On August 4, the Church celebrates the feast day of St John Vianney, Patron of priests. John Vianney, also known as the Holy Curé de Ars, was born May 8, 1786 in Dardilly, near Lyon, France to a family of farmers. He was ordained a priest in 1815 and became curate in Ecully. He was then sent to the remote French community of Ars in 1818 to be a parish priest. This is what the website of the Catholic News Agency of the United States of America had to say on its page for the 4th of August of last year, 2018.
The commemoration of St John Mary Vianney provides us an opportunity to stop and reflect on the role of the priest within our community and within society at large. We still live in an age where we have enough priests to look after our spiritual needs. At St George’s the number of Masses is such that only those who are either housebound or sick in bed can provide an valid excuse for not visiting the parish church to participate in the holy sacrifice of the Mass. However, times will change, and are in fact already changing. The number of priests at St George’s has been diminishing for quite a noticeable period of time! As the Church celebrates the Great Jubilee of 2000, St George’s lost three of its priests. Mgr Carmelo Sacco, uncle of the late Canon Ġużepp Sacco, together with Archpriest Emeritus Mgr Emanuel Mercieca, together with Can. Nicholas Vella Apap, passed away during the Jubilee Year and in this way our parish community lost three of its precious priests. Mgr Sacco had become housebound and Mgr Mercieca spent some time at the Dar tal-Kleru Christus Rex of Birkirkara which is the main residence for retired priests in the Archdiocese of Malta. Canon Vella Apap was still ministering, saying Mass and distributing Communion to the elderly in their homes besides going around preaching and hearing Confession whereever he was called to.
Since the year 2000, a great amount of our priests died away. Dun Ġużepp Grech, an ex-Franciscan Conventual who had returned from the States and was living in Main Gate Street with his family died unexpectedly. The death of Fr Louis Bezzina – a priest who was popular with the youth – came as no surprise but brought with it a great amount of suffering for the ailing priest. He was sorely missed. The death of Mgr Salv Borg in September 2007 was a shock to one and all and with his death, we missed a mentor and friend of souls. His uncle Canon John Scicluna was a familiar face both in the confessional in the Basilica as well in the sacristy; very much like St John Mary Vianney, he was a much sought after confessor.
Can. Ġużepp Borg ta’ Frans had a character of his own. With his protruded eyes, he might have put people off but only until they came to know him. A short conversation with him would reveal a lovely and jovial character; at times, a conversation with him would make you feel as you were speaking to gentleness incarnated. There was a certain kindness and simplicity to his personality. He could also be artistic at times. He was also Rector of St Martha’s Chapel at Tal-Għonq for various years, succeeded by the late Fr Louis Bezzina. Can. Franġisk Vella lived his entire life in the States and returned to Gozo when he was retired. He was a reserved priest but had a high sense of duty. Everytime Mgr Feliċ Tabone asked him to say Mass, and sometimes even two-a-day, he accepted with joy and was always disposed to help. Various parishioners sought him for confession.
We, the parishioners of St George, are all familiar with the hymn Georgius natus est. It was written for the centenary celebrations held in Victoria in 1984. The late poet and writer Can. Joe Mejlak, nephew of the renowned Mary Mejlaq, is the author of this hymn in honour of St George. He died in his sixties when he was still relatively young. His sense of humour can be described as legendary; his name will live on in his various writings. There are those who consider him the “poet of St George” par excellence.
Mgr Anton Grech Vella’s name is synonymous with St George’s. He was the master-mind after various projects that took place at St George’s. He was the right-hand man of the late Archpriest Mgr Emanuel Mercieca and backed him as he modernizes the parish centre and the entire project attached to it. Being the Treasurer of the newly-erected Collegiate Chapter of St George’s, he was always on the go finding new ways and means to provide finances for the embellishment of the Basilica. He was also instrumental in the building of the baldacchino or canopy that covers the main altar of the Basilica.
The death of Mgr George Bezzina, who for many years was parish priest at Fontana, was also a blow for one and all. Dun George was known even beyond our shores due to the spiritual retreats that he gave wherever he was invited. During the time he was parish priest at Fontana, the parish church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus became a place of pilgrimage in the true sense of the word. People flocked from all over the Maltese islands to hear him preaching while making their devotions to the Sacred Heart. He was certainly a charismatic priest in many ways. Stricktly speaking, one can state that it was he who introduced the Charismatic Renewal Movement to Gozo. I can still remember the date on which Bishop Nikol Ġ. Cauchi, on Mgr Bezzina’s invitation, crowned the sacred image of the Sacred Heart revered in the Parish at Fontana, in the presence of Cardinal Francis Arinze and hundreds of priests and parishioners and devotees. He was also a popular preacher in both Malta and Gozo. At times, it is still difficult to believe that he is longer with us urging us with that golden voice of his to prepare the way for the Lord and put him at the centre of our existence.
