The Cult of Saint Paul
One of the most revered saints in Malta is undoubtedly Paul of Tarsus – Saint Paul. Little wonder too – traditionally he was the one who brought the Christian faith to the islands when he was shipwrecked here in 60 AD on his way to Rome to stand trial and eventually meet his death at the hands of his executioners. Though international historians have frequently made various claims as to which Mediterranean island the maritime misadventure occurred in, the Maltese firmly believe the shipwreck was at Malta, a claim that is arguably backed by the passage in the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles which unequivocally states that “After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta.”
To this day St. Paul’s Shipwreck is celebrated as a national holiday on the 10th of February, and the parish of St.Paul in Valletta holds the only major winter festa in his honour on the day. February traditionally brings about a grigalata – a mighty windswept storm bearing chilly winds from the northeast, similar to the one that presumably landed Paul here – and the well-heeled Valletta parishioners live in hope every year that this will not ruin their feast. Normally they are spared the setback, and if it happens spirits are none too dampened either.
A number of sites in Malta are connected with Paul’s brief three month stay.
The reputed shipwreck site is a couple of islets across from (appropriately) Saint Paul’s Bay and of course they are called il-gzejjer ta San Pawl – Saint Paul’s islands. The islets are miniscule and uninhabited these days but a yearly pilgrimage still takes place there and a statue of the saint is the main landmark on these two barren isles.
According to tradition Paul was welcomed to Malta by Publius (then Roman Governor of Malta) in his country villa on the outskirts of modern day Burmarrad. Remains of the villa are still there although there is no archaeological evidence linking Publius with the site. The only tenuous connection is the villa’s location name, an area known as San Pawl Milqi (literally Saint Paul welcomed).
One other place with a strong traditional connection to the saint is St. Paul’s Grotto in Rabat. This is a small subterranean cave in which the saint is said to have lived during his stay in Malta – hardly the most comfortable of locations but then he was effectively a prisoner awaiting trial.
The lovely seventeenth century parish church of Saint Paul now stands over the much venerated grotto. Rabat celebrates the feast of Saint Paul in June – greatly minimising the odds on bad weather the Valletta parishioners have to cope with. The nearby Saint Paul’s Catacombs, a labyrinth of 3rd-century AD subterranean tombs, are however not associated with the saint – although they constitute the earliest archaeological evidence of Christianity in Malta.
There is no evidence or tradition connecting Paul with Gozo at all – not surprisingly the saint might have been reluctant to commit to another sea crossing so soon after a shipwreck. A very dubious tradition tells of the saint preaching to the Gozitans from a high point in Malta – specifically San Pawl tat-Targa (literally Saint Paul of the Step) outside Naxxar. A statue of the saint (minus any recognisable loudhailer) stands at the location.
Want to know more about places to go in St Paul Malta or things to do in St Pauls Malta, check out our handy guide to St Pauls Bay here.