Saint George Preca: Malta’s second father in faith

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On Sunday May 9, 2021, the Church in Malta gladly celebrates the great feast of one of her courageous and forward looking sons, the diocesan priest Saint George Preca. But who was this charismatic priest whose abundant good fruit can still be felt not only in Malta but everywhere the Maltese went?

Saint George Preca was born in Valletta, Malta’s capital city, on Thursday 12 February 1880. He was the 7th child in a very numerous family of 9 children. In his childhood his family decided to transfer itself to another neighbour town, precisely 4.2 kilometres away, by the name of Ħamrun. It is in this town that George not only was to spend the rest of his earthly life but also realize God’s special calling for him. As most children would do at the time he attended both the primary and secondary school till the age of 16. In those years, George felt the inner calling to dedicate his life to God as a priest. Hence, moved by such a great love for Christ he entered the seminary of Malta where he studied theology. He was ordained a priest on Saturday 22 December 1906.

Saint George Preca underwent the same experience which many saints did, namely that of having a call within a call. In fact, while still in the seminary, the young George would frequently offer to his fellow companions words of wisdom, most particularly a phrase whom his spiritual director and confessor, Dun Alwiġ Galea, had taught him: “God has chosen you to teach his people”. George took these words so seriously that he made it a point to evangelize all those whom Divine Providence put on his life path.

In those days Catholic Malta suffered alot from strong catechetical instruction. The Christians of those days were not appropriately catechised. Hence, guided by God’s Spirit, Fr George Preca started meeting a group of lay young people to delve deeper into God’ Word with them. During their meetings he talked to them regarding matters that interested them. His deep influence of these young people, especially on a young Dockyard worker, by the name of Eugenio Borg, was so great that Borg was to become his life-long companion in the foundation of the Society of Christian Doctrine (SDC).  Consequently, on Thursday 7 March 1907, a small house was rented to serve as the first Society’s centre. Then, the Society grew so much throughout the many parishes of Malta.

Upon witnessing this impressive phenomenon within her ranks, the Church, as a caring mother, simply could not ignore her responsibilty of verifying if this charism really came from God or was merely a human enthusiastic initiative. After years of rigorous inquiry she came to the positive conclusion that the Society of Christian Doctrine was God’s work. However she proposed that small changes had to be implemented to the basic rules of the Society. This important development led to the official recognition of the Society of Christian Doctrine which was now canonically approved for the respective dioceses of Malta and Gozo thanks to the Benedictine Bishop of Malta at the time, Dom Mauro Caruana OSB.

The Society of Christian Doctrine kept evolving into the women’s section which saw its foundation in the year 1910. This part of the Society also pursued the same spirituality of the male section. It needs to be said that despite the fact that the two sections of the Society commonly share the same ideal of Saint George Preca as well as observe an identical structure of activities, the two sections are completely independent from each other. They both enjoy different administrations. At any rate, the General Superior’s role is that of being a sign of unity between the two sections of the Society.  

For Fr George Preca being totally involved in and within the Society of Christian Doctrine practically meant consuming his priestly life for the sake of evangelization. Besides fulfilling his priestly duties in Saint Cajetan parish in Ħamrun he would almost visit daily different centres of the SDC throughout Malta so as to talk to the children, young people and members alike. Frequent were the occasions when Saint George would also do talks to the people in the open air.

Countless number of people were greatly impacted by his holy and charismatic presence. On the example of the Good Shepherd, Fr George Preca magnificiently responded to the serious lack of preparation in the Christian faith by consolidating his fellow brothers and sisters’ faith through catechetical teaching. In his speeches in the streets and squares, always packed with people hungry for the solid food of the faith (1 Cor 3:2), Saint George would emphasize on his great favourite themes such as ‘The aim of man’, ‘Right intention of our actions’ and ‘Forgiveness’. Furthermore, and as a caring spiritual father would do, Saint George found time to converse with those who frequently wanted to talk to him concerning their personal matters in order that he might give them some light from above.

Like Saint Paul, Malta’s first father in faith, Saint George wrote extensively. His devotion to the apostolate of writing can be detected in his over a hundred publications regarding several spiritual and theological issues which he would either have published and sold at cost prices or even given out freely to people. Some of his publications like The Great book and The Sanctuary of Christ’s Spirit, are certainly Preca’s spiritual masterpieces.

