BLESSED GEORGE PRECA
(Valletta, Malta, 12 February 1880 - Sta. Venera, Malta, 26 July 1962)
BLESSED GEORGE PRECA was born in Valletta, Malta on 12 February 1880 of Vincenzo and Natalina Ceravolo. He was baptised in the Parish Church of Our Lady of Porto Salvo, Valletta, on 17 February. In 1888 the Preca family moved to Ħamrun, a fast growing town not far from Valletta. George received his Confirmation and his first Holy Communion in the parish church of St Cajetan. One day when he was 17 years old George was walking along the Maglio Gardens (Il-Mall) in Floriana. He met one of his Lyceum Professors, Fr Ercole Mompalao, who told him: “Preca, when you grow up, people who revere God will befriend you and you them. You will find your good fortune through them and they through you”. After his studies at the Lyceum, George entered the Seminary of Malta with the aim of becoming a priest.
His confessor, Fr Aloysius Galea, died on 8 April 1905. Blessed George used to recount how Fr Galea appeared to him a few days later and told him: “God has chosen you to teach his people”. George Preca was enthused with this idea. He wrote a rule in Latin which he wanted to send to Pope Pius X for approval. He envisaged groups of seven permanent deacons in every parish who, with the help of lay auxiliaries, would be responsible for the formation of the people of God. It was around this time (1905-1906) that George met a group of young people at Ħamrun and invited them to start attending his spiritual conferences. He set his eye on their leader, Eugenio Borg, and started explaining the Gospel of John to him. (Later on Eugenio Borg became the first Superior General of the Societas Doctrinae Christianae and was renowned for his holiness when he died in 1967).
A few months before his ordination to the priesthood George Preca almost died of a very serious sickness. Through the intercession of St Joseph he survived the ordeal, but as a consequence of the illness his left lung was permanently impaired. He was ordained priest on 22 December 1906 by Bishop Pietro Pace, and he celebrated his first Solemn Mass at the St Cajetan Parish Church in Ħamrun on Christmas Day. For a number of weeks after ordination George would not venture out of home except to say Mass, after which he would retire to a small room on the roof and remain there all day bereft in meditation and contemplation. Towards the end of January 1907 he called the same group of young people and invited them for a spiritual conference on 2 February at the Ta’ Nuzzo Church at Ħamrun. The little group subsequently rented a small place at n. 6, Fra Diegu Street, Ħamrun and met there for the first time on 7 March 1907. These two dates mark the beginning of the Society of Christian Doctrine: a group of lay people leading an exemplary life, well formed in the principles of the Catholic faith and sent to teach the faith to the people. At first, Fr George called his society Societas Papidum et Papidissarum (Society of the Sons and Daughters of the Pope). In the meanwhile, however, the rundown place where the first members met was jokingly referred to as the “museum”. The nickname soon became the name of the group itself and it stuck. The founder had no alternative but to devise an acrostic in Latin: M.U.S.E.U.M., Magister Utinam Sequatur Evangelium Universus Mundus! which in translation means: "Teacher, O that the whole world would follow the Gospel!" The female branch of the Society was inaugurated in 1910 with the help of Giannina Cutajar who later became the first Superior General of the same branch.
It was around 1910 that Dun George had a very powerful mystical experience which he always referred to as “the extraordinary vision of the child Jesus”. One morning, he was passing in the vicinity of the Marsa Cross when he suddenly saw a twelve-year old boy pushing a low cart with a bag full of manure. The boy turned to George and ordered him imperiously: “Lend me a hand!” The moment Fr George put his hand on the cart he felt an extraordinary spiritual sweetness and he never could remember where they went or what happened to the young boy. He later understood however that the boy was Jesus and that the Lord was asking him and his followers to help him with nurturing the Lord’s field and vineyard with sound doctrine and formation.
The M.U.S.E.U.M. developed along the years into the society we know today: a group of lay people who dedicate themselves to the apostolate of catechesis, lead a simple evangelical lifestyle, commit themselves to a life of prayer using short prayers or meditations at regular intervals during the day (“The Museum Watch”), teach the young catechesis for an hour everyday, which is then followed by a group meeting for personal permanent formation (“The Assignment”).
