Fr George Preca, being an ordinary but saintly priest, anticipated the Second Vatican Council in many aspects. He was a promoter of the Bible at a time when it was not given importance. He gave it to the laity for their personal sanctification and as a means for their apostolate.
To understand Fr Preca's vision, one has to bear in mind the situation prevalent in those times. The Church was still shaped on the ecclesiological model of the Council of Trent. Although Vatican I was held, it failed to tune the Church to modern culture and perhaps its only important work was the definition of Papal Infallibility. The Church was reluctant to give the Bible to the laity, since there was the danger that they might misunderstand it. The trauma of the Protestant reform was not overcome. This sprang from incorrect interpretation of the Bible. The Protestants were pioneers in Biblical Studies, stressed its importance, but failed to harmonize their doctrines with the Tradition of the Church.
Notwithstanding this prevalent mentality, Fr George Preca was inspired to give the Bible to lay people. But it was not an easy matter. The Bible had not yet been translated into Maltese. So the Founder of the Society of Christian Doctrine undertook the difficult task of translating many parts of the sacred text, especially the New Testament. As a basic text he used the Latin Vulgate, which was the official text of the Church. Although the Founder was well versed in Latin, this way of translating the Bible had its limits. Precise and professional translations ought to be performed from Hebrew and Greek texts. But this does not diminish in any way Fr Preca's merits. He was so sure of this necessity that, although conscious of his limits, he undertook this difficult task. Then he used to hand his manuscripts translations to the Members of the Society, and they performed the arduous task of copying them manually. Some of these manuscripts still exist.
Fr Preca was not content to make available the Bible to Members, but he trained them to read and study it in a spirit of faith. Since the Sacred Text was not given much importance, due to the fear of being misinterpreted, Fr Preca taught and instilled in his Members reverence for the teaching of the Church and ecclesiastical authorities. Even in times when his Church superiors were misunderstanding him, he put his trust in God and tried to do his best so the Members do not nurture any contempt for local Church authorities.
The Founder instilled such interest in the Sacred Texts that some Members bought an English Bible, separated it into several sheets, and took it with them at their working place to read during the break. In the Assignment, he introduced two biblical subjects, which he named the Voice of the Beloved, and Epistolary. These are the study of the Gospels and of the Epistles of the Apostles. This was quite innovatory, since Biblical Studies were not given such importance as today, even in Seminaries. He also encouraged the Members to learn by heart texts from the Bible, especially from the Gospel and the Epistles.
His approach to the Bible was neither academic nor pietistic. He emphasized that Members ought to read correctly the Bible, allow it to influence their spiritual lives, and employ it in their catechesis. Probably before 1914 he introduced the Union, a kind of paraliturgy during which a text from the Epistles and the Gospel is read. Later he devised a kind of Lectio Divino for Sunday mornings. He divided it into five parts:
1. The reading of the sacred text,
2. An explanation of it,
3. A set of six reflections which the members ought to find in the text,
4. A spiritual examination,
5. and, finally, a resolution.
Fr Preca used biblical texts for this type of prayer. He published six hundred schemes for these Bible sessions, covering many parts of the Old and New Testament.
He was not content to impart the Bible to others. He discerned that it was God's will for him to read the Bible continuously, so that his writings and conferences would have a solid doctrinal content. Contemporary spiritual writers and preachers frequently employed sentimental language which, although spiritual, was not adapted to the current situation. So in his books he used Sacred Scripture to prove certain doctrines: quotations from it are abundant in his writings. In this aspect Fr Preca can be regarded also as a forerunner of modern spiritual literature.
It is interesting to know about a certain biblical practice, which was held in the Society Centers in the 1920's after the Assignment. First a reading of a story from the Bible was held and then the presiding Member read three reflections written by Fr Preca. In turn, the Members used to find them in the Sacred Text and then discuss these topics together and finally they were accustomed to make a resolution. He devised three hundred and thirteen schemes, called Nocturnes. Perhaps this was another effort to make the Bible available to Members and train them in the knowledge of the holy text.
Although Fr Preca was a pioneer in translating the Bible and encouraging its study, he was aware of his own limits, as he was not a biblical scholar. When Mgr Peter Paul Saydon, a renowned international biblical scholar, began translating the Bible into Maltese from the original languages, Blessed George Preca gave up his translations. Instead he continually encouraged this priest to produce a classic Bible.
This scholarly priest, although zealous in his work, had to face a hard task. His translations and their commentaries were not always appreciated and many times he was about to succumb to the temptation of giving up his work. But Blessed George Preca always encouraged him and Saydon was greatly satisfied when many Members of the Society bought his books regularly. The Founder used to publicly praise this particular text and thus instilling an admiration of it. Gradually this Saydon version became the official Bible of the SDC. For this reason this priest left the copyright of his classic Bible to the Society of Christian Doctrine.
Mgr Saydon highly esteemed Fr Preca. In the book Dun Gorg 1890-1962 he wrote:
"Fr Preca was the right preacher of the gospel, as he continually followed in the footsteps of his Teacher and Model, Jesus Christ. May all the preachers resemble Fr Preca and instead of excessive oratory without meaning, let them teach and explain God's word in an easy and convincing manner. Finally, God's word has the power to transform the world and lead it to God, more than a weak tone, although imparted in a beautiful language."
In Lehen is-Sewwa, a Maltese Catholic newspaper, dated 27 June 1953, Mgr Saydon praised Fr Preca's work:
"It is important to understand with such an intensity as Fr Preca did, the Founder of the Society of Christian Doctrine, that there is no solid teaching unless it is based on Sacred Scripture."
The message of Fr Preca is still valid today. Many times biblical scholars exhaust themselves in studies, which are not profitable for Church's Doctrine or spiritual life. Often they speculate again and again, without reaching any practical conclusions. The Founder teaches us that although biblical studies are important and indispensable, yet the Bible is a book of faith, as he writes:
"Listening to God's Word is a very effective way of acquiring faith. (The Year of the Lord, 6, 4)
May the Founder from heaven help us to be more immersed in the Bible, today when tools of studying it are more available and even abundant.
Angelo Xuereb sdc
Qala - Gozo
Preca Calling - Issue 57 (November 2003)