History of the Church in Malta
The Church in Malta traces its origin to the shipwreck of the apostle Paul on the island in 59 AD, as recounted by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. Tradition venerates Publius, the ‘protos’ of the island, as the first bishop of Melite. It is, therefore, a church of apostolic foundation and remains proud of this heritage. A Pauline cult tied to various memorials, among which the Pauline grotto outside the Roman city of Melite, remains strong. Traces of a Christian presence in these early centuries can be found in catacombs, similar to those in Rome, Naples, and Sicily.
Much of the Church’s history throughout the first millennium remains shrouded in the passage of time. In 553, a certain Julian is mentioned as the Bishop of Malta among the signatories of the Constitutum de Tribus Capitulis, which Pope Vigilius sent to the Council in Constantinople. Within letters of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), there are references to two bishops of Malta.
In 1127, a Greek community with its Bishop was present during the attack on the island by Roger II. Their presence points to the survival of Christianity in Malta, even under Islamic occupation. The foundation of the Cathedral in Mdina can be traced back to this Norman conquest. The period also signals the introduction of a Latin rite hierarchy, which gradually replaced Byzantine influence.
In 1530, one sees a turning point in the island’s history with the arrival of the Order of Saint John. Bishops started to take up residence in Malta, being chosen from among the ranks of the conventual chaplains of the Order. Baldassar Cagliarès (1615-1633) was the only Bishop of Maltese origin elected during the time of the Order. He built his Palace in Valletta, moving the seat of governance of the diocese to the new city.
The Pope sent his own representative in the person of the Inquisitor, who set up his tribunal in Birgu. Struggles over questions of jurisdiction between the Order and the Bishop arose continually, as the Inquisitor functioned as an Apostolic Delegate, sending reports to Rome over the situation. Inquisitors Fabio Chigi and Antonio Pignatelli became Popes, known as Alexander VII (1655-1667) and Innocent XII (1691-1700) respectively. Malta became a cosmopolitan hub, as seen in the artistic production of the time, which transformed Malta into a baroque island, shaping the cultic expression of the faith of our people.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, the church sent Maltese missionaries to many parts of the world. In 1864, Pius IX established Gozo as a separate diocese. In 1910, a society of priests known as the Missionary Society of Saint Paul was founded by Mgr Joseph De Piro (1877-1933). Priests, religious, and laypersons were forerunners in the establishment of institutes of a social nature, contributing to the welfare of the marginalized in society. In 1907, St George Preca, the first among Malta’s sons to be canonized, founded the Society of Christian Doctrine, a society of laypersons committed to the Christian formation of children and adults.
The Archdiocese of Malta was established in 1944. The twentieth century was marked by two religious-political struggles that characterized the Church-State relationship. The first was in the late 1920s, and again in the years leading to the island’s independence from British colonial rule and its aftermath.
The Catholic faith undeniably constitutes one of the forging factors of Malta’s cultural identity. Catholic traditions continue to play an important role in Maltese society, in an increasingly secular and multi-cultural environment. To meet the challenges of the contemporary era, the Church in Malta celebrated a Diocesan Synod in the period 1999-2003, which continues to be the springboard for its pastoral plan in this present age.