During his trip to Malta, Pope Francis spoke to enthusiastic crowds, praised Malta for its historic values of openness and hospitality, called for charity toward migrants, and met with the sick at St. Paul’s Basilica. During an address to political authorities and Maltese diplomats, he referred to Vladimir Putin as a “potentate, sadly caught up in anachronistic claims of nationalist interests” who “is provoking and fomenting conflicts”; yet at the same time, Pope Francis went on to decry the world’s increasing investment in weapons.
Pope Francis also made a surprise visit to the tomb of St. George Preca, or Ġorġ Preca as he is known in Maltese. Who is St. George Preca, and why would Pope Francis have been interested in visiting his grave? Given that George is Malta’s only canonized saint, it is natural that Pope Francis would want to pay such a visit. Also, Pope Francis’s worldview and priorities echo of those of St. George Preca. George can be seen as a forerunner both of the Second Vatican Council and of the emphasis Pope Francis places on a “poor Church for the poor.”
George was born in 1880. He struggled with sickness as a child and young adult; tuberculosis left him with a damaged lung–in an intriguing similarity to the young Jesuit Jorge Bergoglio. Despite these difficulties, he entered the seminary and was ordained to the priesthood in 1906. After his ordination, he dedicated himself to serving the poor. To remedy the disastrous lack of education among the laity, he trained lay catechists and formed them into an apostolate called the Society of Christian Doctrine. Unsurprisingly, George’s focus on the marginalized, as well as his innovative methods, stirred up opposition. For a time, his work was suppressed. His superiors feared that involving the illiterate and uneducated poor would undermine the Faith. Eventually, however, his projects received approval from his local superiors, and he was personally honored by Pope Pius XII. By the time of his death in 1962, George was universally beloved; 20,000 people came to his funeral. Today, the Society he founded serves in Malta, Australia, Albania, England, Kenya, Poland, Peru, and Cuba.
George is also responsible for developing the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary, which were later popularized by Pope St. John Paul II. Unlike the more traditional mysteries, the Luminous Mysteries focus on the active ministry of Christ. It is easy to see why such a focus would have interested someone who was devoted to “proclaiming the good news to the poor”. (cf. Luke 4:18)
Pope Francis has often called for a Church that not only serves the poor, but is of and for the poor. It isn’t enough to give “handouts,”–not even if these include religious instruction. Rather, as he says in Let Us Dream, we must realize that the poor themselves have agency and their own inherent dignity. He is calling us to work “not just for the poor, but with them.” Pope Francis has also called on priests to be true shepherds who “have the smell of the sheep.” He has said that pastors should be “people capable of living, of laughing and crying with your people, in a word, of communicating with them”. Without such closeness, pastors will be unable to truly show respect for the poor and will be unable to properly preach the Gospel.
This respect for the poor was at the center of St. George Preca’s life. His willingness to see the poor as having their own agency is perhaps best seen in the story of his friendship with Eugenio Borg. Eugenio worked at a dockyard and was one of a group of young men who would gather in front of the local church to play football. While George was still a seminarian, he befriended these young men. He would talk and joke with them, play football, and teach them about the Faith. When he was ordained, the young men assumed that he wouldn’t come back. But he did come back; being ordained hadn’t removed him to a different plane of existence. He was still able to “laugh and cry with his people,” as Pope Francis says.
This witness of charity and humility greatly moved Eugenio. He became one of the first catechists for the Society of Christian Doctrine and its first Superior General. Unlike many founders, George himself did not fill this role. Rather, he gave it to another; to a young dockyard worker. Even while leading the society, Eugenio continued his work at the dockyard; he taught, advised, and encouraged his fellow workers.
The Second Vatican Council clarified that the call to holiness is universal, extending even and especially to the laity. We’re all called to be saints; a “two-track” Church in which the laity merely “pay, pray, and obey” is not an option. Pope Francis has continued the work of the Council, carrying the Gospel to the margins of society. Through the intercession of St. George Preca, may we be inspired to heed this call and do our part in the vineyard of the Lord.
Image Credit: Photo of Valletta, Malta, where St. George Preca was born. Sourced from Pxhere