The painting of St Bartholemew at St George’s Basilica [photo – Joe Attard]

Maybe he is not one of the most popular saints in the Christian calendar, but St Bartholomew certainly deserves our attention. It was to him that Our Lord Jesus Christ looked and said: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (Jn 1:48). But before that, he had already spoken highly of him when he said: “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit”.

On a small island on the Tiber in the heart of ancient Rome, stands the ancient Basilica dedicated to him. It was here that in 1999 Saint Pope John Paul II, in preparation for the Great Jubilee of the year 2000, instituted the ‘Commission of New Martyrs’ to promote further studies on Christian martyrdom in the 20th century. The Commission worked for two year in the area of the basilica and collected about 12,000 pieces of information known as dossier. This is what Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of San Egidio of Rome, had to say about this: “I entered the great archives of the Commission of New Martyrs and there one can find letters, signed documents and memories that have arrived in Rome from various parts of the world”. After the Jubilee, it was the wish of the late Polish Pope that the Basilica would become the Memorial Place for the New Martyrs of our age. This was proclaimed formally on the October 12, 2002 in the presence of Cardinals Ruini, Kasper and George and Orthodox Patriarch Teocist.

The Basilica of St Bartholomew in Rome

Unfortunately, from an ecumenical point-of-view, St Bartholomew’s Day is not a day to be remembered because it was on this very day in 1572 that a targeted group of assassinations and a wave of Catholic mob violence was directed against the Huguenots during the French Wars of Religion.

Those who visit the Holy Land will surely visit the Church of the Wedding of Cana in Cana itself and next to it, the small church dedicated to this apostle-saint. As to our country, Saint Bartholomew is the Patron Saint of the old village of Għargħur on the northern coast of Malta. In Xewkija, an old chapel dedicated to the Virgin and the Saint stands at the end of the village. In 1839, the new titular statue of St George left this place to enter solemnly in Rabat, and it seems that the same thing happened in the case of the statue of San Ġorġ Rebbieħ 125 years ago.

An image of the saint with his own skin in his hands, a reference to what tradition holds to be his martyrdom, may be seen immediately above one of the stained-glass windows in the main aisle of St George’s Basilica. These paintings of the Apostles and Evangelists, just like the rest of the ceiling, are by Gian Battista Conti.

In our popular tradition, we speak of “tah l-imfietaħ”, meaning literally “He gave him the keys”, with reference of the first rain that usually falls either on St Bartholomew’s Day or in the following week.

And to all those who are called Nathaniel, Nathanael or Natanael, we wish buon onomastico!

Sancte Bartholomeo, ora pro nobis.