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Overview of the Church in Malta ahead of Pope Francis’ visit

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Overview of the Church in Malta ahead of Pope Francis’ visit

Ahead of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Journey to Malta from 2-3 April, we offer an overview of the nation’s ancient Catholic community and the religious and cultural context of the Mediterranean island nation.

By Lisa Zengarini

Malta was one of the first Roman colonies to convert to Christianity nearly 2,000 years ago. In fact, the origins of the Maltese Church go back to St. Paul who, according to the Acts of the Apostles (Chapters 27-28), shipwrecked on the Mediterranean island on his way to Rome in around AD 60 and took refuge in a cave, now known as St. Paul’s Grotto in Rabat.

Two-thousand years of history

Malta’s first bishop was St. Publius, who was converted by the Apostle Paul, and subsequently lead the Maltese Church for three decades before being martyred in Greece in AD 112. The early Christian presence in Malta is widely documented by archaeological and documentary evidence.

The local Church soon came under Greek influence, especially during the domination of the Byzantine Empire over the Maltese archipelago (535-6 — 869-870). The Muslim rule that followed (870—1090) did not cancel out the Christian presence in the Maltese islands.

In 1530, Emperor Charles V of Habsburg ceded the islands to the Knights of the Order of St. John, subsequently known as the ‘Sovereign Military Order of Malta’ – SMOM), after they lost Rhodes to Suleiman the Magnificent. They abandoned Malta after Napoleon occupied it in 1798.

In 1817, the Diocese of Malta became part of the Ecclesiastical Province of the Archdiocese of Palermo, in Sicily, and in 1844 it was declared immediately subject to the Holy See. A century later, in 1944, it was be elevated to the rank of Metropolitan Archdiocese by Pope Pius XII.

Papal visits

Soon after its independence from Britain (1964), the Republic of Malta established diplomatic relations with the Holy See, on 15 December 1965.

The country has been visited four times by two Popes. Pope St. John Paul II went twice—once in 1990 and then on 8-9 May 2001, during his “Jubilee Pilgrimage in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul”.

During this last trip, on 9 May, he beatified along with two others, Father George Preca, a pioneer Maltese priest and the founder of the Society of Christian Doctrine (better known as ‘MUSEUM’), an association established in 1907 aimed at forming young lay catechists men and women.

Pope Benedict XVI visited Malta from 17 to 18 April 2010, on the occasion of the 1,950th anniversary of the shipwreck of St. Paul.

Malta’s Catholic identity

Catholicism is an important component of Maltese identity. Its role and position in the island nation is recognized by the Maltese Constitution, which states that “the religion of Malta is the Roman Catholic Apostolic”.

Catholics in the country account for some 85% of the population, and Mass attendance is relatively high by international standards, although in recent years there has been some decline.

Parish activity is intense, and the 85 Maltese parishes are fully integrated into the life of society. This symbiosis is significantly expressed by the great participation in the many local patronal feasts across the country.

The Church is deeply rooted in the social fabric through its many institutions, including schools. There are over 70 Catholic schools in Malta, and the Constitution establishes that “the authorities of the Roman Catholic Apostolic have the duty and the right to teach which principles are right and which are wrong”, and that religious teaching of the Catholic Faith “be provided in all State schools as part of compulsory education.” The status of Catholic education has been confirmed by subsequent agreements with the Holy See.

The Church also runs many health and social facilities assisting elderly, physically and mentally disabled, and the most vulnerable.

 

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