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Christian History of Malta

Saturday, April 17, 2010 3:20 PM Comments (3)

Pope Benedict XVI about to give his address at Malta's airport.

For readers who’d like to know more about Malta’s interesting Christian history, here’s a summary of the main events, courtesy of the Archdiocese of Malta.

CHRISTIANITY IN MALTA

At Paul’s Shipwreck on his way to Rome in AD 60 saw the beginning of Christianity in Malta. We read in the Acts of the Apostles (28, 1-11) that the people of the island showed no small courtesy to Paul and his companions and loaded them with such things as were necessary. According to St John Chrysostom, this shows that Paul converted a large number of Maltese to the Christian faith. Probably Paul on his departure from Malta left behind a small group of Christians, while, by the fourth century palaeo-Christian remains indicate the existence of a number of Christian communities scattered all over the island, although paganism still prevailed up to the Peace of Constantine. From the collection of the letters of Pope St Gregory the Great, we know that Malta had a bishop and probably also a monastery of Benedictine monks.

The Arab Period

Christianity in Malta received a great set back with the Arab occupation and according to some medievalists, the only Christians living in Malta were slaves, although some place names originating from the Arab period, seem to indicate the presence of a small Christian community far from the centre of power. Even a century after the occupation of Malta by the Normans, the majority of the population n Malta was still Moslem. Count Roger the Norman, in 1091, only freed the Christian and imposed a yearly tribute on the Moslems, before returning to Sicily. The Norman occupation of Malta was accomplished by Count Roger’s son, Roger II in 1127 and we can date the re-establishment of the Maltese diocese from 1156, although we do not have a regular succession of bishops before 1253. These Maltese bishops, with one exception (Fr Mauro Cali, 1393-1408) never resided on the island or even visited it. We know of only one pastoral visit by a bishop of Malta, that by Senatore de Mello in 1436, who appointed a commission of Cathedral canons to draw up a list of benefices in Malta; from that list, we know that at that time in Malta, besides the Cathedral church, which was the only large church on the island, there were ten parishes.

The Knights of St John

The Church in Malta took on a new lease of life with the coming of the Knights of Malta in 1530; the bishops, still foreigners, again with one exception (Balthasar Cagliares, 1615-1633) were resident bishops and the island did not lack pastoral care. During the 350 years of the Knights’ presence in Malta, beginning with the pastoral visit of Mgr Pietro Duzzina in 1575, ten years after the Great Siege, various synods were held to promote Christian life according to the decrees of the Council of Trent. Many of the magnificent churches we see today in Malta and Gozo, date from the period of the Knights; the religious Orders that had established themselves in Malta between 1370 and 1492, were flourishing and were able to open other friaries. Although there was a continual rivalry between the Order of the Knights of St John, the bishop and the Inquisitor, each one insisting on particular prerogatives and rights, these hardly impinged on the Christian life of the population.

The British Period

Love for the Church was so ingrained in the Maltese people, that when the French, under Napoleon occupied the island, and started despoiling the churches of their riches, the Maltese rose in arms and after a siege of two years, forced the French besieged in Malta to surrender to the British. The Maltese requested Britain to take Malta under its protection. This was confirmed by the Treaty of Paris in 1814. The British Government promised to safeguard the ancient rights and prerogatives of the Maltese nation and their Catholic religion, a promise observed more in its breach than in its observance, but not with regard to the Catholic religion; the British Government also showed great respect for the Catholic Church in Malta. During the British period, Malta remained no longer a suffragan see of Palermo, but became directly dependent on the Holy See. All the bishops were now Maltese and from 1831, the British Government gave them the honour due to British generals, on account of the fact that Mgr Francesco Saverio Caruana, who became bishop of Malta in 1831, was one of the two leaders who had led the Maltese against the French in 1798 - 1800. During the British period, with the increase in population, several new parishes were erected, the religious Orders continued to expand their activities, and quite a few female religious congregations were established.

Recent times

The two politico-religious crises of the present and the secularizing influences of tourism and the modern media have left their mark. Nevertheless, the Maltese, in their great majority, still cherish the religion of their forefathers and today many Maltese are Catholics, not by custom, but through conviction. A milestone in the history of Christianity in Malta. On the 3rd June, 2007, the first Maltese Saint, St. George Preca, was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI. Known as “Dun Gorg”, he is popularly referred to as the “Second Apostle of Malta”, after St Paul. He founded the Society of Christian Doctrine, M.U.S.E.U.M, a society of lay catechists.

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About Edward Pentin

Edward Pentin
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Edward Pentin began reporting on the Pope and the Vatican with Vatican Radio before moving on to become the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register. He has also reported on the Holy See and the Catholic Church for a number of other publications including Newsweek, Newsmax, Zenit, The Catholic Herald, and The Holy Land Review, a Franciscan publication specializing in the Church and the Middle East. Follow on Twitter @edwardpentin