The churches of Malta - Frank Salt
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The churches of Malta - Frank Salt

If you look at Malta from the air, you will see literally hundreds of churches and chapels. Why, on an island so small, was there a need for so many?

Apart from the village and town churches there are also many wayside chapels dotted around everywhere.

Even if you look at England for example, you will see a church spire standing out in every town and village. The same can be said for many other European countries. This shows that in the not too distant past there was a great need to have places for worship.

The structures are still there but are they being used anywhere near the same degree as before?

I think not.

In Malta, the main churches are still used, not as much, but few of the little chapels are used on a regular basis. Times and lifestyles have changed and people’s habits and needs have altered as well.

People, only as far back as a hundred years, centred their whole life around the churches. Large families nearly always had one or two children joining religious orders. People lived by the rules and regulations of the Church. Before the advent of radio and television, the priest was the news reader, the person who gave family guidance and council, the confessor, the spiritual advisor. In fact he was a pretty important individual.

In Southern India, where there are many Catholic parishes and large churches, the people are almost totally dependent for all news and advice from the local priests, as Malta was in days gone by.

With all the churches and chapels in Malta and Gozo, it shows what a great part the Church had played in the lives and habits of the Maltese people.

In the olden days Malta was still the same size as it is today, but very few people had transport, especially in the countryside, so it appeared much bigger, and so the small countryside chapels were very important.

Times and lifestyles have changed and people’s habits and needs have altered as well

Today, it is completely different. Much smaller families, less religious vocations, an ageing religious population and less and less people going to church services. In a few years’ time, if things carry on as they are at present, there will be a great scarcity of priests, and fewer and fewer church services, resulting in less and less churches being used.

That is a big problem, but not the topic of this article.

We in Malta definitely have the greatest number of religious buildings per square metre than any other Christian country. We also, for our size and financial means, have the largest number of beautiful and ornate churches. Large and disproportionate in size to the size of the villages in which they are situated.

This says something. What made the Maltese population create such masterpieces? They created them. They built them. They paid for them from money collected by the villagers. They obviously wanted to build places of worship that were as beautiful as they could afford. After all, this was the house of God, and the place where the ultimate sacrifice of their religion was carried out on a regular basis.

But why so grand and disproportionate to the size and population of our island? We have two contenders for the third largest unsupported dome in the world. Third only to St Peter’s in Rome and St Paul’s in London. Why in little Malta and even smaller Gozo?

The Knights left us one of the most attractive churches in the world, visited by thousands of people every year. But the Knights had the finances to construct such a beautiful gem.

The villagers in Malta and Gozo, had no such luxury. Each church has its own history but basically it comes down to the villagers themselves wanting to build their temple to God. And most did it with their own hands and own money. If you just stop to think of it for a moment, that’s incredible.

These beautiful buildings were the hub of life in the town or village. They were the heart and soul of the country. When we enter the churches today we feel so small and insignificant, with the high ceilings and beautiful domes. Can we say our ancestors were wrong to build such grand places, not only in Malta but all over Europe and other Christian parts of the world?

Today they are, after all, the places we all visit when travelling to cities and towns. The visit to the parish church, cathedral or duomo in the cities is a must, especially in Italy.

Malta is one of the few countries that still use their churches on a regular basis and in reasonable numbers. That however is not the case all over the world. Christianity is not as predominant in the lives of most people today. What will happen in the future is uncertain, but one thing is for sure, the old churches will still stand proud to remind us of the days when we were more in need of a good Christian influence to carry on with our lives.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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