Traveling by sea as a prisoner en route to his martyrdom in Rome, St. Paul was brought to the rocky shores of a small Mediterranean island with the debris of the shipwrecked vessel that hurled him with his captors and fellow prisoners into uncertain squalls. One thousand, nine hundred, and fifty six (or so) years later, I hope to descend on the island much more softly alongside 18 other pilgrims from Notre Dame, hopefully with all luggage in tow and in tact. Then as now, the unpredictable sway of the Gospel draws wayfarers towards a small and seemingly obscure destination: Malta.
The pilgrimage that we make to Malta today with the support of Notre Dame’s Campus Ministry, Nanovic Institute for European Studies, and the McGrath Institute for Church Life is undertaken for two complementary reasons.
First, Malta is a land that boasts of a rich Catholic culture—preserved, at least for a time, from the same pervasive secularizing currents with which much of the rest of Europe has moved. It is a land dotted with sites of religious significance, like the Ta’Pinu Marian shrine of Gozo, the resplendent St. John Co-Cathedral in Valletta, and the grotto where Paul himself lived during his three month stay on the island around the year 60.
Second, we go as the invited guests of the Archbishop of Malta as well as the Society of Christian Doctrine (SDC), a lay community of more than 600 members in Malta alone that lives their Christian discipleship intentionally according to a common rule as they pass on the faith to youth and young adults through scores of catechetical centers they run on Malta and Gozo.
In going to Malta, we go to walk upon the very soil where St. Paul himself planted the seeds of the Christian faith and we also go as guests of those who are the living fruits of those early seeds.
In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke reports the early natives of Malta received their shipwrecked mixed-community with “unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all,” (Acts 28:2). It was this hospitality that opened the First Century Maltese to the Good News of that Apostle whom the winds of providence brought to their shores. The openness of their welcome was not unlike that of the two travelers on the Road to Emmaus who welcomed the unknown Jesus into their homes 30 years earlier (Lk 24:13–35) or even that of the poor handmaiden who welcomed the angel’s announcement 33 years before that (Lk 1:26–38).
Maltese hospitality gave the words and works of Paul’s preaching and healing a place to grow as he cured them of their sicknesses and loved them with Christ’s love during his three month visit: one of his last reprieves before the sacrifice of his life was made complete (see Acts 28:7–11).
Today, those of us who go to the Maltese as fellow Christians will be received as kindly as Paul was received and yet we must also exercise the hospitality to welcome the Good News they—our hosts—will share with us. This is the Good News of a land that still grows from its Christian roots and of a people—especially the SDC—whose words and works of prayer, fellowship, and catechesis ask for a warm welcome in our own hearts and minds.
Three months in Malta was enough for St. Paul to take the openness of the Maltese and turn them from recipients of the Good News to its servants. For us humble pilgrims, we hope that 10 days on the island will enkindle our faith and nourish our imaginations, forming us—in our own ways—into the agents of the new evangelization that our world and especially our own land so desperately need.
St. Paul the Apostle, pray for us.