The Virtue of Humility

Fr George's Preca life as well his writings teach us much about humility. He practised it himself and trained others to understand this lovely virtue and live it.

The founder of the Society of Christian Doctrine was quite aware of the nothingness of human nature. As a keen observer or human nature, he noticed that it is very realistic to be humble. All human lives are threatened by death, insecure future and also illnesses. For him these dangers are not occasions of discouragement but, on the contrary, they are an invitation to everyone to realize that we are totally in the hands of God.

Fr George Preca came to know his own limits and perhaps the nothingness of human nature from his experience. At an early age he was in danger and was rescued by a boatman. As an altar boy he was once held suspended from the roof of St Cajetan Church in Hamrun. Fr Preca was so frightened that he recounted this experience often. When he was only sixteen, he read the classic Preparation for Death, by St Alphons Liguori. It impressed him to such an extent that he continued to recommend it throughout his life. Before being ordained, he was confined to bed drained of energy and Professor Meli, a doctor, after diagnosing his illness, told his father not to make any arrangements for the first Mass. Fr Preca himself was later to declare: "How could I become attached to the world when from day to day I was expecting death?"

The nothingness of human nature was highlighted in all spiritual books and treaties, which influenced the founder. Today spiritual literature, inspired by modern movements that emphasize the dignity of human nature, does not stress this fact. Perhaps these intuitions may be useful for modern readers, but the reflections of Fr Preca, when analyzed, are still valid. According to Fr Preca, as he was usually accustomed to preach and write, man before God experience his own nothingness. Far from being pessimistic in his reflections, Fr Preca used to give theological reasons. Man is created from God's goodness and hence he is entirely dependant on him, both spiritually and materially. So the virtue of humility is a very realistic attitude since man admits that he is a created being.

Above all, he looks on humility not through human reasoning but as following of Christ. In The Sanctuary of Christ's Spirit he states:
"The four Gospels are the main source of knowledge about Christ's life.
It is from the Gospels that we know that Christ lived in poverty,
and that he led a humble life full of suffering and persecution"
Great Book, Chapter 15
In the Spiritual Directory he states:
"You have a true devotion
to the Sacred Heart of Jesus
if you imitate this Heart,
which is truly meek and humble"
Directive No 15
In the Evangelical Psalm of the Sytiac he exclaims:
"Your humility astonished us;
the humble obey,
and obedience made you bleed on the cross."

In The New Synagogue he imagines different saints imparting messages for us. The first person mentioned in this book is the Virgin Mary and speaks about the virtue of humility:
"My brother, humility is the foundation of all virtues.
God imparts his graces on the humble only, for he detests the proud.
Do not think or imagine that you are great!
God is almighty, and is given glory only by humble people"
New Synagogue No. 1

In his other book Echoes of Friends he underlines that true devotion to St Michael, which he loved so much, consists in humility:
"The true devotees of St Michael endear humility,
that is the virtue that pleases God.
Only the humble glorifies God,
and only humility of heart."
Echoes of Friends, 6th day

Fr George Preca as a spiritual master was quite well aware that one believes that he is humble while in reality he is proud. He believed that one is humble only when he obeys his legitimate superiors. In times of trial, when Churches authorities closely monitored the activities of the newly found Society of Christian Doctrine, he was always obedient and collaborated with his superiors. In the Spiritual Directory he speaks about false humility:
"Examine yourself well and see whether
your apparent humility is not in fact pride...
The truly humble person does not do common chores
to be considered humble in the eyes of others"
Directive No 392

When his sanctity became common knowledge, Fr Preca used to kneel down, with his face to the ground, and kiss the feet of some men who passed by. This seemed strange but was a clear sign of humility. In fact, this public act of humility ceased immediately when his ecclesiastical superiors forbade him, thus manifesting the nobility of his intentions.

On the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of the Society, Fr Preca explained to the congregation "I am not the Founder of the Society. Its Founder is St Paul the Apostle... Institutor perhaps I am, but Founder no". He avoided all sense of publicity, in such a manner that when he wrote books, instead of his name, he usually used to put the Nome de plume Verbum Dei caro factum est the biblical phrase so dear to him. And when somebody used to praise his works, Fr Preca used to answer him that there is nothing original in his writings and all are inspired from other books.

The Founder of the Society of Christian Doctrine saw that worldly honours contradict the spirit of Christ. He writes: "It also follows that for Christ's disciples the world's honours and attractions, as well as its glory, vanities and prestige seriously hinder those who desire them, those who look out for them, and those who toil to obtain them. These obstacles lock up man's heart in such a way that Christ's spirit can never penetrate therein" (Sanctuary of Christ's Spirit, Chapter 12).

Fr Preca was not keen on ecclesiastical honours either. When the Archbishop of Malta Mgr Sir Michael Gonzi handed a scroll to Fr George, showing that now he was a private chamberlain to his Holiness with the title of "Monsignor", he was very saddened and left the scroll in the Curia. He was never interested in this title as he saw it as a frivolity and an occasion to vainglory, as he writes in his book Gymnasium for the Spiritual Life: "When you notice people giving you applause or praise, evoke in yourself a sense of fear that your deeds, works and sacrifices would serve no purpose as you would consequently lose your reward from God, because of momentary act of self-gratification" (Instruction No.35).

Fr Preca also trained people to be humble so they may work in the field of the Lord. In The Great Book he writes: "Humble persons are pleasing in God's sight. God exalts them and chooses them as instruments for the glory of his divine name. They are truly wise and their life is refreshed by constant peace" (Great Book Page 27). Accordingly, he used to order member, to kneel down in front of others (including the first General Superior of the Society, Eugenio Borg). Once he was on a bus and it was customary for everyone to make the sign of the cross on boarding the bus. But he noticed that a particular superior performed this sign in a superficial way and scolded him publicly in the presence of all the passengers.

Fr Preca had such a strong teaching on humility that he wanted a simple funeral: a cheap coffin, only one priest accompanying him, and not to be taken to the church. The founder's interpretation of this virtue of humility was entirely radical.

Angelo Xuereb sdc
Qala - Gozo

Preca Calling - Issue 56 (July 2003)