Ahead of Pope Francis’ apostolic trip to Malta on April 2-3, we offer insight into the country’s ancient Catholic community and the religious and cultural background 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 Saint Paul who, according to the Acts of the Apostles (chapters 27-28), was shipwrecked on the Mediterranean island en route to Rome around the year 60 and took refuge in a cave , today known as Grotte Saint-Paul in Rabat.
Two thousand years of history
Malta’s first bishop was Saint Publius, who was converted by the Apostle Paul, and then led the Maltese Church for three decades before being martyred in Greece in 112 AD. The early Christian presence in Malta is widely documented by archaeological and documentary evidence.
The local Church quickly came under Greek influence, especially during the domination of the Byzantine Empire over the Maltese archipelago (535-6 — 869-870). The Muslim domination that followed (870-1090) did not cancel 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, later known as the “Sovereign Military Order of Malta” – SMOM), after losing Rhodes to of 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, Sicily, and in 1844 it was declared immediately subject to the Holy See. A century later, in 1944, it was elevated to the rank of Metropolitan Archdiocese by Pope Pius XII.
Shortly after its independence from Great Britain (1964), the Republic of Malta established diplomatic relations with the Holy See on December 15, 1965.
The country has been visited four times by two popes. Pope Saint John Paul II went there twice, once in 1990, then on May 8 and 9, 2001, during his “Jubilee pilgrimage in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul”.
During this last trip, on May 9, he beatified with two others, Father George Preca, a pioneer Maltese priest and the founder of the Society for Christian Doctrine (better known as ‘MUSEUM’), a association created in 1907 aiming to train young lay catechists, men and women.
Pope Benedict XVI visited Malta on April 17 and 18, 2010, on the occasion of the 1950th anniversary of the sinking of Saint Paul.
Malta’s Catholic Identity
Catholicism is an important component of Maltese identity. His 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”.
The country’s Catholics make up around 85% of the population and Mass attendance is relatively high by international standards, although there has been some decline in recent years.
Parish activity is intense and the 85 Maltese parishes are fully integrated into the life of society. This symbiosis is expressed in a significant way by the great participation in the many local patron saint festivals across the country.
The Church is deeply rooted in the social fabric through its many institutions, including schools. There are more than 70 Catholic schools in Malta, and the Constitution states that “the authorities of the Roman Catholic Apostolic have the duty and the right to teach which principles are right and which are false”, and that religious education of the Catholic Faith” is provided in all public schools as part of compulsory education. The status of Catholic education has been confirmed by subsequent agreements with the Holy See.
The Church also manages many health and social establishments which help the elderly, the physically and mentally handicapped and the most vulnerable.
Challenge of secularization
Although Catholicism is still predominant and plays an important role in Maltese society, the Catholic Church in Malta also faces the growing challenges of secularization, which affects family and life issues such as abortion.
For a long time Maltese governments tended to uphold Catholic values. However, things have changed in recent years reflecting changes in society, as evidenced by the referendum legalizing divorce in 2011, the debate on in vitro fertilization in 2012 and the legalization of same-sex unions, approved by the Maltese Parliament in 2017. , despite the strong opposition of the bishops.
Abortion remains illegal in Malta, but there is growing pressure from groups seeking to legalize it.
The Maltese Church and migrants
Other issues for the attention of the Maltese bishops are both the old and new forms of poverty affecting the country and, in particular, the growing number of immigrants arriving from North Africa.
Due to its geographical position, at the crossroads of the Mediterranean and on the threshold of Europe, Malta has recently experienced a constant influx of irregular immigrants and asylum seekers trying to enter the EU. Some of its policies aimed at curbing the passage of migrants, in particular certain agreements with Libya, have drawn some criticism.
On this front, the Maltese Church is committed both to raising awareness and promoting a culture of welcome and integration, to offering material assistance to immigrants and refugees, and to advocacy to protect the rights of migrants through its Commission for Migration.
The Maltese Church is also actively engaged in the care of creation. On several occasions, the Interdiocesan Commission for the Environment has stressed the need to ensure sustainable development and ecology, in light of Pope Francis’ call for immediate action to protect our common home.
Bishops and national issues
In recent years, the Maltese bishops have also intervened on certain national issues.
In 2019, they issued a strong call for national unity amid rising political tensions following revelations of the murder of Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galicia in 2017, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat after that his close associates were found involved in the case. assassination.
In a statement, the bishops called on all parties concerned to “work for the common good of Maltese society”, promoting “justice, truth and honesty”, respecting each other and firmly rejecting any form of violence.
The Church is concerned about the sexual abuse committed by clerics on minors
An issue of particular concern to the Maltese bishops is that of child sexual abuse in the Church, which has emerged in Malta following exposure by a group of survivors led by Lawrence Grech.
The bishops formally apologized in a message published in April 2010, on the eve of the apostolic journey of Pope Benedict XVI, who encountered eight victims during his visit.
In 2014, the Malta Bishops’ Conference and the Conference of Religious Superiors appointed a new Safeguarding Commission to develop, implement and manage strategies in the practice of safeguarding within the Catholic Church in Malta.
A key figure on this issue has been Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who since 2002 has been investigating clergy sex abuse on behalf of the Holy See and is considered the Vatican’s most respected expert in this area. .