POPE FRANCIS, A PILGRIM TO MALTA, A LAND THAT WELCOMED A SHIPWRECKED ST. PAUL
This is a look at the island nation of Malta that Pope Francis will visit over the weekend, and a personal story at the very end of how one of my trips to Malta, and the Malta stamp in my passport, became the focus of an investigation.
Pope Francis will spend this coming Saturday and Sunday in Malta, the southernmost nation of Europe and an island nation that I have visited several times.
My first visit was in 1983 to attend and report on a Marian Congress being held in this island nation. I made many friends and kept in touch with several of them for decades and we had a reunion on second trip.
My second visit was in the early 90s when I was working at the Vatican. We had six days off at Easter and I decided to return to Malta to spend Holy Week there, and it was one of the more exceptional Holy Week experiences of my life. To spend – to share – especially the Triduum and Easter Sunday with people, 90 percent of whom profess to be Catholic and the majority of whom are practicing Catholics, was a delightful but eminently spiritual experience.
Some priests I knew at the Vatican had told me to contact priests and a bishop who were friends of theirs in Malta, and I ended up learning a lot about the Church in Malta as well as having many privileged viewpoints during the Holy Week liturgies.
Malta is an awesome crossroads of peoples and cultures and histories and rulers – Romans, Moors, Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta (more commonly known, of course, as the Order of Malta!), the French and British. Architecture, art and cuisine all reflect these many cultures.
Almost all Maltese are fluent in three languages, Maltese, English and Italian.
Malta is just the right size to be able to visit in four or five days, including the second largest island of Gozo where Maltese Cardinal Mario Grech, head of the Synod of Bishops, is from. You will probably find yourself so enjoying Malta, feeling so laid back and relaxed that you could easily decide to spend week.
There is a plethora of water sports, as you might imagine, to which you can add hours of exploring archaeological sites and the islands’ numerous churches. I was particularly enthralled by Mdina and Rabat. Punctuate all of the above activities with hours of enjoying both local and international cuisine.
St. Paul was shipwrecked here and there is a church that bears his name – the church of the Shipwreck of St. Paul – San Pawl Nawfragu in Maltese.
As the sitewww.visitmalta.com, tells us:
Christianity has almost 2000 years of history in Malta. According to tradition, it was brought to the Islands by none other than the Apostle Paul himself in around A.D. 60.
Paul was being taken to Rome to be tried as a political rebel, but the ship carrying him and some 274 others was caught in a violent storm only to be wrecked two weeks later on the Maltese coast. All aboard swam safely to land.
The site of the wreck is traditionally known as St. Paul’s Island, and is marked by a statue commemorating the event.
The welcome given to the survivors is described in the Acts of the Apostles (XXVIII) by St. Luke:
“And later we learned that the island was called Malta.
And the people who lived there showed us great kindness,
and they made a fire and called us all to warm ourselves… ”
As the fire was lit, Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake but he suffered no ill effects. The islanders took this as a sign that he was a special man. This scene is depicted in many religious works of art on the Islands.
According to tradition, the Apostle took refuge in a cave, now known as St. Paul’s Grotto in Rabat, Malta.
During his winter stay, he was invited to the house of Publius, the Romans’ chief man on the Islands. It was here, according to tradition, that Paul cured Publius’ father of a serious fever. Publius is then said to have converted to Christianity and was made the first Bishop of Malta. The Cathedral of Mdina is said to stand on the site of Publius’ house.
Archaeological evidence seems to support this tradition, as Malta was one of the first Roman colonies to convert.
In a more secular vein, I have to tell you what happened when I left Rome for the U.S. for Christmas after my second visit to Malta.
I was standing in line at the TWA check-in counter when a TWA staff member asked me, as they were asking all of us inline, to see my passport. He rifled through the pages and asked me if I had other ID on me. I had a California driver’s license and don’t remember what else.
He walked away with all my documents in his hand to consult with several officials and, for several minutes, I was without any documents to prove who I said I was! A really scary feeling, to be honest!
When he returned all the documents, he never explained why they were being examined – and never answered my question – but I later found out during a conversation with an embassy friend that it was most likely because I had a Malta stamp in my passport.
For those of you who may remember, a PanAm plane exploded over Lockerbee, Scotland in December 1988, killing all aboard. Wreckage of flight 103 that originated in Frankfurt and was en route to New York, was strewn for miles, and 270 people lost their lives. Lengthy investigations eventually discovered a tie with Malta.
As the LA Times reported: “newspapers said that a bomb concealed in a Toshiba radio had been placed in a Samsonite suitcase filled with clothing and put on board Air Malta Flight 180 from Valetta to Frankfurt on the morning of the explosion. The passenger who checked the suitcase for the flight, which was tagged for New York via Pan Am 103, did not board the Air Malta plane, although most airlines take steps to ensure that no baggage is put on board a plane unless it is accompanied by a passenger.”
U.S. airlines for years checked any and all people who had a Malta stamp in their passport. I was stopped and questioned every time I travelled. It ended only when I got a new passport.
But I’d return to Malta in a flash!
PS. I wish I knew where all my Malta photos were! I did not have a digital camera at the time so they must be in one of my dozens of albums!
CARDINAL GRECH: PETER’S PRESENCE ON PAUL’S ISLAND WILL CONFIRM OUR FAITH
In an interview with Vatican Radio, Maltese Cardinal Mario Grech, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, shares his expectations for Pope Francis’ 2-3 April Apostolic Visit to Malta this weekend.
Click here for a brief video of Cardinal Mario Grech, Maltese, and head of the Synod of Bishops, followed by a written interview: Cardinal Grech: Peter’s presence on Paul’s island will confirm our faith – Vatican News