The Society had its difficult moments. In 1909 Dun George was ordered to close his Museum centres. Broken-hearted but without hesitation, he started following superior orders until the parish priests themselves protested with the ecclesiastical authorities and the ban was revoked by Vicar General Salvatore Grech. Between 1914-1915 a number of daily newspapers carried articles and letters denigrating the new Society. Dun George ordered his members to take a vow or promise of meekness, gladly forgiving anybody who poked fun at them and taught them “to love the contempt” they suffered and not to let it trouble them unduly. In 1916 Bishop Mauro Caruana ordered an enquiry concerning the Society. After many humiliations for the founder and his close followers, the Curia issued a favourable report. Although some changes were required, the way was open for definitive ecclesiastical approval. Bishop Caruana canonically erected the Society of Christian Doctrine on 12 April 1932.
Dun George Preca strived unceasingly to spread the values and teaching of the Gospel in the Maltese islands. He wrote a great number of books on dogma, morals and spirituality in Maltese. He also published numerous booklets with prayers for the private use of his members and for popular devotion. He was undoubtedly a great apostle of the Word of God, especially of the Gospel which he used to call “The Voice of the Beloved”. He would encourage his followers and the public in general to memorize sentences and phrases from the Gospel and his charismatic preaching constantly referred to parables and stories from Scripture and the life of the saints. He zealously defended the honour due only to God and persuasively illustrated how ugly sin was. He never shied away from openly preaching about death, judgement, hell and heaven. Utterly convinced of God’s justice, he nevertheless movingly proclaimed the Lord’s infinite mercy. People flocked to him for advice or a word of encouragement. They trusted in his intercession and many still recount stories of healings wrought by God through Fr George’s prayers. He was endowed with many supernatural gifts, among which were the knowledge of hearts and of the future. He was nonetheless a priest of great humility, goodness, meekness and generosity. He was truly a holy pastor of the people of God.
Dun Ġorġ, as the Maltese know him, is well known for his constant efforts to promote devotion to the mystery of the Incarnation. From 1917 he propagated devotion for the text from the Gospel of John: “Verbum Dei caro factum est!” (Jn 1, 14). He wanted the SDC members to wear a badge with these words. On Christmas Eve 1921 the Society organized the first “Demonstration in honour of the Baby Jesus” in the towns and villages of Malta and Gozo and this event has since become a typical aspect of Christmas celebrations on the islands. Fr George wanted every child who attended catechism classes to take a small crib or statue of the baby Jesus home for Christmas.
The holy priest learnt to trust in the maternal protection of Our Lady, especially during the difficult moments of the Society. He was enrolled as a Carmelite tertiary on 21 July 1918 and at his profession in September 1919 he chose the name of Fr Franco. Children attending the Society’s centres are still enrolled in Our Lady’s scapular. Dun Ġorġ also nurtured a filial devotion to Our Lady of Good Counsel; he promoted use of the Miraculous Medal and in fact wanted the Church of the Society’s Motherhouse to be dedicated to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. In 1957 he suggested the use of five “Mysteries of Light” for the private recitation of the Rosary.
On 19 May 1951 he blessed the foundation stone of the St Michael School at Santa Venera, and in 1952 he sent the first members to start the Society in Australia. The SDC is today also found in England, Albania, the Sudan, Kenya and Peru.
On 2 October 1952 Pope Pius XII nominated Dun Ġorġ as Privy Chamberlain with the title of Monsignor. Dun George was mortified. He kept the title for six years until Pope Pacelli passed away in 1958.
In 1955 Dun George blessed the foundation stone of the Sacred Family Institute at Żabbar which later housed SDC members living in common who had been staying at Żebbuġ ever since their establishment in 1918.
After a long and very active life in the service of the Gospel and of the Christian formation of the people of God, Dun Ġorġ Preca died on Thursday evening 26 July 1962 at his house: “San Cajetan”, Parish Street, Santa Venera, Malta. He was deeply missed by all the Maltese population. He had wished for a very simple funeral but thousands, including the highest civil and ecclesiastical authorities, turned up to pay him homage. He was buried in the crypt of the Church of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal at Blata l-Bajda which soon became a venue for constant pilgrimages.
Fr George Preca was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Malta on 9 May 2001. His liturgical feast is celebrated on 9 May.