06 March 2022

Malta: a modern
European state
with a legacy
of 8,000 years

Red pillar boxes on the streets of Valletta … Malta is comfortable with its British legacy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Malta is an island republic in the Mediterranean, between Italy, Tunisia and Libya, and the tenth smallest and fourth most densely populated country in the world. Its capital Valletta, is the smallest capital city in the European Union, and Maltese and English are the official languages, although many people are also fluent in Italian.

Malta has been inhabited for about 8,000 years, and its location in the centre of the Mediterranean has given Malta strategic importance as a naval base. The Maltese islands have been ruled by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Aragon, the Knights of Saint John or Knights of Malta, Napoleonic France, and Britain.

Malta became a British colony in 1813, becoming an important base for British naval vessels and the headquarters of the British Mediterranean Fleet.

During World War II, Malta was an important Allied base for operations in North Africa and the Mediterranean and besieged by the Axis powers, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

The bravery of the Maltese people moved King George VI to award the George Cross on a collective basis on 15 April 1942.

Malta became an independent state in 1964, and became a republic in 1974. It remains a member of the Commonwealth and joined the European Union in 2004. But the red pillar boxes and telephone boxes everywhere show that Malta has no cultural problems about the British legacy and a depiction of the George Cross remains on the flag and the coat of arms of Malta.

The Grand Master’s Palace of Knights of Saint John … still used for Maltese state receptions (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)


The most enduring presence on Malta has been the Knights Hospitaller or the Knights of Saint John, also known as the Knights of Malta. They ruled Malta from 1530, after they were forced by the advancing Ottoman Turks to abandon Rhodes and other islands in the east Mediterranean, until 1798, when they were expelled from Malta and Gozo by Napoleon.

The knights, led by their French-born Grand Master, Jean Parisot de Vallette, withstood the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. With the help of Spanish and Maltese forces, they repelled the Ottoman Turks.

After the siege, the knights stepped up the fortification of Malta, particularly in the inner-harbour area, built the new city of Valletta, named in honour of Valette and replacing the old capital of Mdina.

The bastions and watchtowers of Valletta retain the names of saints and the Grand Masters of the order, and many of the minor palaces of the knights, named after their different nationalities and languages, including Castille, Leon and Portugal, have survived for almost five centuries.

The Grand Master’s Palace is still used for state receptions. But, as a modern democracy, Malta also boasts interesting modern architecture, including the new Parliament on Freedom Square, designed by Rezo Piano, the Italian architect who also designed Europe’s tallest skyscraper, the Shard in London.

Saint John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, built by the Knights of Saint John (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Saint Paul’s shipwreck
and an Anglican cathedral

Perhaps the most visited church in Valletta is the Co-Cathedral of Saint John, with its masterpiece by Caravaggio depicting the beheading of Saint John the Baptist, the patron of the Knights of Saint John.

Throughout Malta, many churches are dedicated to Saint Paul, who was shipwrecked in Malta on his way from Caesarea to Rome as a prisoner. The town of Saint Paul’s Bay, about 16 km north-west of Valletta, recalls his shipwreck, recounted in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 27-28). on Saint Paul’s Islands near St Paul's Bay, on his voyage to Rome. Saint Paul’s stay is said to have laid the foundations of Christianity on the island.

Saint Luke recounts that Saint Paul’s ship was lost at sea for two weeks during winter storms. Eventually, the ship ran aground on the island of Malta and was dashed to pieces by the surf, but all of the occupants survived and made it to shore.

Saint Paul’s Island, an uninhabited, rocky islet at the entrance to Saint Paul’s Bay, is thought to be the site where of the shipwreck (Acts 27: 41). Saint Paul’s Shipwreck Church stands on the water’s edge in the town of Saint Paul’s Bay. The church is also known as Saint Paul’s Bonfire Church and commemorates the traditional site where the shipwreck survivors, including Saint Paul, swam ashore and a bonfire was built for them.

The Maltese Parliament on Freedom Square in Valletta, designed by the Italian architect Rezo Piano (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)


The Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Paul, commonly known as Saint Paul’s Cathedral or the Mdina Cathedral, is the Roman Catholic cathedral in Mdina, the ancient capital of Malta. It was founded in the 12th century and remains the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Malta, although since the 19th century it has shared this function with Saint John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta.

