The Grotto of St Paul has been venerated since medieval times as the place just outside the city of Melite where the Saint is said to have stayed during his sojourn in Malta in 60 AD, as described in the Acts of the Apostles. The earliest surviving medieval documented reference to the Grotto of St Paul refers to the Church of St Paul de crypta, as well as the cemetery of St Paul and the fossatura
or ditch near the Church of St Paul. This dates to 1366 when Bishop Ylario granted Bochius de Bochio land belonging to the Church of St Paul.
In the Catholic Counter-Reformation tradition, a powerful awakening of the cult of St Paul started with the Spanish hermit Juan Benegas of Cordoba who lived in the area of the Grotto and who in 1607 obtained Pope Paul V’s permission to look after it.
The Knights of the Order of St John, who also set their eyes on this important site, backed Benegas in his efforts concerning the Grotto. The Knights soon realised the potential of the Pauline cult in Malta which offered them the privilege of curating such a holy site not just for religious reasons, but also for political purposes. In 1617 Benegas willingly ceded the Grotto and all acquisitions to the Order. Benegas remained important to the cult of St Paul in Malta until he departed from the island in 1622. He later died in Rome in 1644.
The Grand Master at the time was Alof De Wignacourt who saw the need to build a Collegio to establish a College of Chaplains, generally under a rector who was a Knight chosen by the Grand Master, to maintain the Grotto of St Paul. These were also known as the Chaplains of the Order of Obedience. The mission of these Chaplains was to promote the devotion of St Paul as well as to preserve and protect the Grotto. Benegas was rightly appointed as the first rector of the Collegio and was also made a Knight of Obedience. The Knights, together with Benegas, were then responsible to make the site more accommodating to pilgrims. For this reason, they started by adding a number of side altars close to the Grotto, as well as a sanctuary dedicated to St Publius above it. The underground complex includes the Grotto and a rock-cut crypt attached to it which contains two altars respectively dedicated to St Paul and St Luke, and a smaller side altar dedicated to St Trophimus.
The marble statue of St Paul in the Grotto was donated by Grand Master Pinto in 1748. Another statue of St Paul on the main altar of the Crypt was sculpted in marble by the renowned Maltese sculptor, Melchiorre Cafà, who, during his brief career, became an important baroque sculptor in Rome. A silver vessel, executed in 1960 for the 19th centenary anniversary of the shipwreck of St Paul in Malta, hangs next to the marble statue in the Grotto. This was also donated by the Knights of St John.
The Grotto became a pivotal place of worship and pilgrimage. Several important personalities visited the site throughout the centuries. These included Inquisitor Mgr Fabio Chigi (later Pope Alexander VII), Admiral Lord Nelson, Saint Pope John Paul II in 1990 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.
Sanctuary of St Publius
When St Paul was on the island, he performed several miracles such as the miracle of the viper and several healings. One person St Paul is said to have healed was Publius’ father. St Publius was the prefect of Malta and was made Malta’s first bishop. It is to him that this church is dedicated.
The Sanctuary of St Publius was added on to the Church of St Paul in 1617 and was built by the Knights of the Order of St John. The main altarpiece is the work of Mattia Preti and shows the Virgin Mother holding the infant Jesus clutching the eight-pointed cross. She is flanked by the patron saint of the Order and by St Publius.
In 1962, the Grotto of St Paul was reunited with the adjacent Parish Church of St Paul and promoted to a Collegiate Church which has since been elevated to the title of Basilica by Pope Francis on the 4th of April 2020.
St Paul’s Parish Collegiate Basilica of Rabat
The parish church of St Paul in Rabat is just outside the old capital city of Mdina. It was the first church built on the site where it is believed that St Paul stayed during his three-month sojourn in Malta and where he preached and healed the sick, as described in the Acts of the Apostles. The earliest surviving medieval documented reference to the church of St Paul de crypta, as well as
the cemetery of St Paul and the fossatura or ditch near the church of St Paul, dates to 1366 when Bishop Ylario granted Bochius de Bochio land belonging to the church of St Paul.
The church found today is the last one of several successive ones that were built on-site. In 1555, the building of a new church was carried out on the instructions of Bishop Mons Domenico Cubelles and later, in 1575, this was enlarged by Archpriest De Agathiis. In 1653, the Maltese noblewoman Cosmana Navarra, at her expense and out of her great devotion to St Paul, commissioned architect
Francesco Buonamici to design a new Baroque church in the form of a Latin Cross. Construction works lasted 30 years. These were concluded in 1683 by the building of the dome under the design and guidance of the Maltese architect Lorenzo Cafà.
Cosmana Navarra endowed the church with further works of art such as a marble high altar now in the side chapel of St Stephen, a titular painting showing the providential Shipwreck of St Paul painted by Stefano Erardi, and other paintings by Mattia Preti and Michelangelo Marulli. All essential liturgical accessories, such as silver and bronze votive lamps, were commissioned by the same
benefactress. She kept the side chapel, dedicated to St Anthony the Abbott, as her family’s chapel. Cosmana Navarra is buried there and a commemorative monument was placed in her memory in 2016.
The church has 13 altars and an oratory annexed to it. It is also annexed to the Grotto of St Paul and to the Church of St Publius. Under the main altarpiece rests a copy of the old titular polyptych painting showing St Paul in the centre flanked by four other paintings showing important instances from his life. The original painting, now found in the parish museum, namely, the Wignacourt Museum, was painted for the previous church in 1588.
The titular statue of St Paul was sculpted in wood by Giovanni Caruana in 1771. The church ceiling and dome are the work of the 20th-century artist from Brescia, Eliodoro Coccoli, while the Via Crucis in bronze is the work of the Italian sculptor, Giannino Castiglioni.
The façade of the church, designed by Buonamici, enshrines the three sacred places found on site. The main door leads to the Basilica, while the door on the right-hand side leads to the Church of St Publius and the Grotto, and the door on the left-hand side leads to the Grotto’s cemetery that includes the Sacro Monte, the place held as St Paul’s preaching spot, where a stone statue of St
Paul was installed by Cosmana Navarra in 1679.
The current church’s dome was built in 1926 according to the design of architect Robert Galea. It replaced the previous one built in 1919 which rested on the original Cafà dome, and which had tragically crumbled in 1924 after serious damage resulted following a 1923 earthquake that hit the island.
The Collegiate Parish Church of St Paul in Rabat was elevated to the title of Minor Basilica by Pope Francis on the 4th April 2020.