In the Footsteps of St. Paul on Malta – Part III

Legend has it that Paul was kept as a prisoner in a cave during the three months he was in Malta, awaiting transport to Rome. That cave was said to still exist, now a religious shrine, so I decided to find it.
I took a bus out of Valletta to Rabat in central Malta. As the bus drove through the arid countryside, punctuated by fields and rubble walls and painted with yellow-blooming prickly pear cactus and oleander trees heavy with big pink flowers, a walled city came into view high upon a hill. This was Mdina. The city takes its name from the Arabic word for walled city, medina, and the fortifications surrounding the tiny town are the same built by the Arabs during their occupation of Malta in the ninth century. Rabat is contiguous with Mdina and comprises the town immediately outside Mdina’s city gate; rabat is also an Arab word, loosely translating to “suburb.” Before the Arab invasion, there had been only one town under the Byzantines. The Arabs tightened the defenses by closing in the central part of the settlement, effectively creating two cities.
It was in Rabat where Paul was supposed to have been imprisoned. Today, St. Paul’s Grotto rests beneath St. Paul’s Church on Triq San Pawl. A long set of stairs descended from the sidewalk into the depths below the church. The light grew dim and the air was cool and damp. At the foot of the stairs was an iron fence with a gate standing open. On the other side there was an altar with a large statue of St. Paul. A tour guide sheparded half a dozen or so camera-toting visitors through the grotto and so I followed him.

He came to the actual grotto where it is said that Paul preached and administered to those curious about Christianity. The grotto was not a cave; in fact, it was not much more than a shallow alcove in the rock, perhaps eight feet high by ten feet across. A marble statue of St. Paul stood in the center of the grotto. He balanced a large book on one outthrust hip, while extending his left hand to the viewer–and sure enough, as the old man pointed out to me in Valletta, Paul had all five fingers extended. A small silver replica of a galley donated in 1960 by Knights of St. John Grand Master de Moyana hung from the rock ceiling. At the base of the statue were four ugly lamps, fashioned to look something like torches, set on short stone columns. The lamps were a gift from Pope Paul VI, who was not necessarily know for his sense of interior design.

The tour guide carried on about the miracles Paul worked in the grotto, although, if truth were told, as a Roman citizen it is unlikely that Paul would have been imprisoned in a cave while in Malta. It is far more likely that he would have spent his time on the island in the comfort of the magistrate Publius’ house.
St. Paul’s Grotto was disappointing and the pilgrims that trickled through the site seemed suitably unimpressed. Ascending into the bright sunlight I realized that I was near two ancient catacomb complexes, one named after, of course, St. Paul, the other named for St. Agatha. I headed southwest from the church square on Triq Sant’ Agatha (Saint Agatha Street) to St. Paul’s Catacombs. All that was visible above ground was a stone wall surrounding a few small stone structures scattered in a weedy lot. Below that weedy lot, however, lay a serpentine maze of early Christian tombs, most of them dug in the fourth and fifth centuries.

The temperature dropped significantly as I descended into the catacombs from the staircase in one of the little stone structures. It took a few moments before my eyes become accustomed to the darkness, broken now and then by naked light bulbs hanging on wires.  I found myself in a vestibule of sorts with a primitive chapel and stone-cut altar on the right. On the left was a room that contained two large round tables carved from the stone, surrounded by a groove that served as a bench. The tables were called agape tables. Here people gathered, reclining on the benches Roman style, to mourn, pray and feast as they commemorated their dead.

I wandered through the galleries of silent tombs cut into the native globigerina limestone. Originally, each grave would have been sealed with a slab made of stone or terra cotta, but now the dusty graves lay open, their occupants long gone. There was a variety of grave styles represented in the catacombs: loculi, small rectangular graves for babies carved into the walls of the passageways; arcosolium tombs dug directly into the floors of the passageways; canopied table tombs, a series of graves dug side by side about two feet above the ground on shelves framed by arches; window graves with arched “windows” cut above the sealing slabs so that one could look down an entire row of such graves; and various other styles.

Despite the name of the catacombs, there is no historical association with St. Paul. On the surface once again, I thought I’d try my luck at St. Agatha’s Crypt and Catacombs. I found the sign-posted alley for St. Agatha’s about one-tenth of a mile southwest of St. Paul’s Catacombs. It was a lovely, narrow tree-shaded alley–one that could easily be missed by the inattentive visitor– that opened into a stone courtyard. There was a tiny, unassuming archaeological museum in the courtyard where I purchased a ticket to explore the crypt and catacombs. When I asked when the next guided tour would start, the cashier simply shrugged, and told me to help myself. He pointed across the courtyard to what looked like a subway entrance.
I walked across the courtyard and found that the iron gate across the stairs descending into the catacombs was padlocked. I wiggled the lock. It was unlocked. The gate squeaked in protest as I dragged it open and crept down the stairs. “Crept” is accurate, since there were no lights to help me find my way down. At the bottom I entered the original crypt.

