When you think about it, St Paul never had any intention to go to Malta. All he wanted to do was go to be tried in Rome, thus using his privilege as a Roman citizen. Had he not filed his appeal to go to Caesar, he would have been a free man. As King Agrippa himself said during Paul’s trial, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar”, because he “is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.” However, since Paul had lodged that appeal, his wish had to be respected.
Undoubtedly Paul was using that excuse to visit the Christian community in Rome, to whom he had already written a letter although he had never visited them yet. That was Paul’s plan – a long-time ambition of his. God had other things in mind.
As soon as they set sail, they started encountering difficulties. The trip was taking longer than expected due to the bad weather. When they took shelter in Crete, Paul insisted they should not keep going. The centurion, and the owner and captain of the ship decided otherwise. This decision was almost fatal. The storm kept growing. For days on end the expert mariners could not control the ship. Those on board started losing hope. Luke tells us that at one point “we finally gave up all hope of being saved”.
In desperation, some tried to escape. Paul stopped this, assuring everybody that all were going to be saved. By now, thanks to a vision he had, he had become in tune with God’s plan in this story. Paul would, eventually, face Caesar, but first, they had to “run aground on some island.” This was, therefore, the real purpose of this whole adventure.
Paul’s coming to Malta was no human endeavor. It was purely God’s providence in action. There is no doubt that the people of Malta had always been a religious people. The thousands-of-years old temples scattered throughout our islands are ample testimony to this. This religiosity of our ancestors shines forth in today’s story. When Paul was bitten by a snake, the people immediately saw this as a divine punishment for some huge wrong-doing. “This man must be a murderer,” they said. One may manage to escape a storm, but there is no way one can run away from divine justice! Then, upon seeing that no ill befell him, they concluded he must be a god!
By now Paul must have understood how God was constructing this story. And Paul the evangelizer did what he knew best. The above-mentioned phenomenon, together with the healing of the island’s chief official, must have earned Paul the people’s trust. The people of the island stopped to listen to him. And he shared with them that wonderful gift he had received on that fateful day on the road to Damascus.
This is what real faith is all about. It is not merely something for me to keep. Rather, it is something to live and to share. The gift of faith our ancestors had received form Paul has been handed on to us through many generations.
After visiting the Grotto where, according to tradition, St Paul had stayed in Rabat, the Saint Pope John Paul II told the people gathered there that he “gave thanks to God for the rich harvest of faith and good works which he has brought forth among you since the Apostle of the Gentiles first proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ to your forebears.”
It is up to us, now, to live it and share it. This would be the best way to thank and honor this great Apostle for what he gave us.