WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY
JANUARY 18–25, 2020
PRAYER / WORSHIP: The Ecumenical Context of the Church in Malta and Gozo
Malta, an island in the Mediterranean Sea, received the Christian faith through the efforts of the Apostle, Paul, after he was shipwrecked there while travelling to Rome. In Acts 27 and 28, we read the detailed narrative describing the terrible storm at sea, the ‘providential’ shipwreck and the subsequent welcome afforded to the 276 individuals on the vessel who all made it safely to shore. Paul’s healing ministry in Malta is also briefly described in the same New Testament text.
During its long and chequered history, Malta was ruled by various powers: the Carthaginians, the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, the Aragonese, the Knights of the Order of St John, the French and the British. Malta became an independent nation within the British Commonwealth in 1964. In 2004, it joined the European Union.
The Christian faith is deeply rooted in the culture of the inhabitants of Malta and its sister island of Gozo. Although the current population of about 430,000 is predominantly Roman Catholic, there are significant groups of Christians belonging to other traditions. Ecumenism is not a new experience to the local population. Being at the crossroads of civilizations, religions, trade and migration, has made the people of Malta always open to others, and markedly hospitable. The Maltese people recognize that the proper handling of current differences can lead to the mutual appreciation of the respective richness found in the different Churches.
The first permanent and numerically significant presence of members from other Churches dates back to the first half of the 19th century. The strong military and naval presence of British servicemen and their accompanying pastors eventually led to the construction of suitable and dignified places of worship for the members of the Church of Scotland, the Anglican Communion and the Methodist Church. The Crimean War and the opening of the Suez Canal made Malta a strategic naval base as well as the hub of trade and an important shipyard.
A Greek Orthodox community was established in 1816 by Greeks and Cypriots living in Malta. From the 1990s, there was an exponential growth of members of different Orthodox Churches. The majority consist of Eastern Europeans settling in Malta in order to find work. This includes Serbian and Russian Orthodox, as well as Romanian and Bulgarian Orthodox. At the same time, a substantial quantity of Oriental Orthodox faithful, especially from Egypt, Ethiopia and Eritrea, have found refuge in Malta, after fleeing their respective countries on account of persecution. The same can be said about small groups of Orthodox Christians from the Middle East, particularly from Syria and Iraq.
This wide kaleidoscope of Christian Churches makes the ecumenical scene a vibrant one indeed. The first ecumenical encounters in Malta took place in the mid-1960s when a small group of Roman Catholic clergyman regularly met a number of chaplains from the British forces stationed in Malta. They discussed matters of common interest and prayed together. Collaboration between Maltese biblical scholars and clergy from different Christian traditions was also frequent and fruitful. It is known that many of these ecumenical contacts were based on deeply rooted friendly relationships. The Malta Bible Society worked with the clergy from a number of different Christian communities.
The first formal ecumenical services in Malta were held in the late 1960s and the early 70s and the first meetings of ARCIC and of the Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue were held in Malta. In 1995, the Malta Ecumenical Council was founded and today is referred to as Christians Together in Malta. The members of Christians Together in Malta are the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Seventh Day Adventists are also part of the Council.
They meet every two months, to discuss ecumenical matters, to organize public dialogue meetings and, in collaboration with the Diocesan Ecumenical Commission, to finalize the content and the logistical arrangements of ecumenical services. The main ecumenical service is held in January, during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Another service is held in the days preceding or following the feast of Pentecost.
In Malta, ecumenical relations thrive. The working relationship is marked by deep respect and authentic collaboration. The Roman Catholic Church in Malta has been instrumental in assisting the various Orthodox Churches in finding a suitable venue for worship. Similarly the Roman Catholic diocese of Gozo has opened its doors to provide worship venues for Anglicans and other Christians from the Reformed traditions.
Besides the customary Ecumenical Services, other regular ecumenical gestures of note, in Malta and Gozo, include the following:
1) A common project of diaconia, either locally or abroad, which receives financial support from across the Christian communities;
2) Common initiatives, such as visiting the sick and the elderly, carol singing, and events on the occasion of the World Day of Prayer for Creation;
3) The mutual participation of Christian leaders in Malta at special patronal feasts;
4) The Lighthouse Network which brings Christians together on a monthly basis for prayer and praise; and
5) The President of the Republic of Malta annually invites Church leaders to a round table discussion and a Christmas meal, some days prior to Christmas.
Ecumenical collaboration at various levels has been instrumental in promoting the cause of Christian Unity in Malta. The ecumenical climate in Malta is indeed a positive one and may truly serve as a microcosm of ecumenical dialogue on a universal level.