Christianity in Malta dates back to 60 AD when St Paul was shipwrecked on his way to Rome. During his three month stay, Paul was bitten by a snake and not harmed, which caused people to regard him as a god. Paul's steps can be retraced in the shrines, grottos and catacombs of Rabat and in the ancient capital Mdina.
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CONNECTIONS TO ST. PAUL & EARLY CHRISTIANITY
The Mdina Cathedral, also known as St Paul's Cathedral, is found in the walled city of Mdina. A late 17th century masterpiece of Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafa, it lies on the site of a much earlier Norman church that was destroyed by the violent earthquake of 1693. According to tradition, the earlier church had been built on the site of the house of Publius, the Roman's chief man on the Islands, who was converted to Christianity by St Paul in 60 AD. Mattia Preti's monumental depiction of the conversion of St Paul is found behind the main altar. It was part of the original Norman church, and survived the earthquake.
The Grotto of St Paul lies below the parish church of Rabat. According to tradition, it was here that St. Paul preached Christianity. Another story says that he was imprisoned here. The grotto was once a Roman prison and you can see the holes in the roof from where the prisoners' chains once hung. Two small chapels are dedicated to St Paul and St Luke, each one with a statue of its Apostle. In 1990, Pope John Paul II visited Rabat and came to pray in the grotto. Pope Benedict XVI visited in April, 2010.
The building of St. Paul’s Shipwreck Church was begun in 1950 and completed in 1956. According to tradition, the site of the church is where a fire was lit to warm the survivors of a shipwreck, including St. Paul, in 60 AD. It contains a painting showing the landing of St. Paul and the other survivors with the shipwreck in the background. In 1818, Pope Pius VII donated part of the block upon which St Paul was said to have been beheaded, as well as what is believed to be part of his wrist bone to the church.
St Paul’s Catacombs is a typical complex of interconnected, underground Roman cemeteries that were in use up until the 4th century AD. They are located on the outskirts of the old Roman capital Mdina since Roman law prohibited burials within the city. The complex represents the earliest and largest archaeological evidence of Christianity in Malta and owes its name to the widely held myth that it was related to St Paul’s Grotto.
St. Agatha's Catacombs in Rabat are extensive and contain graves of different types. St. Agatha is said to have taken refuge in the underground crypt from the persecutions of the Emperor Decius in Catania in the year 249 AD. It is said that St. Agatha only stayed in Malta for a few years until she returned to Sicily, where she was arrested and condemned to torture and imprisonment.
VALLETTA & THE KNIGHTS OF ST. JOHN
The Maltese Islands are home to the Hospitaller Knights of St. John, early defenders of Christianity. The Knights were noblemen from the most important families of Europe, and their mission was to protect the Catholic faith from the attacks of the Ottoman Turks. Although the Knights arrived in Malta in 1530, it was around a half-century before they began to build the parish churches we see today. Their first concern had been to fortify the Islands against attacks and to build the city of Valletta, Malta's capital.
Valletta, named after its founder, the Grand Master of the Order of St John, Jean Parisot de la Valette, had been planned before the siege. However, the plans could only be completed after the defeat of Suleiman and the Turks. In gratitude for the defeat of the Turks, Pope Pius V and King Philip of Spain supplied riches to Malta and the building of Valetta and St. John's Cathedral was completed in 1577 in just fifteen years.
The cathedral contains two of Caravaggio's most impressive works, "St. Jerome" and "The Beheading of St. John Baptist." This cathedral of the Knights of St John is the highlight of the Maltese Islands. The plain facade reminds one of the fortifications of Valletta, the fortress city in which it stands, while the elaborate interior shows the Knights’ deep appreciation of culture and the arts.
CHURCHES AND CHAPELS
Many churches and chapels are found throughout the Islands. They are at the heart of Maltese social and cultural life. Here are a few to note:
The Church of St. Mary in Mosta, known as Mosta Dome, was built in 1860 over another church that was built in 1614. Its dome is the fourth largest in the world and famous due to an incident that took place during WWII. A bomb, which pierced the dome in 1942 landed on the church floor and slid across the floor without exploding. The church was crowded when the bomb hit and all were spared. The bomb is now on display in a small museum attached to the church.
St Lawrence Church originally served as the church of the Order of St John before the building of Valletta and St John's Cathedral. The present church was built between 1681 and 1697. The area in front of the church was used as a graveyard during the Great Siege. Later St Joseph's Chapel and the Crucifix Chapel were built on the site. Showcased in St Joseph's Chapel are the hat and sword of Grand Master Jean de la Valette, the founder of Valletta. A small museum is located next to the parish church.
St. Gregory's Church, originally dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria, is located in Zejtun, a town of about 12,000 in southern Malta. The church was used as part of the defenses of the Hospitaller Knights of St John against the Turks. In 1969, a secret passage was discovered in the church walls. The passage may have been used as a safe place for villagers when under attack by the enemy. When discovered, these passages revealed the skeletal remains of some 80 people.
Located in the heart of Mdina, the Carmelite Priory has opened its doors to the public. The Carmelite friars who live here invite visitors to experience the way of life of their predecessors in this 17th century priory. It is also possible to visit their impressive church.
Also among the religious sites in Malta are many other churches. Some are small, wayside chapels. Some are excavated in the rock; others cling to cliffs.
FESTIVALS AND TRADITIONS
The Maltese Islands are a strong Catholic country, with a wide diversity of festivities which make up the religious year. Feast days are important in the Islands and some holy days are actually national holidays, such as the Feast of Santa Maria in mid-August. Others, such as the harvest festival, orL'Imnarja at the end of June, are steeped in folklore. However, the most important events to all villages are individual fiestas, honoring their parish patron saint.
The Maltese Islands have three sites designated by UNESCO as belonging to World Heritage. These are the City of Valletta, the Megalithic Temples and the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum.
The capital of Malta, Valletta, was ruled successively by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and the Order of the Knights of St John. Valletta contains over 320 monuments and is one of the most historic areas in the world.
Seven Megalithic Temples are found on the islands of Malta and Gozo, one of Malta's two sister islands. The Ggantija Temples on the island of Gozo are notable for their gigantic Bronze Age structures. The Ggantija Temples are the oldest, free-standing monuments in the world. They indicate that the Island has been inhabited for at least 1,000 years before the famous Egyptian pyramids of Giza were constructed.
The Hal Saflien Hypogeum, meaning "underground" in Greek, is a a subterranean structure thought to be originally used as a sanctuary. It is the only prehistoric underground temple in the world. Later it was used as a burial ground. It consists of halls, chambers and passages hewn out of the rock and covering some 500 square meters. The rock-cut chambers are different shapes and sizes, finished to different standards of workmanship. The complex is grouped in three levels – the upper level (3600-3300 BC), the middle level (3300-3000 BC) and the lower level (3150 -2500 BC). Excavation has turned up archaeological material including pottery, human bones and personal items such as beads and amulets, little carved animals and other figurines.
GOZO & COMINO
Malta has two sister islands, Gozo and Comino. Malta is the largest island and the cultural, commercial and administrative center. Gozo is the second largest island and is more rural, characterized by fishing, tourism, crafts and agriculture. It is home to baroque churches, old stone farmhouses and historical sites. Comino, largely uninhabited, lies between Malta and Gozo and is enjoyed for boating, snorkeling, windsurfing and diving.