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.
“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.