The island of Malta lies in the Mediterranean, between Tunisia and Sicily. Christianity arrived when St. Paul was shipwrecked there. One practical reason why Malta is such an intensely religious place today is the work of Fr. George Preca (1880-1962). Even as a young priest, he was a pioneer of the Lay Apostolate, long before most people knew what that meant.
George was born in the beautiful capital city of Valetta, near the Carmelite Shrine church. His parents were loving, devout people, who raised him to appreciate prayer and virtue as the center of his life. When he was just 4 years old, he nearly drowned in the Grand Harbor. An alert boatman pulled him out of the sea just in time. His family joked that he had been rescued from the waters, just like Moses. Since the day was July 16, George always said that Our Lady of Mount Carmel had saved him for good reasons.
Young George was enrolled in the Carmelite scapular, and eventually joined the Third Order. Since he was always attracted to the priesthood, no one was surprised when he entered the seminary. His health was never robust, so there were times when the doctors thought he would not survive, but he persevered despite losing the use of one lung. Again, he credited Mary for rescuing him for the work he had to do. When he was finally ordained a priest in 1906, he set out to convert the world.
Early on, he noticed was that many of Malta’s young people were not being properly educated in their faith. Their religion was built around formalities and festivals, without any true connection to peoples’ interior life. Nearly everything associated with religious education was handled by priests. They were good people for the most part, but remote and unconnected with family life.
To help this situation “Dun Gorg” (Maltese for Fr. George) spent a lot of time chatting with young people, and learned to understand their values and principles. Like others before him, (e.g. John Bosco or John Baptist De La Salle) he learned to speak the language of his young charges, then translated what he knew into their terms.
As early as 1907, he assembled a circle of dedicated young men in their 20’s. His natural flair for leadership drew them closer to his understanding of the Gospel. They spent hours discussing God’s love for them, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. The more they understood of George’s great vision, the more these lads wanted to do to bring it about. They wanted to be the pacesetters for the new Society of Christian Doctrine, which eventually sent dedicated teams of teachers and youth ministers into every parish and village in Malta.
Some of those young recruits wanted to make this ministry their career. So George devised a simple but rigorous rule of life for them. They had to meet, study, and pray regularly. They were to be celibate and follow a simple life style, free of luxury. And they were to punctuate all their activities with prayer, to remind them of God’s presence. It speaks volumes about George’s own personality and temperament that he attracted so many followers so quickly. He actually lived what he taught.
His society was known as MUSEUM, which stood for Magister, Utinam Sequatur Evangelium Universus Mundos, or “Master, would that the whole world would follow the Gospel.” Surprisingly, George did not receive his Bishop’s approval for his Rule until 1932. As with so many creative and innovative breakthroughs, this one looked so unconventional that church leaders felt the need to examine it very closely. But no major problems emerged, and in the end, the bishops admitted that they had a very good thing indeed.
During World War II, much of Malta’s population fled to remote villages to avoid the severe bombing. George saw this as an opportunity to extend the reach of his society. His people reached new towns as refugees, but stayed as valued helpers.
“Dun Gorg” continued to preach and write, incorporating the best thinking of saints and spiritual writers. His grasp of the great Carmelites Teresa and John of the Cross made their lofty thoughts clear to simple, working people. He drew great benefit from his status as a Third Order Carmelite; his models were Elijah and Mary. Malta celebrated the Seventh Centenary of the Brown Scapular in 1951, with Fr. George in the forefront. He proudly asserted that his name, Preca, meant “prayer.” That same year, Prior General Killian Lynch formally affiliated him to the Carmelite family.
When he saw death approaching in 1962, George continued to pray and motivate others, as he had always done. He was only too eager to meet the Lord he had served so well. Pope John Paul beatified Dun Gorg on May 9, 2001, less than 40 years after his death. He was canonized in 2007. His example of heroic virtue and love stands as an inspiration to all.