Saint George Preca went to the Father’s House on Thursday 26 July 1962 after 82 years of extremely fruitful apostolic life. In his beatification, which occurred on the Maltese soil, on Wednesday 9 May 2001, Saint Pope John Paul II gave a very rich depiction of who Saint George Preca really was. In his moving homily at the “Granaries” of Floriana, on his last step of his Jubilee Pilgrimage on the example of Saint Paul on his way to Rome, the place of his martyrdom, this great holy Polish Pope said:

“Since his death in 1962, shortly before the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Blessed George Preca has been renowned for his holiness both in Malta and wherever the Maltese have settled. Dun Gorg was a pioneer in the field of catechetics and in promoting the role of the laity in the apostolate, which the Council was to stress in a particular way. Thus he became as it were Malta’s second father in faith. Embracing meekness and humility, and using to the full his God-given talents of mind and heart, Dun Gorg made his own the words of Paul to Timothy: ‘You have heard everything that I teach in public; hand it on to reliable people so that they in turn will be able to teach others’ (2 Tim 2: 2). The Society of Christian Doctrine which he founded continues his work of witness and evangelization in these islands and elsewhere.

Not far from here the young seminarian Gorg Preca heard the prophetic words of a priestly mentor: ‘Gorg, when you grow up many who fear God will gather around you. You will be a blessing for them and they for you’. Today the Church in Malta calls Gorg Preca ‘Blessed’, for she knows that he is for her a native source of light and strength. In his writings on meekness – his book L-Iskola tal-Manswetudni and his Letter – Dun Gorg urges his fellow Christians to follow the example of the Crucified Lord in forgiving every offence (cf. Lk 23:34). Is not this message of mutual respect and forgiveness especially needed today in Malta and in the world? Yes indeed, the meekness of the Beatitudes has the power to transform the family, the workplace and schools, the towns and villages, politics and culture. It can change the world! ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth’ (Mt 5:5).

Magister, utinam sequatur evangelium universus mundus (Divine Teacher, may the whole world follow the Gospel): the prayer of Blessed Dun Gorg perfectly mirrors the missionary mandate of the Lord: ‘Go therefore and make disciples … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’! (Mt 28:19-20). During the year of the Great Jubilee the whole Church experienced anew the eternal freshness of the loving mercy of the Father who sent his only Son for our salvation. Was it not Dun Gorg’s ability to communicate the freshness of the Christian message that made him the great apostle that he was? Is this not what Malta needs today: clergy, religious, catechists, teachers who passionately proclaim the Good News of what the Father has done for us in Christ? At the dawn of a new millennium, the Church looks to you, Malta, to be still more ardent in living your apostolic and missionary vocation! The whole Church looks to you!” (no.3).

Blessed George Preca was officially canonised on Sunday 3rd June 2007, at Saint Peter’s Square in Rome, by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Here is a beautiful reflection on the first Maltese canonized saint which Pope Ratzinger left to us:

“George Preca, born in La Valletta on the Island of Malta, was a friend of Jesus and a witness to the holiness that derives from him. He was a priest totally dedicated to evangelization: by his preaching, his writings, his spiritual direction and the administration of the sacraments and, first and foremost, by the example of his life.

The Johannine expression, ‘Verbum caro factum est’  always directed his soul and his work and thus the Lord could make use of him to give life to a praiseworthy institution, the ‘Society of Christian Doctrine’, whose purpose is to guarantee parishes the qualified service of properly trained and generous catechists. As a profoundly priestly and mystical soul, he poured himself out in effusions of love for God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary and the saints. He liked to repeat: ‘Lord God, how obliged to you I am! Thank you, Lord God, and forgive me, Lord God!’ This is a prayer that we can also repeat and make our own. May St George Preca help the Church, in Malta and throughout the world, to be always a faithful echo of the voice of Christ, the Incarnate Word.”

Saint George Preca, Malta’s Second Father in Faith, pray for us!

Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap

He wrote over a hundred publications on many spiritual and theological issues which he would then have published and sold at cost prices or given out freely to people. Among his best known writings are ‘The Great book’ and “The Sanctuary of Christ’s Spirit’.

Fr Preca passed away on Thursday 26th July 1962 at the age of 82 years. Nine years later, in 1971 the official process towards canonisation started.

