Roman Catholicism is the official religion of Malta. The vast majority of Maltese are nominally Catholic (over 90% of the population), but just over half practise their faith, particularly among the younger generation. Malta’s history has also seen the rise and decline of Islam in the country. In present-day Malta, religious freedom is protected in the constitution and this is evident through the presence of various places of worship such as Catholic churches, Greek churches, mosques and synagogues. There is a gradual increase in secularisation and various other religions appearing due to numerous factors, such as migration.
Catholicism in Malta
Catholicism has had a long-standing presence in Malta. It is believed the religion was brought to the country by Saint Paul the Apostle, who arrived on the islands due to a shipwreck. Today, Saint Paul acts as a powerful national symbol. As a branch of Christianity, Catholicism believes in the doctrine of God as the ‘Holy Trinity’, consisting of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Like most Catholics, many Maltese accept the authority of the priesthood and the Roman Catholic Church, which is led by the Pope.
Catholicism is present throughout the country in various ways. Catholic church domes can be seen along the skyline, and there are approximately 365 churches on the Maltese islands (also thought of as one church for every day of the year). Priests regularly appear in the public sphere and on various TV and radio discussion programmes to debate topics such as the religious implications of divorce and abortion.
There are some generational differences in the perception of Catholicism in the country. Some of the Maltese youth believe the Catholic Church is ‘out of touch’ with the needs and way of thinking of young people. They may insist that it is mainly the Catholic church’s influence that has made Malta ‘backward’ in comparison to Europe. Nonetheless, Catholicism continues to be an important aspect of Maltese identity. For example, Catholic seminal events such as baptism, confirmation and marriage are an important part of one’s life and relationships with others.
Various festivities in Malta have an origin rooted in Catholicism. Every town or village identifies with a patron saint. Local festivals (festi) occur to celebrate the patron saint of that particular parish, often occurring during the summer. Generally, a festa begins with a High Mass that includes a sermon on the life of the patron saint, followed by a procession in which the statue of the patron is carried through local streets.
One of the most important and long-standing events in Malta is Mnarja, which is a national festival dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The event is celebrated with a festival of food, religious rituals and music. The commencement of the festivities is marked by the reading of the bandu, an official government announcement that has been read every year on the same day since the 16th century.
Islam in Malta
Malta was under Islamic rule for over 200 years during the Arab Conquest in 870 CE. Islam was reintroduced in the latter half of the 20th century. In present-day Malta, the Muslim community is limited to a few thousand, mostly people who are ethnically linked to North Africa and the Middle East. On the island of Malta, there is one mosque and an adjoined Muslim school.
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