It was in that crypt that St. Agatha, an early Christian fleeing persecution in her native Catania in Sicily was said to have found refuge, at least temporarily. She had refused to marry the Roman governor of Catania and fled to Malta in 251 A.D. She stayed there for several months, but eventually returned to Sicily where the Romans arrested her, cut off her left breast, and roasted her to death. Today, Agatha is a popular saint whose influence is widespread both in Malta and especially in Sicily; my grandfather came to the United States from the Sicilian seaport of St. Agata de Mitello.
A single weak light gave off firefly glow in the crypt. The flash from my camera was like a flare in the dark chamber, briefly illuminating a rough-hewn altar and colorful frescoes covering the walls and ceiling–I would find out later that the frescoes were painted in 1200 and depicted the ubiquitous St. Paul, St. Agatha, and the Madonna breast-feeding the infant Jesus. 
In a small recess in the wall, I could see steps cut into the stone and another puny light in the distance. I made my way up the three steps, entering the catacombs proper.

As in St. Paul’s Catacombs, there were a variety of grave styles present, but the light was weaker here and they were not as easy to distinguish. My camera flash served as a flashlight, pushing back the gloom a least momentarily. Spider webs appeared like black lace strung across the grave windows. The catacombs contained as many as 500 graves and covered about 2.5 square miles, although only a small portion is open to the public. This was a good thing; as it is, one could easily get lost in the dark passages that are accessible.
The section I was in was the oldest (the catacombs were used up until the seventeenth century), with burials dating from the second and third centuries. These were Christian graves, but there were also pagan graves dating from the same time period, a noteworthy example of early religious tolerance, something missing in modern Malta. The passages were narrow, the ceilings low. In one chamber, I looked into an open grave illuminated by a tiny bulb and was startled to find people looking up at me. Two crumbling skeletons lay side by side in the cool darkness, their empty eye sockets trained on eternity.

Once my heartbeat returned to normal, I continued my exploration of the catacombs, taking pictures, many of them simply by pointing and shooting into the darkness. I found that, unlike St. Paul’s, some of the graves here were decorated with frescoes and inscriptions. One such tomb bore Greek letters and the images of floral wreaths and pelicans.
At last, I stumbled into what is believed to be the earliest Christian church in Malta. It was a semicircular chamber with a frescoed niche at one end that probably served as both an altar and tabernacle. In the dim light, I could barely make out the shape of the niche, but once again, my camera provided light. The central feature of the fresco was a large scallop shell and painted below the shell on either side, a bird. The tourist brochure described them as doves, representing the souls of the dead.
            What a wonderful thought, to think of those dead souls winging their way up out of the darkness into the light of eternity!

In the Footsteps of St. Paul on Malta – Part II

Today, Catholicism is alive everywhere in Malta, thanks to Paul. It may be Malta’s density–roughly 400,000 people packed into a seven-island archipelago only about thirty-five miles end to end–that makes the islanders’ faith so visible. I’ve traveled through much of Catholic Europe, including Vatican City, but nowhere did Catholicism seem as pervasive as it did in Malta.

The population of Malta is almost 100% Catholic and the traditions and trappings of Catholicism are evident everywhere. In the scores of opulent churches and chapels that are found cheek by jowl in even the smallest villages. In the festas processions where colorful life-sized statues of saints are paraded through the streets upon the shoulders of sturdy young men and church marching bands try to outshine each other musically if at all possible, or in a brawl if necessary. In the antiquated smoke-belching buses where holy pictures, rosaries, crucifixes, saints’ statues and prayers to Jesus or the Blessed Virgin Mary surround the driver like an altar on wheels. In the civil law, based strongly on Catholic orthodoxy, that does not permit divorce, abortion, or homosexuality. In the ceramic plaques depicting saints and the Holy Family that can be found on the exterior walls of many houses, along with the houses’ names that are also religious in nature, such as St. Theresa or Ave Maria. In the Maltese love of jewelry, especially religious jewelry, such as the crosses, Maltese and Latin, dangling from gold chains around the necks of young men or nestling in the impressive décolletages of Maltese women.

One day I was riding on an old red-and-yellow bus named Paradise headed for Valletta. The bus was filled with people on their way to work in the capitol city and I had to stand in the aisle. A woman got on at one stop and seeing how crowded was the bus, hesitated a moment before giving the driver her fare. But she did step aboard and grabbed the overhead rail with her left hand. She quickly made the sign of the cross with her right hand just as the bus lurched forward in a cloud of blue smoke, and nearly sweeping her feet out from under her. Her quick invocation worked, however; she didn’t fall. After that incident, I became aware of how often bus riders made that same gesture, whether standing or sitting. Despite the kamikaze bus drivers and the condition of most Maltese buses, held together it seemed with bailing wire and chewing gum, accidents were not common. The Maltese attribute such salvation to God.