Following a long process he was beatified by HH Pope John Paul II on 9th May 2001 in Malta. Fr George Preca was canonised by Pope Benedict XVI on 3rd June 2007.

s a young priest, Saint George Preca was imbued with the idea of using lay men and women to serve the Church, primarily by helping them lead a truly Christian life and a dedication to evangelisation. Saint George Preca seemed to have been preoccupied with the state of catechism in the local Church. He had realised that although Malta was practically all Catholic and all the population was church-going, most Maltese Catholics knew very little about the truths of Christianity. In general, religion was based on the practice of popular devotions and little else.

Hundreds of people regularly packed any place, street or square where he would go to give talks. Some of his favourite themes were ‘The aim of man’, ‘Right intention of our actions’ and ‘Forgiveness’. He also found time to talk to people who regularly wanted to seek his advice or talk to him about personal matters.

George was also an avid writer. He wrote over a hundred publications on many spiritual and theological issues which he would then have published and sold at cost prices or given out freely to people. Among his best known writings are ‘The Great book’ and “The Sanctuary of Christ’s Spirit’.

Fr Preca passed away on Thursday 26th July 1962 at the age of 82 years. Nine years later, in 1971 the official process towards canonisation started.

Following a long process he was beatified by HH Pope John Paul II on 9th May 2001 in Malta. Fr George Preca was canonised by Pope Benedict XVI on 3rd June 2007.

As these Bible study meetings progressed it has been clear that the Lord was opening the way for the establishment of the SDC society, the Society of the Christian Doctine.

When still a student at the Bishop’s seminary, Saint George Preca befriended a group of young men in his parish, who used to spend their time talking and playing football in front of the church after their day’s work. He very quickly made friends with them and started talking to them 

Origins

The origins of the Society of Christian Doctrine date from the beginning of the 20th century; or, to be more precise, the 7th of March, 1907 – the day when the first meeting was held between Fr Preca and a group of youths.

As a young priest, Saint George Preca was imbued with the idea of using lay men and women to serve the Church, primarily by helping them lead a truly Christian life and a dedication to evangelisation. Saint George Preca seemed to have been preoccupied with the state of catechism in the local Church. He had realised that although Malta was practically all Catholic and all the population was church-going, most Maltese Catholics knew very little about the truths of Christianity. In general, religion was based on the practice of popular devotions and little else.

When still a student at the Bishop’s seminary, Saint George Preca befriended a group of young men in his parish, who used to spend their time talking and playing football in front of the church after their day’s work. He very quickly made friends with them and started talking to them about matters that interested them. He made a deep impression on them, particularly on a young Dockyard worker, Eugenio Borg, who was to become his life-long companion in the foundation of the Society. Eventually, on the 7th March 1907, a small dwelling was rented to serve as the first centre of the Society. The Society spread rapidly, opening Centres in many parishes around Malta. This led to an official inquiry ordered by the then Vicar General Mgr Salvatore Grech to look into the Society and its activities. After many years, the inquiry finalized its report on the Society’s work, recommending only small alterations to the basic rules. Eventually in 1932 the Society was canonically approved for the dioceses of Malta and Gozo by the Bishop of Malta, Dom Mauro Caruana OSB.

The women’s section of the Society was founded in 1910, and followed the same spirituality as that lived by the male section. Although the two sections of the Society share a common ideal and follow a similar pattern of activities, they are totally independent of each other, with separate administrations. The General Superior serves as a sign of unity between the two sections of the Society.
 

with whom he started meeting for Bible study sessions. Soon things developed and the new SDC society was established in 1907.

Working for and within SDC meant a lot of hard work for Fr Preca. Naturally he had his normal duties as an ordinary priest serving in St Cajetan’s parish in Hamrun, Malta. Regularly almost every day however he would go to different SDC centres throughout Malta to talk to the children, young people and members. Often he would also talk to the people out in the open air.

Blessed Pope John Paul II kneeling in front of the tomb of St George Preca on the day he was declared Blessed – 9th May 2001

Hundreds of people regularly packed any place, street or square where he would go to give talks. Some of his favourite themes were ‘The aim of man’, ‘Right intention of our actions’ and ‘Forgiveness’. He also found time to talk to people who regularly wanted to seek his advice or talk to him about personal matters.

George was also an avid writer. He wrote over a hundred publications on many spiritual and theological issues which he would then have published and sold at cost prices or given out freely to people. Among his best known writings are ‘The Great book’ and “The Sanctuary of Christ’s Spirit’.