Can. Ġużeppi Sacco, who for a long time said Mass at St George’s at noon, even on Sundays, died after a short illness. He spent the last days of his life at the Residence for priests next to the Good Shepherd Church at Taċ-Ċawla in the limits of Victoria. He was the nephew of the late Mgr Carmelo Sacco. His brother Carm is a Salesian priest. Sacco, who came from a large family, was sought after as a confessor. He was spiritual director for various praesidia in the Legion of Mary and was also a member of the Moviment Azzjoni Soċjali that the late Mgr Fortunato Mizzi had established.
Mgr Ġwann Mercieca tal-Mewta was also one of the early risers among our priests; he said Mass very early in the morning. He was reserved and economic in words and one could notice him praying before the Blessed Sacrament at Savina Church almost on a daily basis. His brother, the late Archbishop Mgr Ġużeppi Mercieca, was also a priest of St George’s but he left Gozo when he was still quite young to work first in Rome for the Sacra Romana Rota and then as Archbishop of the main island of Malta. His wisdom and unique sense of prudence during hard times will go down in history as legendary! He was truly, as Archbishop Scicluna called him, a “ġawhra tal-kleru Għawdxi”.
Mgr Ġorġ Grima, the founder of the Moviment Missjunarju Ġesù fil-Proxxmu, through his work in third-world countries, inspired hundreds, if not thousands, with his missionary work. Various young men and women accompanied him on his missionary travels from to time to time, seeking to experience Our Lord Jesus Christ in the face of the poor. He knew the late Mother Theresa, now canonised, very well and he must have been inspired also by her work. He passed away when he was only 68 years old, but his movement lives on.
Lately, we experienced the demise of Mgr Carmelo Scicluna, whom many referred to as Il-Father; he was almost a scrupulous priest who however had a fatherly touch and many souls found him helpful in the confessional. He was a benefactor of St George’s and his love for his native parish is exemplary to all of us. Even in his death, and through his will, he showed how much he cherished St George’s! He will continue to be remembered for his simplicity and sense of humour.
Few of our priests are either sick or housebound due to their age. Mgr Coronato Grima, brother of the late Dun Ġorġ, lives in Charity Street, a stone’s throw away from St George’s. Although his health leaves much to be desired, he still spends various hours hearing confessions in the sacristy. Mgr Carmelo Grech lives in the male elderly section of the Gozo Hospital; he appreciates visits by friends and parishioners and is still able to hold a conversation. He is also the author of a couple of books. Canon Joseph A. Borg is living at the Pompei Home for the Elderly next to the Pompei Sanctuary, though he still frequents St George’s. Mgr Saver Calleja, who was ordained to the priesthood more than sixty years ago together with the late Archbishop Mercieca, is now in his 93rd year, having been born on the 21st of July 1926 (cfr Ordinazzjonijiet ta’ Qassisin Djoċesani Għawdxin, Gozo 2014, edited by Francesco Pio Attard, Joseph Bezzina and Jimmy Xerri, 26).
Other priests of St George serve in other parishes in Gozo and abroad; His Lordship Mgr Alfred Xuereb is Apostolic Nuncio to Mongolia and Korea far away in Asia. As parishioners of St George, we have the duty to pray for our priests every day!
The commemoration of St John Mary Vianney, whom Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI declared as the Patron Saint of priests and pastors, provides us with the ideal opportunity to stop and reflect on the importance of vocations to the priesthood. In the past, St George’s Parish has been a source for vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. However, the past is no guarantee for the future. Smaller families, a more secular life-style and other strong worldly attractions are among the main reasons for the present crisis in vocations that Europe is experiencing. The recent crusade that saw our country being transformed from a traditionally Catholic country in the south of Europe to one of the most progressive secular states of the entire modern world certainly did not help to increase the number of vocations. A parish that prays, a parish that puts the Eucharist at its centre is a parish that helps to create the right environment for increase in priestly vocations. May our parish, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St George and Saint John Mary Vianney continue to be a parish that cherishes the family-unit and promote vocations for every state of life.
Photos: St George’s Parish Archives, Joe Attard, JJP Zammit