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The mystery of St Paul’s shipwreck

The mystery of St Paul’s shipwreck

Malta’s cultural identity has long been intertwined with St Paul. After all, as the story goes, it was with St Paul that Christianity, which has for many years had strong foundations in Malta and Gozo, was brought to the islands. Paul is the patron saint of Malta and his feast is celebrated at the start of February. The feast is a highly-anticipated event and here’s why…

The shipwreck

Popular belief implies that Paul was shipwrecked on Malta in 60AD and though some academics are skeptical, based on the wind direction prevalent during his voyage from the Levant, to his execution in Rome for his Christian beliefs, Malta has been described as the most likely location.

According to the Acts of the Apostles, Paul was being taken to Rome to be tried as a political rebel, however, the ship carrying him and another 274 people was caught in an extremely violent storm. God let him know in advance that he would be shipwrecked, but would spare the lives of all those on board, a promise that was later kept.

Two weeks later, the vessel was shipwrecked on the Maltese coast. Though the actual location where the shipwreck took place is unknown, tradition paints a picture of it occurring in and around St Paul’s Bay and St Paul’s Islands. In fact, a large and stunning statue of the Saint, by sculptors Sigismondo Dimech and Salvatore Dimech can be found on St Paul’s Island.

Following the wreck, all those aboard the ship swam safely to land, including Paul himself. The local population were hospitable and greeted them kindly, but apprehensively, as they thought he might be a murderer, whom the ‘goddess of justice’ had finally caught up with, after he was bitten by a poisonous snake. After being bitten however, Paul seemed to have suffered no ill will, which the Maltese took to mean that he was special, a God even. Paul showed them that it was merely God’s power at work in a man as during his stay, he was invited to Publius’ house, the Roman Governor at the time.

It was here that Paul cured Publius of his ailments, as well as many others who were sick or disabled among the island’s population. It is believed that it was at this point that Publius converted to Christianity and was made the first Bishop of Malta. Interestingly, the Mdina cathedral is said to be standing on the actual site of Publius’ house.

Undoubtedly, Paul also preached the Gospel to the Maltese population and when he left the country, they gave him all the supplies he may need, as a sign of gratitude.

Malta is thought to have been one of the first Roman colonies to have completely converted to Christianity, backed up by significant archeological evidence found in the early catacombs dotted around the islands.

The celebrations

The feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck, also called San Pawl Nafragu, which is celebrated on the 10th of February marks the first major feast day and national holiday in the calendar.

On the day, you can attend services at the church of St Paul’s Shipwreck, which is among the oldest churches in Valletta, dating back to the 1570s. In the church itself are many significant works of art, including the altarpiece, paintings and a wooden, carved statue of St Paul, which dates back to 1659. There are also relics of the saint to be seen, including his alleged wrist bone and a piece of the column he is said to have been beheaded on.

Traditionally, a procession of St Paul’s Statue from the church building through the streets of Valletta takes place on the day. It’s taken up Republic Street to St John’s Square during the evening, amid marching band music, falling confetti and cheering crowds. There’s also a procession that takes place at noon, with just the marching band.

You can also watch the impressive fireworks display over the Grand Harbour in the morning, after 8am mass, which is only one of the several masses that occur during the feast.

How will you be spending the feast?