Asia Chapter Visit 2023 Malta, Rome and the Vatican

“Beauty Ever Ancient, Ever New” were the words Chairman Ben Chang used in his welcome letter to launch the 5th APAVM Chapter Visit to Malta, the Vatican and Rome. True to his word, what awaited us was beauty beyond compare – and a truly privileged, awe-inspiring and unforgettable experience that exceeded all expectations. Without exaggerating, it was a trip “that beat them all.”

  • Dates
    28 April - 7 May 2023
  • Locations

Asia Chapter Visit 2023

Malta, Rome and the Vatican

28 April – 7 May 2023

“Beauty Ever Ancient, Ever New” were the words Chairman Ben Chang used in his welcome letter to launch the 5th APAVM Chapter Visit to Malta, the Vatican and Rome. True to his word, what awaited us was beauty beyond compare – and a truly privileged, awe-inspiring and unforgettable experience that exceeded all expectations. Without exaggerating, it was a trip “that beat them all.”

Originally planned for 2020, this trip was postponed several times because of the Covid pandemic. At long last, we could pack our bags and go! A record 39 patrons came on this trip which began in Malta. A destination often overlooked, Malta’s past importance came to life with the history of the Knights of St John, the holy and militant order which made their home there for more than two centuries.

On the first day, we were introduced to Malta by a talk “The Malta Experience” giving us the historical context with which to understand these islands in the middle of the Mediterranean. This was followed by a private visit to the baroque St John’s Co-Cathedral, the conventual church (home church) of the Knights. There we viewed Caravaggio’s “The Beheading of St John the Baptist” and heard of its spiritual and artistic significance. Our day ended with cocktails and dinner at the Casino Maltese where we had the chance to socialize with our fellow patrons.

Exploring Malta further the next day, we went to the medieval walled city of Mdina, where we visited Malta’s main cathedral and its museum with its excellent artifacts. Back at the hotel, the engaging Dr Philip Randon, a modern-day knight of the Order, enlivened the history of the Knights in his first-person “eye-witness account” of historical events. In the early evening, we were invited to Casa Rocca Piccola, the home of knight and Maltese nobleman, the Marquis Nicholas de Piro, where we absorbed more of Malta through the lens of his family’s history. Topping off the day’s activities was dinner at the Michelin one-starred ION where we beheld, in the twilight, the bewitching Grand Harbour spread out below our eyes.

Birgu, the historical city across the harbour from the capital Valleta, was our next point of encounter. It was from here that the Knights victoriously defended the island against the Ottomans in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. We visited their stronghold, Fort St Angelo. As if to further immerse us in the Knights’ history, our lunch consisted of food made from ingredients commonly used in the days of the Knights! A most relaxing harbour cruise next transported us from the past of Birgu, around the Valleta peninsula to the present-day high-rises and yachting scene of Sliema. That evening there were dazzling fireworks and drone displays over the Grand Harbour and an optional opportunity to taste typical Maltese food in a nearby village.

Malta is not without history before the Knights’ arrival. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hagar Qim is a megalithic temple complex which shows ancient man’s mysterious ability to place huge slabs of stone atop others to build places of worship. Said to date back to 4000-3000 BC, it is the earliest free-standing stone building in the world. The Hypogeum, another World Heritage site, is a subterranean three-storied structure, hewn out of rock that was used as a burial ground as well as a place of worship. Originally containing the remains of 7000 individuals, this necropolis dates back to 4000 BC. One of the most striking aspects of the Hypogeum is that some of the chambers have been cut to imitate architecturally the above-ground megalithic temples. Dinner was outdoors on the grounds of the elegant Palazzo Guarena and live music prompted patrons to leave their seats and dance under the summer night sky.

Leaving Malta, we flew to Rome. After checking in and taking a short rest, we made our way to the hotel’s roof top restaurant for a talk on “Rome’s Hidden Treasures” and dinner. As if to welcome us, the Eternal City laid before us a spectacular sunset view. From the terrace of the restaurant, we could see the yellows, creams, ochres and oranges of Rome’s buildings extending to the distant horizon where a silhouette of St Peter’s stood. Before the sun disappeared, it let out a blaze of gold and orange that sat on the horizon for a few minutes. This sublime scene set the tone for the beauty and the grandeur we were about to see in the next few days.

The Pope’s General Audience in St. Peter’s Square fell on the next day, and we set off early for the Vatican. As Patrons, we were given special seats in the front rows on the side of the same raised podium where Pope Francis sat. The excitement of seeing the Holy Father up close gripped us. When the Popemobile with the Pope in it finally appeared, there were loud cheers of “Viva Francesco, Viva Francesco” from the crowd. Marching band music added to the exuberant atmosphere. Soon Pope Francis was seated in his papal chair and a passage of Scripture was read. He then gave a teaching, and his message was translated into different languages to underline the universality of the Church. The audience concluded with Pope Francis blessing all the pilgrims.

From the excitement, we transitioned to a more sober visit to the restoration laboratories of the Vatican Museum. We witnessed the painstaking restoration work in the mosaic, paper, painting and tapestry labs and saw the Patrons’ donations at work. In the evening, we were in the company of the Dominicans, a.k.a the Order of Preachers. At the San Clemente Basilica, the learned Fr Paul Murray welcomed us with a thought-provoking talk, “Why Remain in the Church Today?” Then we were given a private tour of the fascinating Basilica. The current 12th century basilica sits on top of a 4th century church built over a 1st century Christian meeting place that is above a 1st century BC Mithraic temple! After that, we proceeded to the Angelicum, the Dominican Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, where we met our dinner companions – the professors and students studying theology, philosophy and canon law there. Dinner conversation was naturally stimulating, and the striking location, on the top floor loggia of the Casa dei Cavalieri di Rodi overlooking the ancient Roman Forum, made it all the more special.

