Fresco of St. Paul’s shipwreck in St. Callistus from “The Open Court” (1887) (via Internet Archive Book Images)
A long time ago, a man named Paul was on his way to Rome to be tried as a political rebel when the ship carrying him — and 274 other passengers — was swept up in a terrible storm and crashed onto a sandy beach somewhere in the Mediterranean. By some kind of miracle, all 274 passengers survived, and Paul stumbled onto the bay, forever changing the lives of everyone on the tiny island that was, at the time, called Melita, the land of honey.
The island, as we know it now, is Malta, a little island 16 miles long and nine miles wide, midway between Sicily and Tunisia. This moment, which according to the Bible occurred in 60 AD, was later commemorated as St. Paul’s Shipwreck — the unexpected moment that brought Christianity to the island and turned Malta into one of the first Roman colonies to completely convert to Catholicism.
As St. Luke describes Paul’s first night in Acts 28: 1-11: “….the barbarous people showed us no little kindness; for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold” (from the King James). As the fire was being lit, Paul was bit by a poisonous snake, but survived. Because this was his second miraculous act of survival in one day, the islanders decided he possessed special powers, so they brought him to Publius, the Maltese Roman chief, whose father was gravely ill. With one flourish of the hands, Paul cured the man of his fever, and in a flurry of graciousness, Publius converted the island to Christianity and became the nation’s first bishop.
Paul didn’t stay long. According to sources, he left for Alexandria after three months and never returned to the limestone rocks of the Maltese islands. Except for two thousand years later, when his right wrist bone did.
St. Paul’s wrist bone (photograph by Daniel Cilia)
Today, it is on display, encased in a decorated muscular bronze forearm inside a marble urn in the Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck (Parroċċa San Pawl Nawfragu in Maltese), a small church built in the 1570s on the exact site where it is rumored that a fire was once lit to warm a shipwreck’s survivors over 20 centuries ago.
Oddly, the journey of Paul’s wrist back to Malta is perhaps even more intriguing than his first trip to the island, because no sources have been able to confirm where it spent its first 1,700 years after his beheading, or how it came into possession of the Catholic Church. Maltese historian Michael Galea writes that the first mention of its authenticity came on September 26, 1771, when Archbishop Mons. Fra Giovanni Pellerano examined the relic, declared its authenticity, placed the object in a silver shrine, and gave it to his friend Gio Battista Tonna to display in any church or oratory he deemed worthy. However, Tonna’s heirs couldn’t agree what to do with it, so it was eventually removed from the silver shrine and given to Archbishop Labini. Upon receiving it, he, too, declared it authentic and sent it back to Tonna’s family, who then gave it to their mutual friend Vincenzo Aloisio Bonavia. From there, Bonavia took it to Rome in 1822 and asked the Pope’s assistant to put in his two cents. He also declared its authenticity and placed a seal directly onto the bone itself. A year later, Bonavia donated it to the Church by public deed and the Pope sent Paul’s bone back to Malta on December 8, 1854, where it would find a home in the church made hundreds of years ago, just for him.
Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck (photograph by Daniel Cilia)
Column relic on which St. Paul was said to be beheaded in the church (photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia)
Detail of a side entrance to St. Paul’s Shipwreck Church (photograph by Frank Vincentz/Wikimedia)
The church, which is in the middle of downtown Valletta — Malta’s illustrious Renaissance-style capital city — can be difficult to find, but during open hours, there is a three-foot wooden sign propped up on the white-washed cobblestone streets outside that reads “St. Paul’s Shipwreck Welcome” in big bulky letters. Above the towering oak doors, a welcoming statue of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin outstretches her arms to visitors.
The Church itself is modest in size and eclectic; entering it feels a bit like diving into a musty collection in the attic, or sifting through dusty antiques at a street bazaar, or marveling at an art collection in a warehouse waiting to be put on exhibition. There are elderly couples sitting silently in pews, their heads bowed; families solemnly lighting candles in prayer; a few tourists milling around whispering to each other above their guidebooks.
St. Paul is everywhere, too: from the magnificent frescoes painted by famous Maltese architect Bartolomeo Garagona depicting his journey to Malta, to the silver-embossed altars depicting the famous shipwreck scene, to the intricate marble tombstones covering the floor. Paul’s Church unmistakably, undeniably, belongs to him. There is even an impressive life-size wooden carving of him, carved in the mid-1600s by Melchiorre Cafá, that features a barefoot and heavily bearded Paul donning a gilded golden robe, holding an open Bible in his left hand and preaching passionately with his right hand. He is carefully removed from its glass case every February, carried at shoulder-height, and paraded down the streets of Valletta for St. Paul’s Shipwreck day, a day that, purportedly always thoughtfully ends in rain.
Carrying the statue of St. Paul in 2014 (photograph by Daniel Cilia)
And then, of course, there’s the muscular bronze arm holding the most precious relic in all of Malta, the same right wrist bone belonging to the hands that cured the sick and that preached the word of God so convincingly that, even today, the Maltese remain one of the most religious, committed Catholic nations in the world. The bone, wrapped up in rose petals and encased inside the reliquary, sits unassuming in a large marble urn, tucked away in a very modest church on a cobblestone alley, for all its faithful pilgrims to see.
The skeptic in me wonders: Could this really be Paul’s skeletal remains? How was it preserved for so many centuries? How did anyone actually authenticate it? And why wasn’t it with the rest of his remains, which were recently discovered in a Roman catacomb in 2009?
But then the traveler in me wonders if it really matters.
On an island where Neolithic temple builders once reigned, where the Great Siege took place, where WWII fighters dropped bombs, where finding ancient bones and skeletons are as commonplace an archaeological find as a piece of pottery, it’s befitting that a part of Paul, who spent three short months on a tiny Mediterranean land, should remain here, too.
Inside the Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck (photograph by Daniel Cilia)
Michael Galea’s The Church of the Shipwreck of St. Paul, Valletta
http://www.sanpawlvalletta.com/Souvenirs/hidden%20gem.pdf (there are some excellent images in here of the many paintings and depictions of Paul inside the Church)