Joseph Abela's linguistic range included a speaking and writing knowledge of Italian, French and Spanish, as well as some knowledge of medieval Latin and biblical Greek. Studying at Corpus Christi College Melbourne, the University of Papua New Guinea and Louvain University, Belgium, he gained a BPhil, Lic en Phil and PhD. After eight years in the priesthood in Melbourne, working mainly with migrants, he left the Catholic Church.
Abela then worked as a researcher and lecturer at Monash University and as a director of Maltese Studies at the Phillip Institute of Technology, where he developed the course for Higher School Certificate studies in Maltese. He was active in multicultural affairs and in promoting Maltese language, literature and culture. From 1975 to 1984, when coordinating the Maltese language program on Radio 3ZZ, and later on Radio 3EA, he produced the weekly program 'Maltese Literary Corner' as well as other programs.
He was the founder of the Maltese Literature Group in Victoria, was a member of the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs and a member of the Multicultural Committee of the Australian Children's Television Foundation. In 1977 he received a grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council to write the autobiographical work, Maltese Letters. He read his work on stage and radio, mainly in Maltese. Abela also edited a book of Maltese poetry and published (in Maltese) with Maurice Cauchi (q.v.) a book of quotations, Siltiet [Selections], 1984.
Nostalgia for his for homeland is a frequent theme in his verse, allied to spiritual and metaphysical areas of experience.