This tiny island in the middle of the Mediterranean was the location of some of the adventures of the Apostle Paul as told in the Book of Acts. Paul visited the island sometime in the mid-1st century AD, and was instrumental in getting the local Christian community established. Much of the island’s Christian history is tied directly to Paul’s legacy, and there are a number of places around the island associated with events in his life, several of which boast relics of the saint. The most famous Pauline site on the island is undoubtedly the aptly named Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck, which commemorates the place where the apostle miraculously survived a terrible storm while traveling at sea. The Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck is part of the Valleta Old City UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After Jesus, Paul is the best documented figure in the New Testament. Virtually the entire second half of the Book of Acts is devoted to his legendary missionary journeys across the Roman Empire. The last chapters of Acts recount Paul’s final journey to Rome, where he went on to be martyred. Much of this section, however, deals with his visit to Malta, thus intendedly giving the tiny island the honor of being among the very last geographic places mentioned in the historic books of the Bible.
According to information from Acts and local legends, Paul was making his final missionary journey to the imperial capital of Rome sometime around the year 60 AD. However, a terrible storm struck en route, and the ship that Paul traveled on was wrecked. Miraculously, Paul survived, stranded on the island of Malta. There he spent three months, helping to establish a brand new church. During this period he healed the father of the governor, Publius, who subsequently converted.
Paul eventually departed from Rome, leaving behind what would become one of the oldest, continually active Christian dioceses in the world. Publius, who headed the church in Malta after Paul left, went on to a long career, eventually serving as bishop of the great city of Athens before being martyred around the year 125. Thanks to the efforts of Publius, Malta might have been the first Roman territory to boast a Christian majority population.
Paul’s unintended visit to Malta was long remembered and celebrated by the local Christian population; but it took another fifteen centuries for the church named in his honor to be built. In the 16th century, the Dominican order organized the building of the Church of St. Paul in Chains as their headquarters on the island. Relics of Paul were donated from Rome, making the church the most important pilgrimage shrine, if not the most famous church, on the island.
The Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck is small compared to the island’s other major church, the Cathedral of St. John. Built during the early colonial period, the Church reflects the styles then in vogue in the overseas possessions of Spain and Portugal. A large iconic painting of Christ dominates the wall above the main door to the church. The interior is richly appointed, and is more in appearance like a baroque-era chapel that might be found inside a royal residence.
The shrine contains two pilgrimage-worthy Christian artifacts. The first is the Column of St. Paul, which according to tradition is the column upon which Paul was beheaded. It was brought here from Rome for display in the island where Paul preached so successfully. Also here is the Wristbone of Paul. Why his wristbone is on display here is not known. The rest of him has recently been discovered in a long-lost vault in Rome.
The Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck is located in the heart of Valleta close to the Grand Master’s Palace and the Cathedral of St. John. It is open Mondays through Saturdays from 11:00am-6:00pm (closed for lunch 12:45pm-4:00pm). There is no cost of admission. Web: www.visitmalta.com/en/st-paul-in-malta (official website)
Malta is sprinkled with excellent Pauline sites. These include the popular St. Paul’s Catacombs in Rabat, where Paul is said to have lived while on Malta, St. Paul’s Grotto, where he was briefly imprisoned, and the Cathedral of Mdina, built over the home of Publius, Paul’s first convert. The island’s main church is the Cathedral of St. John, which was the main point of worship for the Hospitalar Knights.