Our tiny yet very significant Island of Malta is blessed with various Marian sanctuaries. One of them is certainly that of Our Lady of Mellieħa.
Every time the Lord gives me the grace of celebrating a Eucharistic celebration in this Sanctuary it is always a great joy for me. The immense joy and motherly care and protection which I interiorly feel when I am in this holy place must surely come from the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Mother of God and Our beloved Mother! This spiritual experience vividly reminds me of those powerful words which St. John Paul II himself, a very special pilgrim himself at this holy site, said when he first visited our country way back in 1990. In fact, on Saturday, 26 May 1990, the Polish Pope, who throughout this year we shall be celebrating the first centenary from his birth, made the following reflection:
“It is very fitting that we should come together in prayer at Mellieħa, the oldest Marian Sanctuary on the island of Malta. At the Annunciation, the Virgin of Nazareth freely accepted God’s invitation to become the Mother of his Son (Cfr. Luc. 1, 38). After our Lord’s Ascension into heaven, Mary was united with the Apostles in prayer as they waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus had promised to send (Cfr. Act. 1, 14). In the mysterious unfolding of God’s plan of salvation, we know that the Mother of Jesus has a privileged part to play. Trusting in her maternal love and protection, we do not hesitate to commend to her prayers the intentions of those who have followed Christ’s command to ‘go into all the world and preach the Gospel’ (Marc. 16, 15).”
Mary’s prayers open us for evangelization. Her maternal prayers urge us to open our hearts to share Christ with other people. Was this not what Saint John Paul II wrote in his Apostolic Exhortation regarding the encounter with the living Jesus Christ: The way to conversion, communion and solidarity, officially known as Ecclesia in America?
“With the passage of time, pastors and faithful alike have grown increasingly conscious of the role of the Virgin Mary in the evangelization of America. In the prayer composed for the Special Assembly for America of the Synod of Bishops, Holy Mary of Guadalupe is invoked as ‘Patroness of all America and Star of the first and new evangelization’. In view of this, I welcome with joy the proposal of the Synod Fathers that the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother and Evangelizer of America, be celebrated throughout the continent on December 12. (23) It is my heartfelt hope that she, whose intercession was responsible for strengthening the faith of the first disciples (cf. Jn 2:11), will by her maternal intercession guide the Church in America, obtaining the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as she once did for the early Church (cf. Acts 1:14), so that the new evangelization may yield a splendid flowering of Christian life” (no.11).
In fact, this ancient Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieħa has been a centre of devotion, refuge and pilgrimages owing to the ancient tradition that in the year 60 AD the Apostles Paul and Luke came to this cave. Luke, according to the tradition, painted a figure of the Madonna which is still visible on the rock face till this very day.
The icon of Our Lady with that typical broad round face, large dark eyes and small lips, enwrapping the child Jesus in her blue veil has, throughout all these centuries, enchanted and comforted thousands of vistors which come to the Sanctuary to pay their homage to Our Heavenly Mother from practically every corner of the globe. Hence, this most precious icon is, by far, the most ancient painting of Our Lady that is painted directly on the limestone of the Maltese Islands that has survived, practically to this day.
It is believed that, at the beginning of the 5th century, some Augustinian monks came to live near this shrine. They must have been familiar with some of the teaching of the early Fathers of the Church about Christ’s Mother. In the shrine itself there was a very old inscription taken from the writings of St. Augustine in praise of Mary’s Nativity. An ex voto or votive picture of Byzantine style painted on a rectangular wooden panel shows that during this period the Maltese had this Madonna very much at heart.
With the Arabs arrival in the year 871, who took Malta, although during their domination religion suffered alot, the Sanctuary was left untouched and devotees probably kept worshipping in this shrine with some freedom. When Count Roger the Norman came to Malta, in 1091 religious freedom was restored and Marian devotion increased throughout the whole Church. The Mellieħa shrine became a centre of great devotion. Along with the Maltese people, kings and viceroys from Sicily are believed to have visited the Sanctuary. From the 16th till the 18th century several Grand Masters of the Order of St. John visited the shrine regularly donating gifts for its upkeep.
By the beginning of the 17th century it was generally accepted that the devotion shown towards the Blessed Virgin of Mellieħa had been widespread centuries before. This brought up the tradition that in 409 AD a number of bishops visited the shrine while travelling in the Mediterranean. Recorded in the Pastoral Visit of Bishop Senatore de Mello in 1436, we find that centuries earlier the Mellieħa Sanctuary had already been established as one of the main ten Parishes of Malta.
This popular devotion led to the embelleshing of the cave with decorative elements such as paintings, statutes and rich ornaments. During the peak of this devotion disaster hit the shrine. On the 6th June 1614, the Turks disembarked from 60 galleys which had entered the bay of Mellieħa, ran up to the shrine and tried to destroy it, with the result that the holy Icon was seriously damaged in its lower parts. Immediately after this ugly incident the devotion towards Our Lady of Mellieħa was revived with sundry pilgrimages and devotees to pray there. The shrine was again embellished and the altar of the Madonna was decorated with stone columns and other sculptural stone work. The Madonna itself was covered with a silver dress allowing only the face of the Blessed Virgin and the Child Jesus to be seen. To make up for the damage inflicted on the holy icon, an oil painting on canvas depicting the Blessed Virgin and the Child Jesus holding an orb was placed in front of the old icon around 1750.
The crowning of the Mellieħa Madonna in 1899 confirmed the existence of the great devotion to it and instilled an even deeper faith in the people. In 1973, during restoration works on the icon, the original effigy of the Madonna and Child, covered over since the beginning of the 17th century, accidentally emerged bringing to light the bright colours of a long-forgotten icon which today dominates the whole Sanctuary. This icon dates to the beginning of the 12th century.
In 1960 Pope St. John XXIII declared the Mellieħa Sanctuary as one ‘of the most famous in the world’ and he sent a special large candle as a gift. While in 1965 Pope St. Paul VI sent another such candle to be put at the feet of the Blessed Virgin Mary in her Marian Sanctuary of Mellieħa.
As we said already, on May 26th 1990 the Sanctuary was honoured by Pope St. John Paul II who visited the holy icon and prayed in front of it. He later blessed the marble tablets bearing the Prayer to Our Lady of Mellieħa in different languages. These are fixed on the wall of the Pilgrims’ Rooms in the Sanctuary courtyard.
Let us now end our faith visit to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieħa with this prayer particularly and lovingly dedicated to her:
O Blessed Virgin Mary, our forefathers venerated you in the sacred cave of Mellieħa from the first dawn of Christianity. As they always put their trust in you, you always delivered them. Today, likewise we plead with you to cast upon us a merciful glance and to cure us from all ills of soul and body. This we ask, through Christ Our Lord. Amen.