As Pope Benedict XVI visits Malta April 17 and 18, he will find himself in what may be the most Catholic country in Europe. 

Freedom of religion is guaranteed in the tiny island nation, but Catholicism is the state religion. More than 90 percent of the population identifies themselves as Catholic. The population of 405,000 is served by nine bishops, 853 priests and 1,143 religious sisters and brothers; 91 seminarians are studying for the priesthood. 

There are 359 churches and chapels on Malta and its sister island, Gozo, and 85 parishes. Approximately 53 percent of Maltese attend Mass every Sunday. (About 33 percent of Catholics in the United States attend Sunday Mass, while attendance in France hovers around 4 percent.)  

In a Eurobarometer poll conducted in 2005, 95 percent of Maltese declared that they believed in God — the highest percentage in the European Union. (For comparison’s sake, the numbers are 74 percent in Italy, 59 percent of Spain and 34 percent in France). Furthermore, abortion and divorce are illegal in Malta. 

Accidental mission trip 

The Catholic faith came to Malta through unusual circumstances. About the year A.D. 60, St. Paul was under arrest and being transported by ship to Rome for trial (see Acts 27 and 28). Near Crete, the ship was overtaken by a violent storm that blew it off course, ultimately wrecking it off the island of Malta. St. Paul, some fellow prisoners, their guards and the crew — 276 men in all — survived the wreck. On shore, they were discovered by some Maltese, who built a fire for them and sent word of the castaways to the Roman governor, Publius. 

St. Paul and his companions remained on the island for three months, during which time he healed Publius’ father of dysentery and converted some of the Maltese to Christianity. According to Maltese tradition, Publius was among St. Paul’s converts and became the first bishop of the island. 

To commemorate the apostle’s arrival on their island, every year on Feb. 10 the Catholics of Malta celebrate the feast of St. Paul’s Shipwreck with solemn vespers, high Mass and a procession through the streets of Malta’s capital city, Valletta, followed by music, dancing, food and fireworks. In fact, such festas , or feast days, in honor of patron saints are common in Malta — approximately 80 of them are celebrated annually. 

Located between Tunisia and Sicily, Malta has been considered a strategically important island for centuries — whoever controlled Malta could control the sea lanes of the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Normans, the Ottoman Turks, the French, the British and the Nazis all coveted Malta.

Knightly defenders 

Arguably the most significant event in Malta’s history occurred in 1530, when King Charles V of Spain gave Malta to the Knights of St. John, a religious order that had become homeless. Founded during the Crusades in 1099 in Jerusalem as an order of military men who took the monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the Knights protected pilgrims to the Holy Land and operated a hospital in Jerusalem. Along with the Templars — another military order — the Knights of St. John developed a reputation as an elite fighting force. After the Saracens drove the Crusaders out of the Holy Land in 1291, the Knights of St. John established themselves on the Greek island of Rhodes. In 1522, the Ottoman Turks drove the knights out of Rhodes. It was at that point that Charles V offered them the islands of Malta and Gozo as their new home. In return, the knights would send to the king annually one Maltese falcon, to be delivered on All Souls’ Day. 

But the sultan did not forget about the knights. In 1565, Suleiman the Magnificent sent an armada of 200 ships carrying an invasion force of about 50,000 men to seize Malta. The island was defended by 600 knights, a few thousand Maltese volunteers and a few thousand mercenaries. After conquering Malta, the Turks planned to use the island as a jumping off point for an invasion of Sicily and then Italy. 

The Turkish focused their attack on the knights’ three fortresses around the Grand Harbor, and they expected an easy victory. Incredibly, the knights and their allies repulsed attack after attack. For four months the Turks laid siege to the fortresses, but they failed to break through the knights’ defenses. When at last reinforcements from Christian Europe arrived in September, the Turks abandoned the siege. By that time they had lost approximately 35,000 men. Casualties among the knights and their fellow defenders numbered 2,500, plus 7,000 Maltese civilians. 

Magnificent tribute 

To celebrate the victory, the knight’s grand master, Jean Parisot de la Valette, built a new city overlooking the Grand Harbor. Named Valletta in his honor, the old city still stands today, surrounded by impressive battlements and towers, while inside the walls the streets are lined with magnificent palaces and churches.  

The grandest of all Valletta’s many churches is the knight’s own church, known today as the Co-Cathedral of St. John. The exterior is stark, reminding many visitors of a fortress, but the cathedral’s interior is baroque at its most exuberant. Over the centuries individual knights and grand masters have made generous gifts to the Church, enriching every altar and chapel with gold, silver and bronze ornaments, as well as rare art treasures such as Caravaggio’s masterpiece, “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist.” 

Napoleon ousted the knights in 1798, but the order did not die out. Today the Knights of Malta extend far beyond the little island. Although there are still a handful of professed knights who take the traditional religious vows, most of the 12,500 knights and dames of Malta are laypeople committed to growing in holiness within the Catholic Church; they devote themselves to assisting the sick and the poor, and supporting the order’s hospitals and humanitarian services around the globe.

Papal Visit (sidebar)

In June 2009, Maltese President George Abela and first lady Margaret visited Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. During their conversation, President Abela reminded the pope that 2010 marks the 1,950th anniversary of St. Paul’s arrival on the island of Malta, and he invited the pope to come and say Mass for the Maltese people during this special year. 

  •  Prayers at St. Paul’s Grotto at Rabat. According to tradition, St. Paul lived in this cave during the three months he was on Malta. The grotto has been transformed into a chapel. 
  • Mass in Floriana’s Granaries Square outside the Church of St. Publius. 
  • Crossing Valletta’s Grand Harbor by boat for a meeting with Maltese young people before returning to Rome.