Pope Francis begins his two-day visit to the small European country of Malta, a strongly Catholic island just south of Sicily, April 2, 2022. This papal journey focuses on Malta’s complex history and important contemporary affairs. Foremost among these is the sharp increase in the number asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle Eastand criticism of how Malta has treated them.
As a researchers in Catholic history and ritualsI have studied the development of the Church in several European countries, and the important role that the lives of people revered as saints have played in how Catholics address contemporary issues.
Tradition says that the first Maltese saint was St. Publius, the first century bishop of the early Christian community in Malta. He was revered as a saint long before he was a saint officially proclaimed by the Pope. However, historians have raised questions about whether Publius ever existed or served as a bishop.
The only Maltese person who has been officially named a saint by a pope is St George Preca, a priest in the Archdiocese of Malta during the first half of the 20th century. Preca was blessed, or given the title “Blessed”, the penultimate step in being proclaimed a saint in 2001 by Pope John Paul II. In 2007 he was canonized – the last step in achieving holiness – by Pope Benedict XVI.
Preca was born in 1880 in Malta’s capital, Valetta, and grew up in a town just outside the city. After primary and secondary school, he has entered Malta’s seminar and despite severe lung problems that threatened his life, he was ordained a priest in 1906.
Ordinary Catholics in Malta at that time were largely uneducated. Most people did not know the Bible very well and instead focused on devoted customs that some priests considered almost superstitious. As a seminarian, Preca became increasingly convinced that the focus of his work was to educate laymen – and later laywomen – to teach other Catholics, both children and adults, about their Catholic faith and the Bible.
A new order
To train laymen to train others as themselves about their faith was one revolutionary idea at that time, because usually only seminarians or priests, and sometimes nuns, were involved in that kind of education. Prior to his ordination, Preca himself had become active in discussing religious topics with ordinary workers, and then teaching catechesis – the principles of the Catholic faith To younger boys in a nearby town.
That group of young men would become the core of the new religious society for the laity, The Society of Christian Doctrine, which Preca soon founded. Later this society was nicknamed “Museum”Because of the dilapidated building that was its original meeting place. These non-ordained teachers – called catechists – was later divided into two branchesone for men and one for women.
Over time, they established educational centers for children and adults in almost every parish in Malta. These centers are still active today Malta and in several other countries as well, especially Australia.
Resistance to teachings
But in the early 20th century, Preca’s ideas were not immediately accepted by his more conservative superiors. Within a few years of their founding, his archbishop ordered the closure of his catechism center in Malta. Although they reopened a few years later after a deeper investigation, his group was did not receive final, official approval in Rome until 1932. During that time, and for the rest of his life, he encouraged members of his community to remain humble and kind in the face of adversity and criticism.
Preca died in July 1962. In October 1962, the Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John XXIII, was called to modernize Catholic Church, began in Rome. Among the reforms that the Council emphasized were the significance of both Scripture and tradition as the foundation of the Catholic Christian life, and it encouraged all Catholics to study the Bible.
Just was a pioneer in train laymen to be religious educators for both children and adults, focusing on gospel teaching while encouraging them to live their lives according to its values. In fact, in Preca’s beatification in 2001, Pope John Paul II referred to him as Malta’s “second father in faith.”
In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI proposed one new evangelism 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, much in line with Preca’s work in the early 20th century. Both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis has expanded the idea of this new focus on preaching and teaching the gospel to include express concern for the welfare of refugees and migrants.
The Pope’s visit to Malta draws attention to the work of Saint George Preca. His focus on educating Catholics more deeply about the meaning of Jesus’ teaching can provide some guidance for Malta and other countries in confronting this global issue.[Explore the intersection of faith, politics, arts and culture. Sign up for This Week in Religion.]