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Christianity in Malta


St 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.

imageAccording to tradition, Publius, the Roman Governor of Malta at the time of Saint Paul’s shipwreck, became the first Bishop of Malta following his conversion to Christianity. After ruling the Maltese Church for 31 years, Publius was transferred to the See of Athens in 90 AD, where he was martyred in 125 AD. There is scant information about the continuity of Christianity in Malta in subsequent years, although tradition has it that there was a continuous line of bishops from the days of St. Paul to the time of Emperor Constantine.

The Acts of the Council of Chalcedon record that in 451 AD, a certain Acacius was Bishop of Malta (Melitenus Episcopus).

It is also known that in 501 AD, a certain Constantinus, Episcopus Melitenensis, was present at the Fifth General Council. In 588 Tucillus, Miletinae civitatis episcopus, was deposed by Pope Gregory I, and his successor Trajan elected by the clergy and people of Malta in 599 AD. The last recorded Bishop of Malta before the Arab invasion of the Islands was a Greek by the name of Manas, who was subsequently incarcerated at Palermo, Sicily.

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 & Medieval Periods

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 in Malta was still Moslem. Count Roger the Norman, in 1091, only  freed the Christians 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.

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In the Rollo (inventory) of the benefices of the churches, or chapels, in Malta and Gozo, held by Bishop Senatore de Mello in 1436, ten distinct chapels are mentioned, which presumably must have been acting as parishes in the various villages, since earlier days. Besides the Cathedral at Mdina and the Church of San Lorenzo a Mare at Birgu, the following chapels are mentioned:

Naxxar – the Nativity of the Virgin
Birkirkara – Saint Helen
Qormi – St George
Bir Miftuh (now Gudja) – the Assumption of the Virgin
Zebbug – Saint Philip of Aggira
Siggiewi – Saint Nicholas of Bari
Zejtun – Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Zurrieq – Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Hal-Tartani (now Dingli) – Santa Domenica
Mellieha – the Nativity of the Virgin

Dingli, originally Hal-Tartani was parish before 1436. However it was suppressed in 1539 and re-instated by Bishop Baldassare Cagliares on 16th October 1615 to be again suppressed in 1668. Bishop Michele Molina re-instated Dingli as a parish on 31st December 1678.

Mellieha was mentioned as a parish in the inventory by Bishop Senatore de Mello in 1436. Because of the lack of inhabitants, the Apostolic Delegate, Mgr Pietro Dusina, in 1575 suppressed the parish and merged the administration to the parish of Naxxar. Hence a rector was appointed. Mellieha was re-instated as parish by Bishop Francesco Saverio Caruana on 1st February 1841. However this re-instatement was contested by the Naxxar Parish. Mellieha was confirmed parish on 24th May 1842. The official Decree was published on 15th June 1844.

Rabat in Malta was styled as a parish from time immemorial. The de Mello Rollo quotes as parishes La Cappella di San Paolo de Fora (which is St Paul’s Grotto which was the parish church of Rabat) and Mdina together. At Mdina there was the Cathedral for the whole of Malta while at Rabat there was the seat of the parish for both Rabat and Mdina together. So much so that till the separation of 1902 the archpriest took two pussessi in Mdina as canon archpriest of the Cathedral and in Rabat as parish priest of Rabat and Mdina together. On 18th March 1902 when the population had increased considerably, Mdina and Rabat for the first time became two distinct parishes and for practical reasons Bishop Pietro Pace declared Rabat as a new parish but that was contested in Rome and it was declared that Rabat was paroecia pre-existens.

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The First Religious Orders

The entry of Religious Orders in Malta coincided with the enthusiastic reform of the Church advocated by the Council of Constance in 1414, after the Western Schism (1378-1417). Thus, we witness the earliest documentation of the presence of Augustinians in Malta in 1413, although their effective arrival can also be traced as far back as 1370. The Benedictine presence is linked with the hospital of San Pietro in Mdina, founded in 1418, which was changed into a Benedictine nunnery in 1455, although another monastery, the nunnery of St Scholastica was already in existence in 1443.

The Dominicans were already present in Rabat at the priory of Our Lady of the Grotto during the jubilee year 1450. In 1473 the first house of the Order of Preachers in Malta, dedicated to Our Lady of the Grotto, was declared a formal priory by the General Chapter of the Order, held at Basle.

