As Dun Gorg Preca's canonisation fast approaches, many are likely to throw in their appreciation as if it were fireworks, just as before the unveiling of a monument all is fair in guesswork.

One could thus argue that the canonisation is actually bad news for Dun Gorg (1880-1962). To put somebody on a pedestal who, throughout his whole life, strove so hard to keep out of the limelight and achieved so much precisely by sticking to his chosen ground, seems calculated to defusing that particular charge of dynamism that enabled him to keep out of step with the fashions of his time so as to tune in with the heart of the matter. A sure way of killing a plant brimming with life is to put it in a greenhouse.

So when the Te Deum expressing joy over the first saint made in Malta dies down, a question surely won't: What's in a saint?

1. Made, not born

Whatever sanctity is, one thing it is certainly not, it is not an overdose of piety! Too many vital interests are at stake here for Church and society simply to forego their share of interests in the matter. The kind of saints a society produces mirrors it in its aspirations, whereas lack of Church models reflects badly on both.

Sanctity is a gift bestowed by God for the benefit of the group, not for private consumption. Conversely, it is in coming to grips with a society's neglected or even hidden needs that a saint learns to cast his or her role and thus show originality.

Superficially, Dun Gorg seems to have been born ready made as a saint with a ready-tailored role for him to step into. It would be truer to say that we know little of his inner struggles as a child. Yet, the anecdotes that survive do not show him necessarily to be particularly retiring or accommodating, nor his early school record especially brilliant, for he had to sit twice for the entrance examinations to the Lyceum.

His career as a priest appeared doomed from the start due to a sick lung, with the doctor, Enrico Meli, counselling his father not to bother to buy him the priestly vestments. Moreover, the sacrifice Dun Gorg demanded from those who followed him was compounded not only by the stigma of deep-running prejudice, but also by the vacuum of official approval. Dun Gorg was not only running against the odds; he seemed like a horse nobody wanted to bet on.

If he prevailed, was this the sheer will to survive? Will power alone is not enough, for, if it goes against the grain, it ultimately proves to be self-defeating. A saint is a genius of the will, sure, but in a constructive sense, by upsetting the overwhelming odds against him without necessarily upsetting those who opposed him. This is the Dun Gorg many still remember: capable of bending opposition precisely because he had been tempered by adversity, not willing to back down in the teeth of opposition, but dreaming of anything but vengeance once he won the day. These negative experiences rather impressed upon him the vanity of human endeavour when pursued for its own sake, not the futility of searching a higher goal.

Dun Gorg never left the Maltese Isles to broaden his horizon. And we tacitly assume, as a sort of relict of colonial reflexes, that nothing original can come from Malta. Dun Gorg readily admitted borrowing from others, but that is the stuff out of which originality is made. Originality does not mean deviating from the norm just to be different, but tracing it back to its roots and giving it a chance to have a new lease of life. It is so easy to reduce Dun Gorg to one of the standard categories according to which we classify saints, without ever asking whether the unconventional figure he was did not have a trace of originality peculiar to him alone and which cannot be reduced to these categories.

2. Devil's advocate

Dun Gorg has been repeatedly described as a fool in Christ, belonging to the same league as St Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) and St Philip Neri (d. 1595), and indeed he was. Which does not mean that these saints considered the world to be a theatre of the absurd, to talk with A. Malraux (d. 1976) and A. Camus (d. 1960), but rather saw how absurd many people who claim to be normal really are. Yet, it by no means exhausts what he was.

It comes closer to the truth to say that Dun Gorg seemed to adopt a position not yet countenanced by his Church for most of his life. Church approval did not come before 1932 when he was 52. He was thus a silent critic of his Church, silent because he loved his Church, critic because attempts to silence him failed.

That he died a few months before the Council that embraced his views wholeheartedly on the role of lay people in the Church and the use of the Bible is indicative.

Again, his pedagogy seems to demand more than one can reasonably expect from young people. That he nonetheless has attracted and continues to attract followers affirms once more that facts belie fears. Who could deny, on both counts, that Dun Gorg was a better spokesman for the needs of this Church in Malta than those who officially represented it? Or that he did more for a lost generation of youth than so much of official pedagogy?

Perhaps there is no better category in order to express the original approach to life as manifest in Dun Gorg than that formally used by the Church for canonisations: the devil's advocate, a lawyer out to point out loopholes in the process of canonisation in order to ensure the authenticity and the reliability of the process.

The word now is no longer used - after the reform of 1983, he has now new functions and is known as the "promoter of the faith" - but it remains in common parlance for somebody who argues in favour of a cause by seemingly arguing against it in order to assure that the judges will not be duped.

To call Dun Gorg a Socratic gadfly is to make him too much of a philosopher; and though he has been one of the best practitioners of paradox in the annals of Maltese history, this is a term far from Dun Gorg's Church horizon.

It is impossible to understand Dun Gorg without his counterpoint. He not only wrote books inculcating self-control through the sombre meditation of the last things, the ascetical literature, but also those expatiating on how to enjoy life through maturity, the sapiental literature. To absolutise the one set of statements without the other is to basically distort them. The last word of his approach is not death, but Christ, who is the first and the last word.

He and his chief collaborator, Gegè, were two of a kind, like extremities that meet. The reflection on the last things, as with other great preachers, is a no entry sign, not a go ahead! Here Dun Gorg not only meets St Ignatius of Loyola (d. 1556) but also Karl Rahner, SJ (d. 1984), the great liberal theologian of the last century who bemoaned that so few preachers are willing to talk of hell nowadays. Even after Dun Gorg's loyalty to the Church had been tempered by fire, he confessed that whenever he was called upon by the Curia "it gave him the jitters".

3. Maltese to his bootstraps, universal in his vision

Paradox is not running around in one's pyjamas, as a fly by night, but to stand the test of realism and have fruits to show for it: It is a better way of perceiving and proclaiming the truth, because the distortion it apparently presents actually keeps us away from misapprehending the essence.

Born and reared in Malta, Dun Gorg seemed restricted to a radius of a few square miles of activity, with the likely temptation of mistaking the concrete examples for the general rule. If such were the case, his conclusions would be eminently inapplicable. The contrary, however, was the case. Many simply assumed that the sheer sacrifice required to be a member would give in to the way of all flesh. And that the MUSEUM was too brittle to survive the agitated winds of post-Vatican II policies.

Here we must distinguish between two seemingly contradictory tendencies. For Dun Gorg, incarnation demanded inculturation, that is, incarnating God's word into a given culture, a practice he emulated long before the word was ever coined. Moreover, he managed to make his spirituality - ultimately the Church's - local folklore, without in any way lowering the standards. From crew-cut hair to the procession of the Child Jesus on Christmas eve: all fits a Church and national choreography, which was at once Maltese to the core and capable of being exported without thereby becoming an export object.

4. Precious anywhere but in a museum

No monument will be unveiled on the occasion of the canonisation, and, maybe it is better so. But then, as Jean Sibelius (d. 1957) said, no monument was ever built for a critic. Dun Gorg was a special kind of critic and so left three special kinds of monuments, all three with a criticism well worth not overlooking for the occasion: His person, seemingly the odd man in but actually with a penetrating insight into the oddities of life; his writings, at once fascinating and repulsive, like any message which points to a utility beyond the immediate, especially a message well beyond the immediate; and the MUSEUM, a collection of precious objects which, as in antiquity, when precious objects were found at home and not in museums, do not belong to a museum, but are precious everywhere, except in a museum.

Fr Farrugia is professor of Oriental studies at the Oriental Pontifical Institute in Rome.

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