Global Catholics – St. Publius and the Christians of Malta

I’ve learned much in the short time I have lived and worked in Durham, a city that grew up around the monastic community and the Norman cathedral that was begun here in 1093. One thing I hadn’t realized is that Northern England, although “warmed” by the jet stream, lies on basically the same latitude as Moscow. So while I truly love it here, it’s cold and damp already, especially in some of the buildings like my office – whose foundations were laid centuries before Columbus discovered America.
Because of this, I’ve planned a short trip to visit two Mediterranean islands to dry out a bit. The first, the Spanish island of Mallorca, I am very familiar with, having spent large parts of my summers there for over a decade with my old college roommate. He’s from the Balearic island and our families are quite close by this point, so I consider myself lucky to know it as a local would. The second I have never visited but am excited to see.
The tiny island south of Sicily and north of Tunisia named Malta has a fascinating Christian history, predating (or, depending on the disputed chronology of Peter’s mission, at least contemporary with) that of Rome. In the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles contains the following passage of St. Paul’s journey:
“On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land…. Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight…. When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta.” (Acts 27-8).
Acts goes on to tell how Paul met the “chief of the island,” a leader named Publius. Paul and Publius became fast friends, and the apostle healed the chief’s father-in-law of fatal dysentery by praying over him and laying hands on him. Paul then thanked his gracious hosts and continued on to Rome, where he was to be imprisoned and eventually beheaded.
Tradition holds that Publius, or in Maltese “Publju,” converted, becoming the first bishop and patron saint of the island community. He led the Christians on Malta and perhaps later in Greece, until in his 90s when he was martyred likely under the persecutions of either Emperor Trajan or Hadrian – whose famous wall demarcating the “civilized” Roman Empire from the barbarians isn’t far from Durham.
The Maltese continued to be a firmly Christian society for generations, with the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights Hospitaller or the Knights of Malta, the most influential body after acquiring the island in the Middle Ages from Emperor Charles V in exchange for a nominal annual tribute of a single Maltese falcon. Today it is still one of the most Catholic countries in the world (recent statistics estimate as high as 97 percent) with an overwhelmingly robust culture of priestly vocations. The celebration of St. Publius on Jan. 21 is marked there with elaborate ceremonies, processions, Masses, and fireworks.

Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., of Collingswood, is a Research Associate at Durham University’s Centre for Catholic Studies in Northeast England.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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