OTTAWA – Tony Vella, the great-nephew of Father George Preca, said he hopes the charismatic Maltese priest’s life and virtues will be remembered long after his June 3 canonization.
Vella called his mother’s uncle, whom he knows as “Dun Gorg,” a “pioneer of the lay apostolate.”
Vella, 64, of Kingston, Ontario, served Blessed Preca as an altar boy in his native town of Hamrun, Malta, and “used to see him pretty well every day,” Vella said in a May telephone interview from Kingston.
When Blessed Preca began his ministry, Malta, an island nation off the coast of Italy, was largely illiterate. Although Malta is Catholic, the faith there was mingled with superstition.
As a deacon, Blessed Preca started “religious discussions” with sailors in the Grand Harbor area and began building relationships with local youths.
Shortly after his 1906 ordination, Blessed Preca had what Vella described as a “very charismatic experience” that led him to spend three months alone, praying and meditating in a loft and pondering the Bible, especially the New Testament.
A year later, he founded the Society of Christian Doctrine, setting up catechism centers that at first met with a “mixed response” from church authorities.
After 20 years of struggle, Blessed Preca’s efforts to form faithful Christians met with the approval of the local archbishop.
Vella said Blessed Preca resisted the idea that he had founded the society, preferring to say St. Paul inspired him when he told St. Timothy to hand on to reliable people what St. Paul preached in public.
Blessed Preca used to speak from the back of a pickup truck, sitting in a chair by a small table and a statue of Mary. He often arrived unannounced.
“People would close their stores, leave their places of work; mothers would go with their kids, people with problems at home would come and listen to his sermon,” Vella said. “When he talked about aspects of the Gospel, his voice often trembled and you could feel the emotions associated with the topic he was talking about.”
Blessed Preca would lay the palm of his hand on the forehead of those who came seeking his help for family problems, illness or financial difficulties. Vella said people would “leave with a sense of hopefulness and reassurance that his prayers are going to make a difference.”
The Society of Christian Doctrine operates currently in Malta, Kenya, Albania, Sudan, England, Australia and Peru.
Pope John Paul II beatified Blessed Preca in 2001.
Vella said he planned to join 4,000 Maltese from around the world at the canonization ceremony in Rome.