’s Cathedral in the former capital of Mdina in the 1820s .

Catholic Malta and the Knights have a historic relationship. With its splendid natural harbor and strategic position in the Mediterranean, Malta was irresistible to invaders: Phoenicians, Arabs, Romans and Ottomans. The Knights received Malta in 1530 (as a vassal state of Sicily) and ruled there for 268 years. They repelled the Turks in 1565, but were expelled in 1798 when Napoleon captured the islands. Britain sent France packing in 1800, marking the start of 164 years of British rule. As a key Royal Navy outpost, Malta was one of the most heavily bombed places in the world during World War II.

The sober facade of St. John’s Co-Cathedral belies a lavish interior: ecclesiastical bling in its own right, not a square centimeter left untouched by paintings, sculptures, marble, tapestries, Caravaggio’s prized “Decapitation of Saint John the Baptist”, nine niche chapels (eight d between them dedicated to the “languages” of the Order). Whatever you do, don’t just stand there staring at the ceiling; at your feet is a magnificent tapestry of inlaid marble honoring the knights buried below; nearly four hundred knights and grand masters were buried there.

Malta;  Altar Canopy, St. John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta
Liz Starr, 2015

Forward and inland, away from the crowds, to one of three villages (Balzon, Attard and Lija)…

3. Parish Church of the Transfiguration of Jesus (Lija)

The parish of Lija was born in 1594, and the current church, commonly called the Church of Our Savior, was completed a hundred years later. Its exterior, like many in Malta, is beautiful without being showy. Inside, the red pillared walls flanking the altar are striking. The titular painting, “The Transfiguration of Jesus”, is by Mattia Preti, a renowned Italian painter and Knight of the Order of St. John. The church is at the end of a two-minute walk down Transfiguration Avenue from Naxxar Street. Halfway, at a roundabout, you will meet the charming Belvedere Tower (affectionately called the “wedding cake”).

Liz Starr, 2015

As an honorary Lijan (I lived there for three years in the 1970s), I would be remiss if I didn’t sing the city’s praises. The Maltese love their holidays. Each year, villages celebrate their patron saints on appropriate feast days, with exaggerated decorations, masses, processions, parades, marching bands and fireworks. Ask any local about their party and they’ll assure you they have the best fireworks in Malta. If it’s a Lijan, he’s right. Go there before August 6 (the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Saviour) to see for yourself; we still have time.

4. Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu (Gharb, Gozo)

Head west to Cirkewwa and catch a ferry to Gozo, the smaller of the two main Maltese islands, where the pace slows down. In the capital, Victoria/Rabat, a magnificent view awaits you from the top of the fortified fortress known as the Citadel. From its heights, you can see a rural landscape dotted with villages and churches.

Perhaps the most impressive of these is the magnificent Marian shrine of Ta’ Pinu, a 10-minute drive northwest. It stands alone in the countryside, a steeple apart like a watchtower; there is an air of castle about it. It’s a very popular place for a wedding, and Malta is a very small world, so you might bump into a Cinderella and her prince. These things happen in Malta more often than anywhere else I’ve been.

The first records of a chapel here date from 1534. In a sorry state in 1575, it survived demolition orders, according to legend, when a workman took an ax to the structure and broke his arm, considered a divine command to cease and desist. It became Ta’ Pinu (“of Stone”) in the early 1600s when Pinu Gauci financed its first restoration and commissioned the titular painting, the “Virgin of the Assumption”; the old chapel and the painting remain intact behind the altar of the basilica.

In 1883, two inhabitants heard the voice of the Virgin coming from the painting: she asked Kharmni Grima to pray three Hail Marys during the three days she remained in the tomb before her Assumption; she asked Francesco Portelli to encourage devotion to her son’s hidden wound, caused by the weight of the cross. The Grima farm is open to the public and a way of the cross goes up the hill of Ghammar in front of the sanctuary.

Miracles follow one another, pilgrims flock in increasing numbers and the sanctuary is enlarged to accommodate them. It was designated a basilica in 1932. Pope John Paul II visited it in 1990 and placed five gold stars on the titular painting. In 2010 he was brought to Malta, where Pope Benedict XVI presented the Virgin with a rose gold, after which she returned to Gozo like everyone else, on one of the three ferries that regularly make the 4-mile crossing.

In 2017, freestanding mosaic walls were added to either side of Ta’ Pinu Square, depicting the Mysteries of the Rosary and scenes from Gozo. The walls curve towards you like open arms of welcome and hug you as you leave. Ta’ Pinu is a unique delicacy.

Malta;  Sanctuary of Our Lady of Ta' Pinu, Gozo
Liz Starr, 2019

Now back to Mgarr, sail to the main island. Check the name of your ferry; you may have ended up on the “Ta Pinu”. From Cirkewwa, head southeast for 9 kilometers to our final stop.

5. The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieha (Mellieha)

You are on a hill overlooking Mellieha Bay. On a clear day you can also see Comino and Gozo. Highly recommend taking a guided tour (Joseph gets five stars) and plenty of time to wander around on your own too. I felt that this church was whispering things, it was small but special in a way, like no church I had ever been to. I had questions: Why is the altar tilted? Why do the lions flank his steps? Why do they look Asian? Why are the bishops crammed like sardines into a fresco on the vaulted ceiling above? What happened to the lower half of the icon of Mary? Whose bones are behind the glass in this side niche? What are these men doing to Mary and the Child Jesus with these sharp tools? Where is it in the Bible?

MALTA;  Altar of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieha

It’s a place to savor chilled, so I’ll only share a tiny fraction of what I’ve learned. The bishops are said to have consecrated the building in the 5th century. Doubtful men? Just learn a centuries-old Maltese phrase that it would be wise not to speak publicly about multicultural Malta in the 21st century: “Ħaqq għat-Torok! To hell with the Turks.

It’s hard to leave. There is a wall covered with intimate and irresistible ex-votos: tokens of gratitude to Our Lady of Mellieha for answered prayers, both written and in the form of representative objects, ranging from tiny baby clothes to motorcycle helmet. There is another wall covered in votive paintings depicting miraculous rescues at sea – storms, sea monsters, near drownings, still Our Lady and the Christ Child floating on a watchful cloud.

Do not leave until you have crossed the street and descended the steps to the underground crypt “Notre-Dame de la Grotte”. It’s small, dark and refreshing. The Times of Malta recounts its interesting story.

When you leave Malta, you will have done something remarkable, whatever the specifics of your stay. You will have gone where archaeologists never dared to dream that they would find such ancient things (don’t wake the sleeping lady), where Saint Paul ran aground and changed everything, where the curiosities, the stories and the people will I hope leave you with the feeling that Faith, Hope and Charity are not only three planes, but also what Malta is made of, which explains why after centuries of captivity in the face of hostile invaders, they have welcomed you with open arms. God bless Malta.

Martha J. Finley