IP you thought that the most Catholic Englishspeaking island in Europe must be Ireland, think again: Malta, newly designated 'Peace Island', surely is.
Malta's Catholicism is in her blood, and her people young and old still revel in their ancient Catholic identity, with little evidence of that cynicism towards the Church found elsewhere in Europe. While English is not the language spoken in the home that is a curious mixture of Arabic and other influences it is the second official language and widely used in public life.
The Maltese, gratifyingly, seem to like the British or at least are polite enough to make us think so. The sight of red telephone and pillar boxes, blue police station lamps and British cars arid buses (mostly pre-1960s), all driving on the left, provide a strange 'time-warp' feel about the place.
Having invited the British in to drive out French rule after Napoleon's invasion in 1798, Malta was later to stand by Britain faithfully in the two world wars. She suffered almost daily air raids in the Second World War, and was awarded the George Cross for collective heroism.
This tiny archipelago, south of Sicily and east of the coast of Tunisia, consists of three inhabited islands: Malta, the largest (27 km at its longest, 14.5 km at its widest), Gozo with a population of only 25,000 and tiny Comino.
Christianity came to Malta in two waves. The first was during November AD60 when St Paul was ship
wrecked off the north-east coast of the main island, and spent the winter there.
As described in Acts 27 and 28, the ship carrying Paul from Acre to Rome was caught in a storm off Crete and floundered until breaking up on a promontory of the land called Melita, the Greek name for Malta.
The inhabitants welcomed the crew and passengers and accepted Paul's message of the good news, begging him to remain when his journey had to be resumed.
Even before Christianity arrived on Malta, the island was already considered a sacred space for Mediterranean people. The first settlers on the islands are considered to have been Italian farming people arriving in the sixth millennium BC.
By the late neolithic period, 4100 BC onwards, they were setting up the world's oldest free-standing stone monuments. These led to CopperAge (3000 BC) megalithic temples, in remarkably good condition, connected to a Mother Goddess fertility cult.
Little fat-lady statues have been found in these sites, and are now in the archeological museum in Valletta. The temples can be explored by modern visitors, as can impressive underground burial catacombs from the early Christian period, carved out of the solid rock.
Between the islands becoming a Phoenician colony at about 1000 BC, and AD 395, when the islands were awarded to the Eastern Roman Empire, they had been occupied by Greeks, Cathaginians, and Romans. Then followed conquest by Arabs, and then Normans, passing into the control of the kings of Sicily until in 1530 when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V granted Malta to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem. It was in the Norman period that Malta's Christianity was fully established, reinforced by the long period of rule by the wealthy Knights.
All of these influences have led to Malta not developing a particularly strong individual identity. There is little in the way of Maltese cuisine, although sea-food is obviously prominent. Only Catholicism seems to be the Maltese identity-feature.
There are many fascinating churches throughout the islands and even a 'Sacred Island' multi-media show in Valletta laid on to describe the islanders' history of faith.
Each village devotes one week in turn during the summer to 'testa' noisily, boisterously, joyfully celebrating a patron saint or the installation of a statue in their parish church that is bigger or better than one in their neighbours' villages. Holy Week is held as the high point in the
calendar, with impressive traditional Good Friday processions involving whiteclad penitents dragging yards of heavy chains from around their ankles, and heavy, flower-decked statues borne in stately progress by teams of sweating devotees.
Easter Sunday processions have an air of jollity; brass bands leading the statue-bearers who, in some villages, race around the streets with their gold-gleaming "Risen Christ" effigies, which hold aloft the flag of Malta or St George.
Pope John Paul H's threeday visit to Malta in 1990 concluded with an open-air Mass in which he extemporised on the subject of his own death: "I will meet Paul and will say, "Paul, you remember Malta, you founded the Church. I found the Church in Malta: good, strong, a strong people, a good Catholic people." The crowd was ecstatic.
Malta is a fascinating country to visit, highly recommended in spring time for any botany enthusiast, when the wild flowers blossom in profusion. Ornithologists should give the islands a miss, as anything feathered flying past on migration is likely to be shot by one of the 40,000 licensed hunters (out of fewer than 400,000 total inhabitants!). The lack of bird song is almost palpable.
There is an SPCA (the R was dropped when the British left) but dog-fighting and horse-beating continues and some of the religious festivals involve cruelty to animals which the courts are reluctant to prosecute.
But the Maltese are not a hard-faced people. They prefer informality and a laidback approach, smiling enchantingly if they have kept you waiting or neglected some minor service.
It is easy to get to know the islands and find the best coves, restaurants and places of interest. There is nothing of extreme: no mountains, no spectacular beaches (just a few sandy coves which must get horrendously crowded in summer), no great heat (summer sun is moderated by sea breezes) nor cold. The tourist industry is, so far, not too intrusive although a couple of English yobs waylaid our party in an effort to sell timeshares. The tourist board is hoping to attract doers rather than loungers, selling the islands' activities and cultural interests rather than the (rather few) sunbathing attractions.
I flew to Malta, by Malta Air, courtesy of the Malta Tourist Office,and stayed at the excellent Sunciest Hotel at Qawa in the northwest of the of Ilifalta. The hotel is happy to upgrade guests to their sea-view, balcony suites if space allows, at no extra charge.