The feast of Saint Paul’s Shipwreck is a holiday unique to Malta, as it celebrates the event of Saint Paul’s shipwreck on the island around A. D. 60. The account of Saint Paul’s shipwreck and stay on the island, which took place in winter and lasted for three months, can be found detailed in the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible, Acts 27:27 through 28:11.
The story goes that Saint Paul was being taken to Rome as a prisoner to stand trial in front of Caesar. The Bible says God sent a storm and the ship broke and was shipwrecked near the shores of Malta, and all swam ashore. The local population believed that since Saint Paul was a prisoner, he must be a murderer or a criminal, especially when he was bitten by a poisonous snake as he was tending the fire. They thought this was the gods’ judgement on his guilt. Saint Paul survived the poisonous bite, and was afterwards hailed as a magic-man or a god. Paul however, started teaching the gospel of Christ, and also healed Publius the governor of the island, as well as many other sick people among the population, from fever and dysentery.
Tradition tells how Publius, the governor, was converted to Christianity by Saint Paul, and became the first Bishop of Malta. The Cathedral of Mdina is said to stand on the former site of Publius’ house. Many consider Saint Paul to be the spiritual father of the Maltese nation, and his shipwreck is thought by the Maltese to be the most significant event of the Christian calendar.
Saint Paul’s feast is both a national and a public feast, and is celebrated annually on the 10th of February. It is a very popular and much-anticipated event, and thousands of people flock to celebrate it in the Parish Church of Saint Paul Shipwrecked, which is found in Valletta, Malta’s capital city.
The Collegiate Parish Church of Saint Paul’s Shipwreck, to give it its full name, is one of Valletta’s oldest churches. It has a 19th century facade, but the interior dates back to the 16th century. It is full of important artistic features and works of art, including paintings by Giuseppe Cali, and a wooden gilded statue of Saint Paul carved in 1657 by Melchior Gafa. During the feast, this statue is taken out in a procession around Valletta. The church also holds what is deemed to be the precious relic of the right wrist-bone of Saint Paul, as well as part of the column which was used during his beheading in Rome.
Valletta usually marks this event with band marches, beer, songs, and confetti. Celebrations normally start with a Pontifical Mass lead by the Archbishop of Malta and attended by all the major political leaders of the country. Fireworks usually follow mass, with a band march at around midday. In the evening, there is a traditional procession where the faithful carry the statue of Saint Paul, followed by more marching bands, and accompanied by even more fireworks, and much merry-making.
The feast of Saint Paul is one of the most popular feasts in Malta for Maltese and tourists alike. It is a time for many to celebrate their Catholic faith, as well as a time to spend with one’s friends and family, since many take the opportunity to organise get togethers or fun activities during this day.