The Carmelites traditionally trace their origins to 1418, and their presence at Il-Lunzjata outside Rabat is documented in 1441.

In the case of the Franciscans, it seems that the earliest documents refer to the construction of a friary dedicated to Santa Maria de Jhesu in Gozo in 1489, through the initiative of Fra Matteo de Episcopo, of the Observant Franciscans. The same friar seems to have changed obedience since he became guardian of the Conventual friary of St Francis in Rabat, and in 1492 the friary in Gozo is referred to as being a Conventual establishment dedicated to St Francis. The Conventual Franciscans arrived in Malta some time before the year 1355. Their first friary and church adjoined the old hospital of St. Francis at Rabat, later known as Santo Spirito Hospital. The case of the hospital of Santo Spirito, which was already in existence in 1372, is also linked with a Franciscan presence in a church and friary in Rabat, although historical research has proved that this was not a presence of the First Order, but of the Third Order Regular, which was taking care of the same institution known as Hospitalis Sancti Francisci in 1459. The last Regular Tertiary left in 1494, and the church and friary passed over to the First Franciscan Order, in this case to the Conventual family.

The Franciscan Capuchins came to Malta in 1588/89. Their first Friary was built by Grand Master Hugh Loubens de Verdalle outside the walls of Valletta (nowadays Floriana).

The Order 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, with the exception of Balthasare 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, 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.

The Grand Master had the status of a prince of the Catholic Church, and enjoyed a special relationship with the Pope, which occasionally led to a considerable amount of friction with the local Bishops. 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 in September 1798 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.

Establishment of the Diocese of Gozo

Gozo and Comino formed part of the diocese of Malta since the arrival of Christianity on our shores around AD 60. The bishop of Malta was also bishop of Gozo and Comino. However, due to the very poor means of communications and his ever-increasing burdens, the bishop of Malta rarely visited the island of Gozo. More than one bishop, in fact, never set foot on the island. The priests and the people had longed for a long time for a bishop closer home, but it was only late in the eighteenth century that they began stepping up their efforts to establish Gozo as a separate diocese. The Gozitans brought forward several petitions for the creation of an independent diocese, including in 1798, during the French occupation, and again in 1836.

A third petition, brought directly to Pope Pius IX in 1855, met with success. Instrumental in this effort were a young priest named Don Pietro Pace, who would several years later serve as Bishop of Gozo, and Sir Adriano Dingli, Crown Advocate. The British Colonial Office signaled its approval in October 1860. In 1863, Archpriest Michele Francesco Buttigieg was elected Auxiliary Bishop of Malta with instructions to reside in Gozo. One year later, on September 16, 1864, the Pope issued a Bull entitled “Singulari Amore” (With remarkable Love), which decreed that the Islands of Gozo and Comino were separated from the Diocese of Malta. On September 22, 1864, Bishop Buttigieg was elected the first bishop of Gozo, with the “Matrice” in Victoria, dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (Maltese: “Marija Assunta”), serving as his Cathedral.

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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.

Current status and law

The Constitution of Malta provides for freedom of religion but establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion. Freedom House and the World Factbook report that 98 percent of the Maltese religion is Roman Catholic, making the nation one of the most Catholic countries in the world. As at 2005, the rate of regular mass attendance was estimated at 52.6 percent (51 percent for Malta Island, 72.7 percent for Gozo), compared to 63.4 percent in 1995.

In public schools religious instruction in Roman Catholicism is part of the curriculum but students may opt to decline participation in religious lessons. Subsidies are granted to Catholic Church Schools.

Pope John Paul II made a total of three pastoral visits to Malta–twice in 1990 and once in 2001, during which he beatified three Maltese – Dun Gorg Preca, Nazju Falzon and Adeodata Pisani. Pope Benedict XVI made a pastoral visit to Malta in April 2010.

Malta introduced divorce after a referendum was held on the 28 May 2011 . Performing abortion on Maltese territory is also illegal, though over the years several loopholes (non-inclusion of outer territorial waters, no mention of advertising) permitted individuals to circumvent the ban for limited time periods. In an SMS poll, Malta chose the Maltese cross to be the image on the Maltese Euro and rejected one of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, which had garnered a strong majority in a previous poll, after attracting opposition even from the Local Bishops who did not see it fit to place Jesus’ face on a coin.

