The Pauline Cult in Malta and the Movement of the Counter-Reformation: The Development of Its International Reputation

By Freller, Thomas | The Catholic Historical Review, January 1999 | Go to article overview

The Pauline Cult in Malta and the Movement of the Counter-Reformation: The Development of Its International Reputation


Freller, Thomas, The Catholic Historical Review


The erection of Christian sacred shrines and places of worship is a historically complex phenomenon. It goes back to the very early beginning of Christianity. These concrete manifestations despite substantial differences due to time and place share common elements. As an object of research it cannot, of course, be isolated from its cultural context. Especially in early modern times the revival or erection and installation of a place of worship and devotion was always a product of various factors: intellectual activity, topographic and administrative organization, and pastoral, theological, and often political endeavors.1

This essay tries to outline aspects of this phenomenon vis-a-vis an important shrine neglected by international research: the Grotto of St. Paul at Rabat in Malta, the center of the Pauline cult in the island. Since it can be claimed that there has been cultural continuity in the Christian Mediterranean from the period of late Antiquity, the time of the Fathers of the Church, up to the beginning of the nineteenth century (with the possible exception of the Arab period), where does the sacred Pauline shrine in Malta fit in this picture?

I

Traveling to visit Christian cult centers is a phenomenon known since the fourth and fifth century when Christianity finally established itself as the dominant religion in the Mediterranean. Those self-imposed exiles, those peregrinations and often dangerous voyages were undertaken for the sake of purification of the soul and spiritual salvation. In many cases also material ends and the desire to break away from the dependence on the ruling class mattered. Places of miracles, martyrdom, death, and resurrection and burial sites of holy men and women of Christianity caused Jerusalem, Rome,2 and Santiago de Compostela3 to become the most important pilgrimage centers of the Christians. This pilgrim traveling continued into the early medieval period and grew considerably in extent in high and late medieval times.4

However, during the time of the Reformation, especially in the third and fourth decades of the sixteenth century, pilgrimages fell into disrepute in Protestant countries although they retained their popularity in the Roman Catholic countries of southern Europe, in spite of the attacks by Luther, Melanchthon, and Erasmus. Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church was becoming highly aware that the people were not rallying behind a mere theological formula any more. As an answer, they made efforts to renovate and re-establish concrete objects of veneration and cult. The initial revival of places of devotion in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century was far from random but part of a carefully planned program of Catholic policy. Although it had existed before the specific revival in the first decades of the seventeenth century, the movement of the Pauline cult in the Mediterranean island of Malta had a direct connection with the Counter-Reformation program of the Catholic Church, with its roots in the Council of Trent. Architecture, art, and literature had to state the 'grandeur' and importance of the Catholic Church in order to attest the truth of the Faith. Art had to visualize this spiritual program and helped to develop a baroque style which was now highly visual. A most significant part of this ecclesiastical program was the revival of the holy traditions of the pilgrimages and their aims by rebuilding or extending old monuments in a baroque style, thereby practically creating new ones. However, not in every case of the revival or new installation of centers of Christian devotion in the late sixteenth century or the beginning of the seventeenth century can the main and only motive be traced back to the concept of the Counter-Reformation. This paper tries to single out the special case of the increase of the Pauline devotion in the sixteenth century in the island of Malta. The example presented by the shrines of St. Paul in Malta and the "Grotta di S. …

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