The Church in Malta traces its origin to the shipwreck of the apostle Paul on the island in November of the year 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 this community.
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 Melita, remains strong. Traces of a Christian presence in these early centuries can be read in catacombs, similar to those in Rome, Naples and Sicily.
Much of its history throughout the first millennium remains shrouded in the passage of time, other than sporadic mentions of bishops. In 553, a certain Julian is mentioned as the Bishop of Malta among the signatories of the Constitutum de Tribus Capitulis, that Pope Vigilius sent to the Council in Constantinople. Further mentions to two bishops of Malta are to be found in letters of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604).
Worthy of mention is the presence of a Greek community with its Bishop during the attack on the island by Roger II in 1127, a presence that testifies to the survival of Christianity on these islands, 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 supplanted Byzantine influence in this Church.
A turning point in the island’s history is signalled by the arrival of the Hospitaler Order of Saint John, which was given the island by Charles V, in 1530. Bishops now take up residence on the island and they are always chosen from among the ranks of the conventual chaplains of the order. The only Bishop of Maltese origin elected during the time of the Order was Baldassar Cagliarès (1615-1633), who also started the building of the Archbishop’s Palace in Valletta, moving the seat of governance of the diocese to the new city.
Struggles over questions of jurisdiction between the Order and the Bishop arose continually. The pope sent his own representative in the person of the Inquisitor, who set up his tribunal in the Borgo, and functioned as an Apostolic Delegate, sending continual reports to Rome over the state of affairs in these islands. Two of them, Fabio Chigi and Antonio Pignatelli became Popes, as Alexander VII (1655-1667) and Innocent XII (1691-1700) respectively.
Malta during this period was truly a cosmopolitan hub. This can be clearly read in the artistic production of the time, which transformed Malta into a baroque island, a movement that shaped not only the buildings but also the cultic expression of the faith of our people.
Throughout the 19th and 20th century, the local church sent out missionaries to many parts of the world. A society of priests known as the Missionary Society of Saint Paul was founded by Mgr Joseph De Piro (1877-1933) in 1910.
Priests, religious and laypersons were forerunners in the establishment of institutes of a social nature and thus contributing to the welfare of the marginalised in society. In 1907 Saint George Preca, the first among Malta’s sons to be canonised, founded the Society of Christian Doctrine, a society of laypersons committed to the Christian formation of children and adults.
In 1864, Pius IX established Gozo as a separate diocese. It has now become a suffragan see, with the establishment of the Archdiocese of Malta on the 1st January 1944.
The twentieth century was marked by two religious-political struggles that characterised the Church-State relationship, first 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 our people’s national identity, and Catholic traditions continue to play an important role in Maltese society, even in an increasingly secular and multicultural environment. In order 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.
The Diocese of Gozo
The shipwreck of St Paul in Malta in ad 60 marks the beginning of the relationship of the islanders with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Christianity started to flourish with the advent of the Byzantines in 535 and, in fact, there is a first reference to a diocese of Gozo in the early seventh century. It seems that the Christian faith was not eradicated from Gozo during the long Arab rule between 870 and 1127. When the Normans conquered the islands in 1127, they found a small Christian community in Gozo with their own bishop or papas.
In the following century, Gozo and Comino were integrated in the Diocese of Malta and were part of it until 1864. A first petition for the establishment of a diocese for Gozo was forwarded by Archpriest Saverio Cassar of the Gozo Matrice on 29 October 1798. This first attempt never gained ground and the request was taken seriously in hand in 1855 by two born leaders: Don Pietro Pace, a priest from Rabat then studying in Rome, and Sir Adrian Dingli, the Gozitan Crown Advocate of the Colony of British Malta. Together they did their very best to see the wishes of their fellow islanders fulfilled. Blessed Pope Pius IX finally conceded to their request and through the Bull Singulari Amore – ‘With remarkable love’ – of 16 September 1864, the islands of Gozo and Comino were dismembered from the Diocese of Malta and established a diocese on their own.
On 22 September 1864, Archpriest Michele Francesco Buttigieg was named the first Bishop of Gozo. The Matrice of Gozo dedicated to Santa Marija, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven, became the new Cathedral Church. On 23 October 1864, Bishop Buttigieg made his solemn entry into the Cathedral. His Lordship Mgr Anton Teuma, the present Bishop of Gozo, is the ninth pastor of the diocese.