Saint Paul’s Pro-Cathedral in Independence Square, Valletta, officially the Pro-Cathedral and Collegiate Church of Saint Paul, is an Anglican pro-cathedral of the Diocese in Europe, alongside the cathedrals in Gibraltar and Brussels.

The cathedral was commissioned by the Dowager Queen Adelaide during a visit to Malta in the 19th century, when she learned there was no place of Anglican worship on the island. Before her visit, Anglican services were held in a room in the Grand Master’s Palace.

Saint Paul’s was built on the site of the Auberge d’Allemagne, or the conventual home of the German Knights Hospitaller. The cathedral was designed by William Scamp and was built in 1839-1844.

The cathedral is a landmark in Valletta, thanks to its spire rising to a over 60 metres, and is clearly visible in the Marsamxett Harbour. The undercroft was used as an air raid shelter during World War II.

The cathedral suffered minor damage during World War II and the roof collapsed, but most of the structure remained intact. A project to restore Saint Paul’s Cathedral and the steeple was launched five years ago, with the aim of raising €3 million. When I visited the cathedral last week, much of the building was still covered in cladding and scaffolding.

Saint Paul’s Church above the Menqa or boat shelter at the harbour in Saint Paul’s Bay … the site of Saint Paul’s shipwreck (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Irish saints, governors
and burials in Valletta

It seems almost every second street in Valletta is named after a saint, including steep San Patriziziju or Saint Patrick Street. Most of those streets also have a church named after the saint. I could find no Saint Patrick’s Church, but I found two monuments on the bastions with interesting Irish connections.

The Hastings Gardens, on top of Saint Michael’s Bastion, are named after Francis Edward Rawdon-Hasting (1754-1826), 1st Marquis of Hastings and an Irish-born Governor of Malta.

Lord Hastings, who is buried in the gardens, was Governor-General of India in 1813-1823 and Governor of Malta in 1824-1826. Hastings was born at Moira, Co Down, the son of John Rawdon, 1st Earl of Moira and Lady Elizabeth Hastings, 13th Baroness Hastings. He was baptised in Saint Audoen’s Church, Dublin, on 2 January 1755, and grew up in Moira and in Dublin.

As an officer, he fought in the British army during the American War of Independence and raised a regiment, called the Volunteers of Ireland. He was MP for Randalstown, Co Antrim, in the Irish Parliament in 1781-1783. He was given the title of Baron Rawdon in 1783, succeeded his father as 2nd Earl of Moira in 1793, and sat in the Irish House of Lords until the Act of Union.

It was rumoured briefly in 1797 that he would replace William Pitt as Prime Minister. In the Irish Parliament, he was identified with the Patriot party of Henry Grattan and Lord Charlemont, he appealed for parliamentary reform and Catholic Emancipation, and denounced government coercion before the 1798 Rising began. Wolfe Tone described him as ‘The Irish Lafayette,’ and he was a patron of the poet Thomas Moore.

Saint Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, Valletta … Queen Adelaide laid the foundation stone in 1839 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)<


While Lord Moira was the Governor-General of India (1812-1821), he became the Marquess of Hastings in 1816. He was appointed Governor of Malta in 1824 but he died at sea off Naples in 1826 on his way home.

Lady Hastings returned his body to Malta, but had his right hand cut off and preserved. His body was then buried in a large marble sarcophagus in Hastings Gardens in Valletta. His right hand was eventually buried, clasped with hers, when she died.

Close to the Hastings Gardens is the unusual grave of Sir Robert Cavendish Spencer (1791-1830), a naval officer with Irish family links. He was a nephew of Lady Georgiana Spencer, and her husband William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, of Lismore Castle, Co Waterford. His brother-in-law, Lord George Quin, was MP for Kells (1776-1790) Longford (1794-1795) and Meath (1794-1795). Spencer’s brothers included George Spencer (1799-1864), known as Father Ignatius, a Passionist preacher throughout Ireland and Britain.

