The Malta Independent 12 July 2020, Sunday

140th anniversary of the birth of St George Preca

Wednesday, 12 February 2020, 08:13 Last update: about 6 months ago

Joseph Galea

Due to his humility, St George Preca preferred to be forgotten after his death. However, 140 years after his birth, he still presents a legacy which has since touched the lives of many in Malta and beyond.

St George Preca was born in Valletta on 12 February 1880. Nothing in his childhood was out of the ordinary: he studied at the Lyceum and then at the Seminary. His vocation to reach out to people inviting them to God’s love could be seen when he introduced himself to sailors in the harbour area. With his lively intelligence and sense of humour he led them on to spiritual matters.  

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The words that a saintly priest, Fr Ercole Mompalao – one of his Lyceum teachers – told him: “Preca, you will grow up and will be befriended by people who respect God; you will be blessed because of them, and they because of you”, eventually came true.

It all began with a group of youths whom George Preca met near Ħamrun church where they used to play football. He was not taken seriously at first, but the youths soon listened with interest. They were to become the first members of a Society that he founded in 1907, later known as the Society of Christian Doctrine: M.U.S.E.U.M. At one time, however, it seemed that all the dreams of young George Preca would be cut short: a serious illness brought him close to death and it was thought that he would not make it to his priestly ordination. However, he survived and was ordained by Archbishop Peter Pace in December 1906.  

That was a time when religion in Malta was challenged by certain quarters and the Church was keeping a watchful eye, fearing that such ideas would endanger people’s faith. Fr George Preca was not spared this scrutiny as soon as the Curia came to know about the meetings which were going on in the Society’s centres. Fr George was evangelising the sacred truths in simple terms – going so far as to let his followers open the Bible when in those days only priests were qualified to read it.

He was aware of the prevailing precarious religious situation in Malta which lacked a well-organised catechetical instruction to overcome the people’s frailty in faith based mostly on pietism and devotions. The vocation of lay Christians to spread the Gospel was not readily recognised by the local Church. Yet Fr George even entrusted his members with the responsibility of teaching the catechism. The vision of St George Preca was later held in a much better light and approved through the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) which exalted the importance of the lay apostolate, the promotion of the Bible for all and the use of the local language in pastoral activity.

In the early years of his project, the enthusiasm of Fr George appeared to wane due to his fledgling Society facing a bad image on the part of certain Church officials and some local newspapers. Fr George was ordered to close down his Centres and, in loyalty to the Church, he simply obeyed. But later the Archbishop, who had said that he would never approve the Society in his lifetime, gave it his full blessing. In spite of all the Church’s caution through in those days, the common people were already acclaiming him as a holy priest.

As a preacher, St George Preca was sought after by the people: many would gather in the meeting places in parishes to hear his talks.

As he walked through the streets – leaning forward a little, with his hand raised in blessing – children would gather around him and mothers would beg him to bless their young ones. People were impressed by the personal conviction of St George. He knew how to amuse people regarding the failings of humankind, graciously drawing out the moral and making them conscious of their calling as Christians. Nobody was excluded from the Saint’s love, so that everyone was influenced by his ability to adapt spiritual perfection to the lives of all – whether rich or poor, workmen, housewives or even refuse collectors. All were attracted by his persuasive invitation to reform their lives.

St George Preca may be acknowledged also as a writer of an original character. He enriched the Church with a great heritage of profound writings that reveal his spiritual insights so well, especially on his three preferred themes: the Incarnation, Christ Crucified and the Holy Trinity. He proposed a lifestyle characterised by the right intentions, humility and meekness. At a time when the language question was a hot issue in Malta, and Maltese was almost buried in the competition for supremacy between Italian and English, Fr Preca wrote almost his 150 books in Maltese.

His earliest manuscripts date as far back as 1909 and some of his books are now available in English, Italian and Spanish. He wrote several celebrations for major Marian feasts and also attached the utmost importance to praying the Rosary daily. In 1956 he wrote five new ‘Mysteries’, which he called the Mysteries of Light, in order to help his Members meditate the public ministry of Christ, starting with Jesus’ baptism in the Jordon up to the Last Supper. Remarkably, these are very similar to the ‘Luminous Mysteries’ that Pope John Paul II officially added to the recitation of the Rosary in October 2002 by his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae.

Fr George Preca died on 26 July 1962 at the age of 82. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 9 May 2001 and canonised by Pope Benedict XVI on 3 June 2007. Today we are remembering him – an honour that he certainly did not expect, let alone desire. The rain that soaked those attending the Canonisation Mass in Vatican Square, as if it was timed for the duration of the ceremony, was taken as a sign that he does not relish such honours.

On the 140 anniversary of the birth of St George Preca, may we pray and echo his ardent wish that “the whole world follows the Gospel”. He dedicated his whole life to that purpose. Today, apart from being very active in Malta, the Society of Christian Doctrine, M.U.S.E.U.M., also exists in Albania, Australia, Cuba, England, Kenya, Peru and Poland. The spirituality of St George Preca is also appreciated in other parts of the world, such as in the State of Indiana USA and in the diocese of IloIlo in The Philippines, where the Saint has been chosen as the patron of catechists.

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