THE 140th ANNIVERSARY OF THE BIRTH OF SAINT GEORGE PRECA
Out of his profound humility, Saint George Preca wished that his name be forgotten after his death. However 140 years from his birth his legacy still touches the lives of many in Malta and beyond. The Saint was born in Valletta on 12th February 1880. Nothing in his childhood was out of the ordinary. He studied at the Lyceum and later entered the Seminary. From the beginning, however, his vocation was to reach out to people, inviting them to God’s love. Still a student he would introduce himself to sailors at the harbour and with his his lively intelligence and sense of humour lead them on to spiritual matters.
The words that a saintly priest, Fr Ercole Mompalao, once told him were to come true. “Preca,” he said, “you will grow up and befriend people who respect God; you will be blessed because of them, and they because of you.” It all began with a group of youths whom George, still a seminarian, met in a field in Hamrun where they used to play football. He was not taken seriously at first, but the youths soon started showing interest and even consented to meet regularly in a house which he had rented. This was to be the first centre of the Society which he founded in 1907, later to be known as the Society of Christian Doctrine, or more commonly M.U.S.E.U.M. At one time, however, it seemed as if the dreams of the young priest were destined to come to nothing due to a serious illness which brought him close to death. The specialist who examined him felt sure that he would not make it to his priestly ordination. However he survived the ordeal and was ordained in December of 1906.
That was a time when new theories
about Religion were being circulated in Malta and the Church was keeping an eye on all new groups, fearing that such ideas would endanger the people’s faith. Fr George Preca was not spared this scrutiny as soon as the Curia came to know about the meetings which were being held in the Society’s centres. The priest was not only expounding the sacred truths in simple terms, but had gone so far as to encourage his followers to read and study the Bible when only priests were qualified to do so.
Fr George was well aware of the precarious religious situation in Malta. The intense popular religiosity was based on pietism and devotions and most people lacked sufficient knowledge of the tenets of their faith. What was needed was a well organized catechetical movement, but the vocation of lay Christians to spread the Gospel was not as yet recognised by the local Church. Notwithstanding Fr George entrusted his members with the task of teaching catechism. His vision was later to be implicitly approved by the Second Vatican Council when it endorsed the importance of the lay apostolate, the availability of the Bible to all and the use of the local language in all pastoral activity.
Fr George’s project faced tough opposition in its early years, mainly from Church quarters and the press. Because of the bad image of the Society that had been created, Fr George was ordered to close down his centres. He simply obeyed, but the centres continued to operate soon after thanks to the intervention of the parish priests. During this difficult period the common people still considered Fr George a saint and the Archbishop, who had stated that he would never approve the Society in his lifetime, was later to give it his full blessing. .
As a preacher, Saint George Preca was greatly revered by the people and, whenever the news spread that he was on his way to a locality, many would throng to hear his talk. As he walked through the streets, standing tall and leaning a little forward, with his hand raised in blessing, children would gather around him and mothers would beg him to bless their young. More than his words, however, it was Saint George’s deep conviction that impressed people. He knew how to amuse his audiences by drawing attention to certain common failings, after which he would graciously suggest the necessary remedies and make his hearers conscious of their calling as Christians. Nobody was excluded from the Saint’s love and many stood to benefit from his ability to propose spiritual perfection to all, be they rich or poor, housewives or workmen. All were attracted by the priest’s gentle invitation to reform.
Saint George Preca must certainly be acknowledged as an original writer. The profound writings with which he enriched the Church clearly reveal his keen spiritual insights. His three preferred themes were the Incarnation, Christ Crucified and the Holy Trinity. He proposed a lifestyle deeply marked by right intention, humility and meekness. Some of his books are now available in English, Italian and even Spanish. At a time when the language issue was raging in Malta and many were engaged in the struggle for supremacy between Italian and English, the saint began writing for the public in Maltese. His earliest manuscripts date as far back as 1909.
Our Lady features prominently in St. George’s writings, particularly in the celebrations he prepared for the major Marian feasts. He also attached great importance to the daily recitation of the Rosary. In 1957 he proposed five new mysteries, which he called “Mysteries of Light”, in order to help his members meditate on the public ministry of Christ, from His baptism in the River Jordan up to the Last Supper. These are remarkably similar to the “Luminous Mysteries” which Pope John Paul II officially added in October 2002 through his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae.
Fr George Preca died on 26th July 1962 at the age of 82. He was eventually beatified by Pope John Paul II on 9th May 2001 and canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on 3rd June 2007. In spite of his wish to be forgotten, we still remember and honour him after so many years since his death. The rain that soaked those attending the Canonisation Mass in the Vatican Square and that kept pouring throughout the ceremony, was taken by many as a sign that he still does not relish earthly honours.
On the 140th anniversary of the birth of Saint George Preca, let us pray that his ardent wish that “the whole world follow the Gospel” will become a reality. He dedicated his whole life to this ideal. Today the Society of Christian Doctrine, M.U.S.E.U.M., is present, apart from Malta, in Albania, Australia, Cuba, England, Peru, Poland and Kenya. Besides, the spirituality of Saint George Preca is being studied in other parts of the world, such as in the State of Indiana, in the United States, and in the diocese of IloIlo in the Philippines where the Saint has been chosen as the patron of catechists.