Spencer died on board HMS Madagascar off Alexandria on 4 November 1830, on his way back to London. His body was kept in quarantine at the Lazaretto on Manoel Island near Valletta for 40 days, and was then taken to Valletta, where he was buried on Saint Michael’s Bastion.

At the time, Spencer’s cousin, Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby (1783-1837) from Co Kilkenny, was Governor of Malta (1826-1836). Ponsonby’s Column was erected in his honour in Valletta in 1838, but was destroyed by lightning in 1864.

The grave and monument to Lord Hastings on the walls on Valletta … he was born in Moira, Co Down, and raised in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

This feature was first published in March 2022 in the Church Review, the diocesan magazine of Dublin and Glendalough, pp 6-7

Praying with the Psalms in Lent:
6 March 2022 (Psalms 13, 14, 15)

‘Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death’ (Psalm 13: 3) … a funeral stele in Kerameikos Cemetery in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Lent began last week on Ash Wednesday (2 March 2022), and today is the First Sunday in Lent. Before today begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

During Lent this year, in this Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 13:

Psalm 13 is often known in English by its opening words in the King James Version, ‘How long, O Lord.’ The words ‘How long?’ – repeated four times in this psalm – resemble cries.

Early Patristic sources suggest Psalm 13 was composed by King David when his son Absalom conspired against him. The entire psalm is an appropriate prayer for the well-being of a sick person, according to the Chatam Sofer, one of the great rabbis of central Europe in the early 19th century. The Victorian preacher Charles Spurgeon described this as the ‘How Long Psalm’ – or the ‘Howling Psalm.’ Certainly, this psalm gives voice to feelings that arise in any of the many trials we may experience in life.

Both Jewish and Christian commentators note the three-part structure of Psalm 13, with verses 2-3 in the Hebrew (1-2 in the KJV) relating to David’s complaint, verses 4-5 in the Hebrew (3-4 in the KJV) expressing David’s prayer, and verse 6 in the Hebrew (5-6 in the KJV) describing David’s salvation.

The psalmist appears to be frustrated by waiting for God: four times he asks ‘how long …?’ When, he asks, will God care for him again and return to taking an interest in him? How long must his soul feel alienated from God? How long will his those who ignores God’s ways continue to insist that his trust in God is foolishness?

He prays for God’s help. He asks God to strengthen him and give him the will to continue living. The psalmist has trusted in God’s steadfast love and generosity. He hopes to thank God for saving him by singing God’s praises.

‘The evildoers … eat up my people as they eat bread (Psalm 14: 4) … bread in a shop window in St Ives in Cornwall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 14:

Psalm 14 laments the breakdown of the moral order. For the psalmist, the world is full of ‘fools’ who deny that God is concerned with human behaviour, people who are corrupt and do terrible things. God sees no one who seeks to follow God’s ways, so do these wicked people not understand God at all?

But God is in the community of those who follow his ways, and God will protect them and deliver the oppressed from the ungodly. When he does, all Israel, Jacob’s descendants, will rejoice.

Psalm 15:

Psalm 15 may have been written for a liturgy of admission to the Temple. The pilgrim asks God: who may come to holy mountain to worship God in the Temple?

The reply in verses 2-5a says those who truly worship God are those who do what it right, who speak truth, who do not lie, who do no evil to friends or neighbours, and who refuse to honour the wicked.

In addition, they do not exploit the poor financially through money-lending or usury, and they do not accept bribes.

Psalm 13 (NRSVA):

To the leader. A Psalm of David.

1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
4 and my enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed’;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

5 But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Psalm 14 (NRSVA):

To the leader. Of David.

1 Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is no one who does good.

2 The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.

3 They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.

4 Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon the Lord?

5 There they shall be in great terror,
for God is with the company of the righteous.
6 You would confound the plans of the poor,
but the Lord is their refuge.

7 O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

Psalm 15 (NRSVA):

A Psalm of David.

1 O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

2 Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
3 who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbours;
4 in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honour those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
5 who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.

Today’s Prayer:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary this morning (6 March 2022, Lent I) invites us to pray:

Loving God,
help us to reject earthly temptations
and focus on serving you.
May we trust in you
to provide for us.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven’ … part of the Beatitudes in the reredos in the Unitarian Church, Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org