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Joanne M. Pierce, Holy Cross College
(THE CONVERSATION) Pope Francis’ two-day visit to the small European country of Malta, a heavily Catholic island just south of Sicily, in April 2022 shed light on Malta’s complicated history and significant contemporary concerns. Chief among these is the sharp increase in the number of asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East, and criticism of Malta’s treatment of them.
As a specialist in Catholic history and rituals, I have studied the development of the Church in several European countries and the important role that the lives of people venerated as saints have played in the way Catholics approach the contemporary issues.
Tradition holds that the first Maltese saint was Saint Publius, the first-century bishop of Malta’s early Christian community. He was venerated as a saint long before saints were officially proclaimed by the pope. However, historians have raised the question of whether Publius ever existed or served as a bishop.
The only Maltese person to be officially named a saint by a pope is St. George Preca, a priest of the Archdiocese of Malta in the first half of the 20th century. Preca was beatified, or given the title “Blessed,” the penultimate step to being proclaimed a saint, in 2001 by Pope John Paul II. In 2007 he was canonized – the final step towards sainthood – by Pope Benedict XVI.
Preca was born in 1880 in Malta’s capital, Valletta, and grew up in a town just outside the city. After primary and secondary school, he entered the seminary in Malta and, despite serious life-threatening lung problems, was ordained a priest in 1906.
Ordinary Catholics in Malta at the time were largely uneducated. Most were unfamiliar with the Bible and instead focused on devotional practices that some priests considered almost superstitious. As a seminarian, Preca became increasingly convinced that the purpose of his ministry was to train lay people – and later, lay people – to teach other Catholics, children and adults, about their Catholic faith and the Bible.
A new order
Training lay people to educate others like them about their faith was a revolutionary idea at the time, as usually only seminarians or priests, and sometimes nuns, were involved in this kind of education. Prior to his ordination, Preca himself had become active discussing religious topics with ordinary workers, then teaching catechism – the tenets of Catholic beliefs – to young boys in a nearby town.
This group of young men would become the nucleus of the new religious society for the laity, the Christian Doctrine Society, which Preca soon founded. Later, this society was nicknamed “Museum” because of the dilapidated building which was its original meeting place. These unordained teachers – called catechists – were then divided into two branches, one for men and one for women.
Over time they have established educational centers for children and adults in almost every parish in Malta. These centers are still active today in Malta and in several other countries as well, notably in Australia.
Resistance to teachings
But at the beginning of the 20th century, Preca’s ideas were not immediately accepted by his more conservative superiors. A few years after their foundation, its archbishop ordered the closure of its catechetical centers in Malta. Although they were reopened a few years later after further investigation, his group did not receive final and official approval in Rome until 1932. During this time, and for the rest of his life, he encouraged members of his society to remain humble and kind. in the face of difficulties and criticism.
Preca died in July 1962. In October 1962, the Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XXIII to modernize the Catholic Church, began in Rome. Among the reforms, the council emphasized the importance of both Scripture and tradition as the foundations of Catholic Christian life, and it encouraged all Catholics to study the Bible.
Preca was a pioneer in training lay people to become religious educators for children and adults, focusing on teaching the gospel while encouraging them to live their lives according to its values. In fact, when Preca was beatified in 2001, Pope John Paul II called him Malta’s “second father in faith”.
In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI proposed a new evangelization movement for all members of the Catholic Church in the 21st century. This movement placed a renewed emphasis on preaching and teaching in the contemporary world, very much in line with Preca’s work in the early 20th century. Both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have expanded the idea of this new emphasis on preaching and teaching the gospel to include an explicit concern for the welfare of refugees and migrants.
The Pope’s visit to Malta brings new attention to the work of Saint George Preca. His focus on educating Catholics more deeply about the meaning of Jesus’ teaching can provide guidance to Malta and other countries in dealing with this global problem.[Explore the intersection of faith, politics, arts and culture. Sign up for This Week in Religion.]
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