Next day, our schedule took us to  the landscaped Vatican Gardens, the Anima Mundi Museum, and the Santa Rosa Necropolis. The grandest part of our trip was yet to come. The evening began with a Mass in the white and light-grey Church of Mary, Mother of the Family, in the Governor’s Palace. We then set off on a private guided tour of the Vatican Museum and the Apostolic Palace, which took us to the Belvedere Courtyard designed by Donato Bramante, the Braccio Nuovo gallery of sarcophagi and friezes, and the sculptures of the octagonal courtyard of the Pio-Clementino Museum. Entering the  Apostolic Palace itself, we were ushered into the Pauline Chapel, a most private chapel of the Popes, as it is not on any tourist itinerary. On the walls were two Michelangelo frescoes, The Conversion of Saul and The Crucifixion of St Peter, and we were told it was before the second painting that Pope Francis prayed immediately after his election as Pope in 2013.

The grandeur of the Pauline Chapel was only surpassed by the adjacent Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s masterpiece. As we stepped into this magnificent space, Michelangelo’s frescoes on the walls and ceilings compelled us to contemplate the Bible story, from the Book of Genesis to the Revelation. The vivid colours and the grand scale of master’s paintings, especially the painting of The Last Judgement behind the altar, were breath-taking and no amount of superlatives could describe the work of the genius. To be surrounded by such exquisite beauty, and having the chapel exclusively to ourselves could rightly be called an experience of a life-time. The importance of this chapel as the place where popes are elected was not lost on us.

Leaving behind the Sistine Chapel, we ascended the stairs to the Etruscan Terrace, the highest level of the Vatican Museum, where we faced St Peter’s Dome slightly on the right and a view of Rome on the left. As we sipped champagne and socialized with the other patrons, twilight and the rising of the moon cast an aura of magic on the gathering.  All too soon, it was time for the black-tie gala dinner in the palatial Gallery of Statues and Busts. We were honoured to have Sister Raffaella Petrini, the Secretary General of the Vatican City State, among us to enjoy the fine food and the superb music.

For the last two days in Rome, we were treated with more art and history. The walking tour “Baroque Ecstasy”  took us to several churches where we got acquainted with Bernini’s sculptures, notably The Ecstasy of St Teresa, the architecture of Borromini and of course, the painter of chiaroscuro, Caravaggio.  An afternoon visit to the Villa Borghese Museum reinforced what we learned about the Baroque period that morning. The walking tour “In the Footsteps of the Early Christian” took on another period, Republic and Imperial Rome, which gave us the historical background and the context in which the early Christians had to survive and evangelise. Both guides, Elaine Ruffulo and Jill Alexy, are experts and scholars in their field, and their commentaries were of the highest quality. The walking tour through the Forum continued to the top of the Palantine Hill, to the Convent of the Fransciscan Friars of San Bonaventura. At the top floor of the convent, we visited the studio of contemporary artist and Franciscan friar Father Sidival Fila. For his art, Fr Fila recovers old, disused fabrics, some of which date back to the 15th, 16th, or 17th centuries, and carefully cuts and stitches these old fabrics into new, exquisite, delicate works of art. The beauty of his art and the magnificent views of Rome from his studio just took our breath away.

Privilege is a word often used to mean special, but it is not used lightly here. What we beheld, what we learned, whom we met, the venues where we for taken to for dinner – none of this would be open to us were it not for the arrangement of the Patrons Office in the Vatican and the planning of APAVM Chairman Ben Chang and his wife Kim. These privileges were accorded to us for our small part in supporting the Vatican Museum, conserving and restoring beauty, ever ancient, ever new for future generations to enjoy.


Vivian Lee

2023 trip participant


Resources on this trip


  1. Glorianne Mizzi – Lecturer at University of Malta, Tourist guide, trained and examiner at the Institute of Tourism Studies, Malta
  2. Jeremy Grech – Professional tourist guide and freelance tutor for Commedia dell’Arte, Malta
  3. Dr Philip Farrugia Randon – Doctor of Laws, author, artist and Knight Grand Cross of Magistral Grace in Obedience of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta
  4. Marques Nicholas De Piro – 9th Baron of Budach and 9th Marquis de Piro, author of 6 books on Malta
  5. Father Jesmond Grech – priest and artist
  6. Gianluca Falzon – Musem practitioner at 4 museums and researcher at the Malta Maritime Museum
  7. Maria Cristina White –Da Cruz – Art historian, lecturer and glass artist
  8. Father Paul Murray OP – Professor of Theology, Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas in Rome
  9. Father Paul Lawlor OP – Prior of San Clemente Community and Rector of the Basilica, archeologist and former missionary in Iran.
  10. Sister Emanuela Edwards MDR – Head of Didactic Section in the Vatican Mueusms
  11. Father Nicola Mapelli – Head of Ethnological Museum, Vatican Museums
  12. Rev Msgr Terence Hogan – Vice President of Mission at St Thomas University
  13. Elaine Ruffolo – Art Historian, renowned expert on Italian art
  14. Frank Dabell – Art historian and lecturer at Temple University
  15. Father Sidival Fila OFM – artist
  16. Jill Alexy – University lecturer in theology and consultant for various universities and foundations
  17. Warren Zahra – Managing director of Alpine Sterling, a specialized incoming tourism operator
  18. Jade Doughty – Groups Executive, Alpine Sterling

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