Although imbued with fresh ideas, Fr Preca forged his whole outlook on traditional Catholic principles.
Like all the founders of religious orders, Fr Preca was innovatory rather than revolutionary. The distinction is clear. The revolutionary tries to pull down the present order of things to set up a new one, having nothing to do with the past. One who innovates loves tradition and wants to ruminate its past in order to renew the present order.
His whole mission was inspired by a "sentire cum Ecclesia", an empathy with the Church. He wanted the male Members to be called Papidi (from Pope) and the females Papidessi. He submitted himself to all inquires held by the local Church, careful not to instill in the Members any contempt for its authorities.
Long before the Second Vatican Council issued its decree on the lay Apostolate, Fr Preca believed in it. His inspired dream was that of educating lay people in Catholic spirituality49 and doctrine, to be apostles in transmitting the gospel to children and to the people. In this regard, he was in agreement with Cardinal Newman. He encouraged the laity to learn and be trained in ecclesiastical subjects, such as theology and even to write and give talks.
He trained lay people in Church spirit. In order to achieve his end, he made use of already-existing Church practices, like attending daily mass and having recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation weekly. But as an intelligent priest and founder, he realized that these practices make only pious and devout Members. As a charismatic founder he went further. He devised the The Watch as daily, mental prayer and the Assignment as an on-going cultural, spiritual and doctrinal formation.
He was also charismatic in instilling the need in lay people to study Sacred Theology covering Dogma, Morals and spirituality49, together with Bible and Church history. One has to bear in mind that these sacred sciences were associated with the clergy. Naturally most of the theological textbooks were written in Latin. He urged some Members to study this language in order to study better the theological sciences.
He was also a forerunner in giving the Bible to lay people. After the Protestant Reformation, which originated in an erroneous interpretation of the Bible, in some Church circles there was like a fearful approach to it. In fact, the Reformation sprang not from the Bible itself but from disrespect to Church authorities and eventually in its constant tradition. Fr Preca was quite aware of this fact.
In those times, teaching the Bible to lay people was a vigorous task. Even in seminaries it was not properly taught, whether it was the Old Testament or the New Testament. There was no translation of the Bible in Maltese. The Founder, who was well-versed in the Latin language, used to translate parts of the Bible from the Vulgate, the official Latin version. Later, when Fr Peter Paul Saydon began to translate the Bible from the original languages, Fr Preca gave up translating and instead he encouraged him to continue this tremendous task.
He sought to make the Members of the newly-founded Society well-versed in sound spiritual formation. To achieve this end, he began to write books regarding spiritual matters. To be more effective, he wrote them in Maltese in order to be within anyone's reach. Fortunately, his major books have now been translated into English: The Sanctuary of Christ's Spirit, Gymnasium for Spiritual life, The Great Book, Spiritual Directory, and the Mansions and Praeconia.
These innovatory ideas were not imaginary fantasies but resulting from constant reflection, and openness to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit, accompanied with a deep humility. Although innovative, he was also deeply flexible. In dealing with Church authorities, he was ready to give up some of his ideas or to modify them. This attitude shows how Fr Preca was obedient to Church authorities. This resulted not from diplomatic tact but from his deep love for the Church. Facts speak for themselves. We delved into history to see how Fr Preca was innovative and charismatic. Those who heard him imparting talks about God and Catholic doctrine were won over by his charisma and deeply impressed. He spoke in an easy manner about God's providence, God's immensity, and God's justice, about loving Christ and on eschatological realities.
The Founder used to say that he left his will in his numerous writings and desired all Members to read his books. Although the Founder is now dead and declared Blessed, he is still living in his writings. Here, his charisma can still be traced and lived as the spirit of the Society for Christian Doctrine.
His profound spirituality was largely Christocentric. In chapter 78 of The Sanctuary of Christ's Spirit he summarizes Christ's Spirit. Although short, the description is very impressive.
"The inscription on the walls of this Sanctuary of Christ's spirit are carved in such a way that they cannot be erased. The letters are large and clear, for Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.
The words are: Deny yourself - Detach yourself from all possessions - Hate your life - Love your enemies - Silence - Prayer - Embrace suffering - Total Abandonment - Sacrifice - Accepting the success or failure of our good works - A heart enflamed for God - a heart of flesh for one's neighbour - a self-sacrificing heart for oneself -Three hearts in one."
His love for Christ can still be witnessed in its simplicity in his book The Mansions and the Praeconia. This book consists only, but in an impressive manner, of episodes from Christ's life. The manner in which he spoke about Christ left deep impressions on his audiences.
Fr Preca was especially devout to the incarnation and passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Great Book is simply made up of fifty short meditations about Jesus Christ crucified. For him, the Crucifix is like a great book that contains many lessons on the spiritual life and on man's destiny after death.
As a director of souls, he was also quite aware of the fact that the spiritual life is not devoid of problems or difficulties. To this end, he wrote the Gymnasium for the Spiritual Life. In this book, one can see that he was aware of the difficulties and how prudent he was in confronting them.
In this way, his innovative ideas blended with deep humility and spirituality49, and impressed thousands of people. The huge number of people present at his funeral shows this very clearly. When we ask what was the secret in the Founder's life and how it differed from other people who, although desirous of reform in the Church, they themselves ended up by breaking away from it, we can quote from The Spiritual Directory, No. 296.
"In order to be able to draw others to God, first make sure that you yourself are drawn to him. It is only then that you will be able to draw others. Christ said: 'Take the beam out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother's eye.' (Mt 7,5) First you yourself, and then the others."
Angelo Xuereb sdc
Qala - Gozo
Preca Calling - Issue 49 (March 2001)