I was intrigued by both the influence of Catholicism upon Maltese culture and the story of Paul during his shipwrecked days on Malta. There are dozens of churches and shrines scattered across the country, all bearing the name of the beloved saint. There are two churches in Valletta named after St. Paul. One is the austere St. Paul’s Anglican Church, whose tall steeple is one of the dominant features on the Valletta skyline, visible for several miles to ships at sea. The interior is straight from the Protestant Reformation, plain and unadorned by statuary, paintings, stained glass, and the other artistic features common to Catholic churches in Malta. I suppose that if one did not wish to be distracted during prayer, this church would be the place to go. I thought it was boring.

As my wife Mary and I exited St. Paul’s and walked through the ancient streets of Valletta on Triq Il Merkanti (Merchants Street), we paused every now and then, gazing at statues of saints set in niches on the facades of various buildings. A smiling old man watched us for a few minutes, following us at a discrete distance. Finally, as we stood looking up at a colorfully painted statue enclosed in a glass case, he approached us.

“Saint Dominick,” the man said, flashing us a mostly toothless smile. “Do you know how you can tell?” We didn’t know. “He is always holding up only one finger of his right hand, see?”

We looked again and, sure enough, the saint had his right hand raised, all but his index finger curled inward.

“Every time you see a saint raising one finger at you, that will be Dominick,” the man said. “Paul is different. He holds up all five fingers, like this,” he said, demonstrating the gesture for us.

“Like a traffic cop,” I said, and the old man laughed.

“Yes, like that,” he said.

We slowly walked down the street and the old man accompanied us, keeping up a steady patter all along. He told us that there were seventeen churches in Valletta alone and that the niches in which the statues now stood held torches in the old days. He was seventy-eight years old, he said, and he then proceeded to tell us all about his family. He started to give us directions to all seventeen of Valletta’s churches, but knowing that there was no way I could keep all that in my head, I told him of my specific interest in St. Paul.

“Then you must visit St. Paul’s Shipwreck Church,” he said.

“In Valletta?”

“Yes, but it’s not easy to find. I’ll show you the way,” he said.

I protested that he had been kind enough already and that we really couldn’t impose upon him any longer (despite the fact that he had voluntarily attached himself to us as an impromptu tour guide), but he insisted on showing us the way.

In the end, it wasn’t much further before he directed us one block south, to Triq San Pawl (St. Paul Street). He didn’t go with us to the church and would take no compensation for his assistance, saying that he was simply proud of his city and liked to show it off to foreigners.

Triq San Pawl is a narrow street–typical of Valletta–and the unremarkable facade of St. Paul’s Shipwreck Church is sandwiched between two other buildings. Were it not for the small sign out front, the church would be easy to miss. Yet, the church is one of the oldest in Valletta, built in the 1570s and designed by the Maltese architect Girolmu Cassar, who was responsible for much of the work of rebuilding Valletta after the Great Siege of 1565 by the Ottomans Turks reduced the city to rubble.

St. Paul’s Shipwreck Church in Valletta was built to commemorate the auspicious wreck that brought St. Paul to the island, but should not be confused with a second St. Paul’s Shipwreck Church, that one a much smaller and simpler church located on the waterfront at St. Paul’s Bay, the traditional spot at which Paul is believed to have come ashore.

The Valletta church is the final resting place for many Knights of St. John and ecclesiastical officials who could not find a place in St. John’s Co-Cathedral, the traditional church of the Knights of St. John. Their remains lie beneath the floor, set with a chessboard of marble tombstones. Later architectural additions to the interior of St. Paul’s Shipwreck Church came in the seventeenth-century in the Baroque renderings of Maltese artist and architect Lorenzo Gaffa.

For me, the highlights of the church were the relics associated with St. Paul. In a little side altar stood a golden reliquary in the shape of an arm. A glass window was set in the forearm and inside I glimpsed a tiny bit of white. A sign told me that I was viewing a piece of bone from St. Paul’s wrist. The reliquary was beautiful but the relic itself was unassuming. Saints’ relics are widespread throughout Europe–there are enough pieces of the True Cross to build a flotilla of wooden ships–and I wondered about this relic’s authenticity, although I suppose that would be of little importance to a true believer.

There was also a glass case that held a roughly columnar-shaped piece of stone, which was touted as a piece of the column upon which Paul was beheaded in Rome; he lost his appeal to Caesar and was executed, but his Roman citizenship spared him crucifixion, granting him a more humane beheading instead.