Overview of the Church in Malta as Pope Francis visits
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 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.
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 three 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.
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.
Challenge of secularization
Though Catholicism is still prominent and plays an important role in Maltese society, the Catholic Church in Malta too is facing the growing challenges of secularization, which affect the family and life issues including abortion.
For a long time, Maltese governments have tended to uphold Catholic values. However, things have changed in recent years reflecting changes in society, as shown 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 strong opposition from the Bishops.
Abortion remains illegal, but there are growing pressures from groups seeking to legalize it.
Maltese Church and migrants
Other issues to the attention of the Maltese Bishops are both old and new forms of poverty affecting the country and, in particular, growing numbers of immigrants arriving from Northern Africa.
As a result of its geographic position, at the crossroads of the Mediterranean and on the threshold of Europe, Malta has lately experienced a steady influx of irregular immigrants and asylum seekers trying to enter the EU. Some of its policies to curb migrant crossings, namely recent agreements with Lybia from where migrants departure, have aroused some criticism.
On this front, the Maltese Church is committed both in raising awareness and promoting a culture of welcome and integration, in offering material assistance to immigrants and refugees, and in advocacy to protect their rights through its Commission for Migration.
The Maltese Church is also actively engaged in the protection of Creation. On several occasions, the Inter-diocesan Commission for the Environment has highlighted 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, Maltese Bishops have also intervened on some national issues.
In 2019, they issued a strong appeal for national unity amid growing political tensions over revelations on the murder of Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galicia in 2017, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat's after his close associates were found to be implicated in the assassination.
In a statement, the Bishops invited all parties involved to "work for the common good of Maltese society", promoting "justice, truth and honesty", with mutual respect and strongly rejecting all forms of violence.
Church's concern over clerical sexual abuse of minors
An issue of particular concern for the Maltese Bishops is that of child sexual abuse in the Church, which emerged in Malta following the denunciation 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 met eight victims during the visit.
In 2014, the Maltese Bishops’ Conference and the Conference of Religious Superiors appointed a new Safeguarding Commission tasked with developing, implementing, and managing strategies in the safeguarding practice within the Catholic Church in Malta.
A key figure on this issue has been Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who since 2002 has been leading investigations into sexual abuse by clergy on behalf of the Holy See and is considered to be the Vatican's most respected expert in this field.