Fr Preca passed away on Thursday 26th July 1962 at the age of 82 years. Nine years later, in 1971 the official process towards canonisation started. Following a long process he was beatified by HH Pope John Paul II on 9th May 2001 in Malta. Fr George Preca was canonised by Pope Benedict XVI on 3rd June 2007.

His Deep Spirituality

If most of the authorities were slow to appreciate this God-sent man, the majority of the common people made up for this lack by acclaiming him as a saint. On his part, Saint George Preca’s profound spirituality, which witnessed to a close union with God, filled him with a special charism to understand and lead God’s people. His fine psychological acumen, drawing as much from his common sense as from his reading, helped him to get along with everybody – even with his enemies. His sterling sense of humour and sharp wit served him on a hundred and one occasions when facing people, whether it was on pulpit, bench or street. Once, while using the boat service provided at Valletta, an anti-clerical man showed his leanings by purposely shoving his foot in front of Saint George Preca’s face. If this gentle priest was irritated, he did not show it. Rather, to the surprise of the smirking man, he bent down and kissed that wayward foot, such as Jesus must have done to Judas at the Last Supper. Unlike Judas, however, this man’s heart rekindled after so many years and asked pardon there and then, both from the priest and from God.

His Mystical Experience

If Fr Preca had a number of hurdles to overcome in the first twenty five years of the life of the Society, yet the Lord did not leave him to endure more then he could bear. At times, God seemed to intervene in a tangible way to strengthen the faith and morale of the young priest.

One such occasion was when Fr George was returning home from a town called Paola. He passed by a statue of a cross raised on a column. As soon as he came close to this place, he saw a boy of around twelve years pulling a manure cart. The boy turned and looked at the priest and ordered him to help him. Fr Preca placed his hands on the edge of the basket and started pushing. He used to recount that the minute he placed his hand to push the cart, a great sense of joy overwhelmed him and he couldn’t say to which direction they eventually went. Fr George recounted this mystical experience a number of times and it was generally understood by him that this was a kind of approval and encouragement by Jesus himself for the new Society.

Another mystical experience that Fr Preca had was around the year 1916. During this time, a considerable number of letters where published in the local (Malta) newspapers that had the intention of humiliating the young priest. Like every other individual, it was always difficult to sustain so many lies that were levelled against him and he was confused at to how one should react. On a particular day, as he entered home and was climbing the stairs to go to his room, he passed by the holy picture of our Lady of Good Council. He paused and prayed about the issue. The moment he stopped to pray, he distinctively heard a voice, a very clear voice, telling him in Latin: Serva Silentium, which means, observe silence. He concluded that the Virgin Mother was telling him not to retaliate or in any way answer back to the false accusations some were levelling against him.

A Prolific Writer

Saint George Preca was a man capable of great energy and dynamism. As his home aide, Nellie Bartolo testified that he would often burn a candle (literally, for he lived a life of absolute poverty) late into the night – preparing his sermons or writing some of his more than 140 books and pamphlets. His wish was that of educating Malta in its love for God and neighbour, that the whole world accepts the Gospel ( Magister Utinam Sequator Evangelium Universus Mundus), and he was ready not to spare himself any pain in achieving that ideal. At a time when the language question was raging in Malta, and our mother tongue was forgotten in the fight for supremacy between Italian and English, Saint George Preca began writing for the public in Maltese. The earliest manuscripts date as far back as 1909, and his merits as a writer had already been recognised. He used the ingenious method of spreading “manual papers”, as he called them – a printed sheet covering some point of Christian doctrine and passed on by hand- to teach different aspects of the Christian life.

The Preacher

As a preacher Saint George Preca was much sought after, and when the news ran through village or town that the saintly priest was on his way there, village and town would arouse itself and flock to hear him speak. 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 babies and rosary beads. His power was a thing apart from words, like that of so many – perhaps most – great leaders. When he spoke, it was not only what he said, it was the suppressed heat of personal feeling, personal conviction which enkindled people. Virtue emanated from him, drawing both adults and children, and made his catechizing more potent than the pulpit eloquence of his day. He knew how to laugh and make people laugh at the failings of mankind, graciously drawing the moral at the end. He knew how to make people conscious of their grave calling as Christians, as well as making them aware not only of the rewards and kindness of God, but also of his justice and punishment.

Nobody was excluded from his love, so much so that all of Malta and Gozo were influenced by his ability to adapt the perfection of the spiritual life to the common housewife and workman. Rich and noble people, drydock workers, refuse collectors – all and sundry were attracted by this priest’s powerful message to reform themselves.

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