The percentage of people that attend mass in every locality of Malta (2005):

Locality

% of
attenders

Mdina – St. Paul

88%

Kerċem – St. Gregory and Our Lady of
Health

86%

San Lawrenz – St. Lawrence

85%

Fontana – Sacred Heart of Jesus

83%

Lija – Transfiguration of Jesus

78%

Victoria, Gozo – St. Mary and St. George

77%

Xewkija – St. John the Baptist

75%

Xagħra – Nativity of Our Lady

74%

Għarb – Visitation of Our Lady

75%

Għajnsielem – Our Lady of Loreto

73%

Qala – St. Joseph

72%

Mġarr – St. Mary

72%

Sannat – St. Margharite

70%

Għargħur– St. Bartholomew

67%

Għasri – Corpus Christi

66%

Nadur – St. Peter and St. Paul

66%

Balzan – The Annunciation

66%

Munxar – St. Paul

64%

Gudja – The Assumption of Our Lady

60%

Mosta – The Assumption of Our Lady

60%

Iklin – Holy Family

60%

Siġġiewi – St. Nicholas

58%

Rabat – St. Paul

58%

Dingli – The Assumption of Our Lady

57%

Attard – The Assumption of Our Lady

57%

Tarxien – The Annunciation

55%

Żebbuġ, Malta – St. Philip of Aggira

54%

Qormi – Parish of St. George and Parish of St. Sebastian

54%

Naxxar – Our Lady of Victory

54%

Santa Luċija – St. Pius X

54%

Ħamrun – Parish of St. Cajten and Parish of the Immaculate Conception

54%

Mellieħa – Our Lady of Victory

53%

Qrendi – The Assumption of Our Lady

53%

Żabbar – Our Lady of Graces

53%

Paola – Parish of Christ the King and
Parish of Our Lady of Lourdes

52%

Marsaxlokk Our Lady of Pompeii

52%

Floriana – St. Publius

52%

Mqabba – The Assumption of Our Lady

52%

Żebbuġ, Gozo – The Assumption of Our
Lady

52%

Żurrieq – St. Catherine of Alexandria

51%

Marsa – Parish of the Holy Trinity
and Parish of Maria Regina

51%

Għaxaq – The Assumption of Our Lady

51%

Pembroke

51%

Kalkara – St. Joseph

51%

Żejtun – St. Catherine of Alexandria

50%

Safi – St. Paul

49%

Fgura – Our Lady of Monte Carmel

47%

Valletta – Parish of St. Paul’s
Shipwreck, Parish of Our Lady of Porto Salvo, and Parish of St. Augustine

47%

Kirkop – St. Leonard

45%

Birgu – St. Lawrence

45%

Msida – St. Joseph

45%

Birżebbuġa – St. Peter in Chains

43%

San Ġwann – Our Lady of Lourdes

43%

Mtarfa – St. Lucy

42%

Gżira – Our Lady of Monte Carmel

41%

Swieqi – The Immaculate Conception

41%

Marsaskala – St. Anne

40%

Bormla – The Immaculate Conception

39%

Luqa – St. Andrew

39%

Pietà – Our Lady of Fatima

38%

Isla – Our Lady of Victory

37%

San Pawl il-Baħar – Parish of Our
Lady of Sorrows, Parish of Sacred Heart of Mary, and Parish of St. Frances
of Assisi

36%

Other totals of people attend to mass, because these localities are not in percentage:

Locality

total of
attenders

Balluta – Our Lady of Monte Carmel

1,284

Birkirkara – Parish of St. Helen,
Parish of Our Lady of Monte Carmel, Parish of St. Mary and Parish of St.
Joseph the Worker

9,851

San Ġiljan – St. Julian

3,267

Santa Venera – St. Venera

2,508

Sliema – Parish of Stella Maris,
Parish of Sacro Cour, Parish of St. Gregory the Great, and Parish of Jesus
of Nazzareth

5,585

Additionally, between a quarter and a fifth of mass attendees, are active members of a Church Movement, group or initiatives such as the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, the Neocatechumenal Way, the Legion of Mary, Opus Dei, Youth Fellowship and other Church groups within the parish. Malta also has the highest number of members of the Neocatechumenal Way per population in the world.

Read more:

Edward Pentin: http://www.ncregister.com/blog/edward-pentin/christian_history_of_malta#ixzz3SMNvZloW

Catholic Encyclopedia: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09574a.htm

Gozo Diocese: http://gozodiocese.org/about-us/historical-note/

 

 

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