This year marks 75 years since Australia and Malta signed an assisted-migrant-passage agreement that enabled more than 60,000 Maltese to travel to Australia and settle here from the late 1940s to the 1960s. A delegation from Malta—led by His Excellency President George Vella—is currently visiting Australia, which boasts the largest Maltese diaspora in the world. The president attended Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral on Sunday 14 October and spent time at the statue of St George Preca, Malta’s own saint, located in the Cathedral grounds.

Australia has long been blessed with the gifts of the Maltese people, not least their deep faith and devotion to the Gospel. A lot of this has to do with the example set by St George Preca (1880–1962), a diocesan priest and later cardinal, who was canonised in 2007.

Cardinal Preca dedicated his life to preaching the Gospel and established what became known as the Society of Christian Doctrine, an apostolic lay group whose work of spreading the Good News and developing lay catechists continues today across the world. Cardinal Preca established the society in 1907 in Malta while he was still a young priest and felt called to teach the Gospel to young lay men (and later women), and then train them to do the same for others. He encouraged the religious education of men, women and children at a time when many did not yet have access to formal education in Malta.

In 1956, at the height of Maltese immigration to Australia, Cardinal Preca sent a small group of lay catechists to Australia to help establish the society and form lay catechists in local parishes. These days the society is known as the Preca Community and continues to form children, adults and families in the Catholic faith. Here in Melbourne, the Preca Community is present in parishes in St Albans, Altona Meadows, Caroline Springs and Deer Park. Representatives were present on Sunday and were delighted to share their ministry with President Vella.

‘Formation in the Catholic faith, that’s our job,’ said local member Tony Gatt. ‘We do faith formation for young children who are preparing for the sacraments, and also for adults through the RCIA,’ he explained.

‘We are lay missionaries who help in parishes,’ explained Noel Debono, another member of the Preca Community. ‘And we commit ourselves—we dedicate our lives—to this mission.’

Such was Cardinal Preca’s influence that even President Vella shared how the popular Maltese saint was well known for his steadfast faith and humility in preaching the gospel. ‘Fr George Preca would never take money,’ said President Vella. ‘He used to tell his followers: “If you want to carry on with your mission, put your hands in your pockets and pay for it yourselves. Give a contribution from your salary.” But he never asked for alms himself.’

This admiration was echoed by His Excellency Mario Farrugia Borg, High Commissioner for Malta in Australia, who recounted his family’s personal encounter with the Maltese saint. ‘My grandmother used to tell me this story of her father—my great-grandfather—who had a horse and coach [in Malta], like a taxi service.

His great-grandfather once offered St George Preca a lift in his carriage. ‘He said, “Would you like a lift?” and [Fr Preca] replied, “But I have no money,” because he was a poor priest. But my great-grandfather said, “That’s alright. I’ll give you a lift anyway.”’

During the ride, the priest enquired about the carriage driver’s day and asked him if he’d made many trips. ‘And my great-grandfather said, “No I haven’t made any money today,”’ to which the Fr Preca replied, ‘“But you know what, the rest of your day will be good.” And that day, my great-grandfather made a lot of money,’ said Mr Borg.

‘This was my great-grandfather ... I get emotional just saying it. This is my family. It’s not something we’ve imagined or read in a book,’ he said. ‘My grandmother used to tell me this story. Her father came home, and he was happy. He had money in his pocket because after he finished giving Fr Preca the lift, he had so many trips that day.

‘I mean, how do you explain that?’ asked Mr Borg, smiling.

Archbishop Peter A Comensoli thanked President Vella and his team for visiting St Patrick’s Cathedral and paid tribute to the generations of Maltese who have made Australia their home. ‘We have lots and lots of Maltese Australians, which is a good thing! St George Preca, pray for us and pray for Malta.’

Following the Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral, President Vella went to Caroline Springs to spend time with members of the local Maltese community. He will continue his Australian trip with visits to Adelaide, Sydney and Canberra.