The gathering of young laymen learning the gospel and the Church's moral teaching at a small house in Fra Diego Street, Hamrun, seemed rather strange 100 years ago.
Half a century before Vatican Council II opened the Catholic Church to new ideas, Mass was still said in Latin and the Maltese Curia had a vital institutional status in the country's political, economic and social life. Its ministers enjoyed a much greater degree of popular respect as holders of knowledge that was not accessible to an overwhelmingly uneducated population.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that in such a context, the first members of the society of Christian doctrine were seen through a strange light. Less surprising is that fact that members of the clergy held the society's leader, Dun Gorg Preca, in distrust and were downright suspicious of his progressive ideas. As more catechism houses were opened in different parts of Malta, some even feared Tal-Muzew were some kind of sect that would break off from the Church.
According to testimonies compiled during the beatification and canonisation process of Dun Gorg, the pedagogical approach of the MUSEUM founder had no precedent in Malta, to the extent that it vexed certain priests who thought that moral theology should not be taught to the "ill-mannered and socially inept".
Dun Gorg laid emphasis on the need for people to learn the Bible, even being able to recite parts off by heart, and on the need to know the moral teachings of Christ and the Church.
Francis Saliba, who was superior general of the MUSEUM in 1967, recounted in an interview with a Vatican commission that Dun Gorg had been criticised by a fellow priest who said he had been "teaching moral theology to boors". Other witnesses say Dun Gorg's reply had been simple and straightforward: "Should we keep to ourselves what we learnt at the seminary?"
On one occasion, as he was teaching catechism in church, Dun Gorg overheard the sacristan tell a group of children that God had created Himself. It was one of those incidents, it seems, that made Dun Gorg decide to gather a group of young men and prepare them to teach catechism, to found an institution for such a purpose. Dun Gorg's intention was that the society would be made up of lay people who would commit themselves to live by God's word in everyday life, and give their lives to teaching.
When he bounced the idea off his confessor, Mgr Luigi Attard, Dun Gorg was greatly encouraged. With the blessing of the parish priest, he gathered the first group of young men and on March 7, 1907, held the first meetings, first in a church and then in the society's first house in Hamrun.
According to Mr Saliba, the first 10 years were difficult as Dun Gorg's ideas were misunderstood. Opposition by the clergy and other people, Mr Saliba recounted, stemmed from the first three rules imposed on the members, as the founder had ordered them not to wear a tie and not to smoke, and to cut their hair short. Overcoming the sin of vanity seemed to be the main reason behind the rules, but Dun Gorg himself had been told by members of the clergy that his rules were too austere. Some priests even suspected he was not completely sane.
Criticism also came their way for the teaching methods. A number of parish priests opposed the society, fearing it would create a schism in the Maltese Catholic Church.
In Cottonera, for example, when Dun Gorg and members of the MUSEUM started teaching, word spread that the society's members were sick people. Mothers stopped sending their children to catechism as a result, fearing they would get some kind of disease.
According to his companions, the opposition saddened Dun Gorg who occasionally commented: "You would never expect this from Church people".
Francis Camilleri, a member of the MUSEUM who was 54 years old when Dun Gorg died, said the society's founder simply could not understand why some members of the clergy felt that the society was creating a rivalry or some kind of competition with the Church.
"To some it seemed that the formation given to the members of the society was more than what they could manage. And one should acknowledge that not all the first members were prepared for such formation," Mr Camilleri recalled.
The suspicions turned political when Dun Gorg started being compared to Manwel Dimech, an important progressive figure at the time who led an "anti-clerical" movement called Society of the Enlightened. One of the most controversial Maltese political figures, Mr Dimech was eventually exiled and died in Alexandria.
Since Dun Gorg wanted to popularise catechism and the Holy Scriptures, some feared that, in reality, the MUSEUM was promulgating some kind of dubious spiritual illumination, Mr Camilleri said.
What also seemed very strange at the time was Dun Gorg's disposition to meet non-Catholics and sinners. Various members of the society testified that he took into his home "known sinners and people not pertaining to the Catholic faith".
Suspicions, according to Crispin Mangion, a member of the society whose confessor was often Dun Gorg, also derived from the fact that the priest had established contacts with a mission of a British Protestant Church. Dun Gorg's ecumenical spirit led to suspicions that his covert intention was to protestantise the Church.
Despite all the opposition, most witnesses acknowledged that the majority of priests held Dun Gorg in high esteem and admired his zeal, his empowering faith and the simplicity of his words.
When Archbishop Mauro Caruana asked Dun Gorg to close the houses, the MUSEUM founder obeyed immediately. But soon after the first two were closed down, a counter order arrived as the Archbishop no longer doubted Dun Gorg's intentions.
Dun Gorg himself had recounted that some years into the setting up of the society, precisely when Mgr Caruana came to Malta, some priests told the bishop that the MUSEUM society was dangerous for the Church. Impressed by what he had heard, Mgr Caruana sent for the priest who was initially afraid to present himself.
Encouraged by another priest, Dun Gorg went to the bishop who immediately understood there was nothing wrong with the work.
Initially perplexed, Mgr Caruana is said to have declared in the presence of his nephew that he would "never approve the society".
Many have witnessed that despite opposition by the Church itself, Dun Gorg was attached to the Church and venerated the Pope very much, suffering a lot when the Church was persecuted. He had distanced himself from the politico-religious issues of the time, in his belief that winning over souls was his only mission.
The MUSEUM society finally received the Church's approval in 1932.
In the run up to the canonisation of Blessed Dun Gorg Preca at St Peter's Basilica on Sunday, The Times is carrying a series of articles based on interviews carried out during the canonisation cause. The is the first. Another two will follow tomorrow and on Wednesday.
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