From our special correspondent
The successor of Peter in the footsteps of Paul. More than thirty years after John Paul II, twelve after Benedict XVI, Francis in turn slipped into the narrow grotto of Saint Paul on Sunday April 3. The Maltese air was crisp early in the morning. And even more in this cave nestled in the basement of the Wignacourt museum, in Rabat (not in Morocco, but on the island of Malta). There, the man in white meditates facing a marble Saint Paul, holding a thick book in his right hand. According to tradition, “the apostle of the nations” stayed three months in this cave, a little before the year 60.
“Merciful God”began Pope Francis, “In your admirable Providence you wanted the apostle Paul to proclaim your love to the inhabitants of Malta who did not yet know you. He spoke your Word to them and healed their diseases. Saved from shipwreck, Saint Paul and his traveling companions found here to welcome them kind-hearted pagans, who treated them with rare humanity…” Honey in the ears of the Maltese.
This quality of welcome, far from being recognized only by the pope, appears in the Bible itself. “The barbarians showed us an unusual benevolence”attest the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 28,2), evoking a “great fire” lit to warm the crew. Although Paul’s stay on this tiny Mediterranean island lasted only three months – the apostle usually spent more than eighteen to evangelize a city – the Maltese stopover occupies several pages at the end of Acts.
It all begins with an imprudent departure at sea. Paul leaves Caesarea for Rome where he is to be tried. Except that the wind is contrary… After his boat has painfully reached Crete, Paul urges the crew to be careful, convinced that “Navigation will not be without damage and many losses” (Ac 27.10). But the Roman centurion prefers to listen to the shipowner, and the ship goes back to sea.
A “impetuous wind” alas, it does not take long to confirm the Pauline predictions. The boat drifts. The cargo is thrown overboard. The storm extinguishes even the sun and the stars. But Paul reassures his companions: an angel has just certified to him in a dream that all would survive. After fourteen days of struggle, in fact, a shore appears. “Once rescued, we discovered the island was called Malta” (Acts 28.1). Melitesays the Greek text – “honey” in French.
Was it present-day Malta? The fire lit by the islanders, the viper bite which Paul miraculously survived, the healings accomplished on the spot by the apostle: did all these adventures go well in the “smallest country in the European Union”with its two inhabited islands and its 480,000 souls?
For Albert Borg, there is little doubt. This professor of Maltese linguistics, at the end of his career at the university, nourishes a touching fascination for this episode, on which he seems to have locked all the historical and archaeological literature available. An imposing open atlas on the knees, it works to contradict a competing version of history. According to this, the island of the shipwreck would be that of Mljet, off the coast of Croatia. Its Latin name is Melita… from the Greek Melite.
“Paul’s boat was coming from Crete. Why would he have continued the journey towards Rome passing Syracuse (Acts 28,13) if the shipwreck had occurred so high up in the Adriatic? » For this academic, the appearance of Mljet in this history is the fact of the Byzantines in the IXand century. The Arabs had then just seized Malta. It was unthinkable for the Eastern Roman Empire to leave control of a site as prestigious as an island where Saint Paul would have stayed to Muslims. “So the emperor preferred to spread the idea that Paul’s ship had run aground up there, in the Adriatic”says Albert Borg.
This sprightly sexagenarian is far from being the only one, in Malta, to nurture such an attachment to the apostle. “He put us in the Bible! » we heard, including Maltese now far from the Catholic Church, in serious decline in the archipelago. Those who have remained practicing claim to belong to a “Pauline community”the Christian presence being attested in Malta from the IVand century.
There, the saint has become a true national emblem, especially since the reign of the Knights of St. John (or Order of Malta) between 1530 and 1798. Now the country’s patron saint, Paul is the source of two public holidays : February 10 (the famous shipwreck) and June 29 (the feast of Saints Peter and Paul). But his legacy is too often “relegated” to these annual festivities, regrets, like other Catholics, Alessandra Dee Crespo.
It is in Valletta that we meet this employee of an ecclesiastical tribunal, in the freshness of one of the many churches of the archipelago dedicated to the apostle. This one, called Saint-Paul-le-Naufrage (XVIand century) is distinguished by huge frescoes from the end of the 19and century, signed Attilio Palombi. Among other scenes adorning the ceiling: a Saint Paul presenting Malta to Christ. Malta appears there as a woman carrying a banner. Under his feet, the port of Valletta.
“Saint Paul is the eternal evangelizer: he is more topical than ever”assures Alessandra Dee Crespo, sorry that the Maltese have become “Cultural Christians” in a few decades. Pointing with her arm to the profusion of statues and paintings of the “Maltese Saint Paul” with which the church is teeming, she exclaims: “All these objects should not just be material: they have a deep meaning! »
Alessandra is convinced of this, whether it concerns secularization or corruption, “current problems” of his country are not so different from those whom Paul knew and fought two millennia ago. “He too had to constantly remind people of the values of the gospel. » In the first row: the sense of welcome shown by the “barbarians” to Paul and his companions. In a country that has become very attractive to Asian, sub-Saharan and North African migrants, the subject today generates tension, if not a clear rejection.
The pope touched on this delicate subject in his prayer at the grotto of Saint Paul: Grant us the grace of a good heart that beats for the love of our brothers. Help us to recognize from afar the needs of those who struggle in the midst of the waves of the sea, thrown on the rocks of an unknown shore. »