A statue of St. Paul stands on Malta’s St. Paul Island, where it is believed the apostle was shipwrecked and shown “great kindness” by the local people. Photo by Frank Vincentz/Wikipedia

Malta’s Christians set welcoming tone

By 
  • January 10, 2020

An island nation that is more than 90 per cent Catholic is using the story of a shipwreck to remind Christians what ecumenism is really about — kindness, welcome and the bonds of our common humanity.

Materials for the 2020 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (Jan. 18-25) can be downloaded for free from the Canadian Council of Churches (weekofprayer.ca). This year’s theme and prayers were chosen by Christians in Malta. 

The Maltese have picked their favourite Bible passage to key the prayers, Bible study and liturgies for the week — the story of how St. Paul was shipwrecked on the shores of Malta (Acts 27:18 to 28:10) in about the year 60. From the fairly long passage, they have chosen “They showed us unusual kindness” as the motto or theme for this year’s events.

The annual week of liturgies and other events promoting Christian unity is co-sponsored by the Vatican and the Geneva-based World Council of Churches. Started in 1908 by the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement as the Octave of Christian Unity, the week is observed by Christians in virtually every country in the world.

In Toronto, churches will cap the week with an ecumenical service Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, where Cardinal Thomas Collins will preach.

The week and the ecumenical movement it represents continue to struggle to find resonance with ordinary church-goers, said Canadian Council of Churches general secretary Peter Noteboom.

“We do need to re-think, re-strategize, reconsider,” he said. 

Noteboom wishes the liturgy featuring bishops and other Church leaders would filter down to more parishes and congregations across Canada.

“We need to think a little more carefully about how we turn that (Jan. 26 liturgy) into action, how we connect that with our communities, how we make that part of what people see as their own commitment to their Christian friends in other Christian denominations,” he said.

The Canadian Council of Churches is the primary organizer of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in Canada. The churches under the CCC umbrella represent about 85 per cent of Canada’s Christians, including Catholics.

For the Maltese in Canada, this year’s week-long celebration of Christian unity will seem very natural, said Fr. Mario Micallef, pastor of Toronto’s Maltese parish of St. Paul the Apostle. A week centred on the shipwreck story in Acts will be a kind of rehearsal for the annual Feb. 10 Feast of St. Paul’s Shipwreck, a highlight of the liturgical year for Maltese Catholics. The emphasis on kindness and welcome as the basis for Christian unity will resonate with all Maltese, Micallef said.

“It’s part of our DNA,” he said.

In the midst of a migration crisis on the Mediterranean Sea, Malta’s foreign-born population has increased from three per cent in 2005 to 21 per cent in 2019. Welcoming strangers was central to how Malta became Christian and is still part of how the Maltese see themselves, Micallef said.

“The people of the island welcomed them (St. Paul along with the shipwrecked soldiers, sailors and prisoners) despite that they didn’t know who they were. They were strangers, they were foreigners,” said Micallef. “Somehow they were open to the teaching of St. Paul. As an island, as a nation, we believe that’s the baptism of Malta.”

The story of the shipwreck near the end of the Book of Acts is thematically linked to the Pentecost story near the beginning of the book, said Regis College Scripture scholar Jonathan Bernier.

“The Malta account helps to bring this theme of overcoming cultural and linguistic barriers to something of a conclusion,” Bernier said in an e-mail. “As people on an island far from Jerusalem welcome Paul and his companions with ‘unusual kindness.’ ”

Bernier also points out how the shipwreck tale in Acts continues themes laid down in the Gospel of St. Luke’s Christmas story.

“The angels heralded the birth of Jesus with glad tidings, wishing peace on Earth and goodwill to all,” he said. “The Malta account, with its reference to unusual kindness, helps to bring this theme of peace and goodwill to a conclusion.”

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