In this Sunday’s first reading, the prophet Isaiah is addressing his people before they are carried into exile in Babylon. Isaiah tries to install some element of hope in a people who are feeling miserable, helpless and hopeless. The prophet speaks of a God who prepares a rich festive banquet for all peoples, on his holy mountain.
In the same way, Paul addresses the Church in Philippi inviting them to remain hopeful. Paul tells the Philippians there is nothing that he could not master, with the help of God who strengthens him. The hope Isaiah and Paul speak of is not mere human optimism, hoping that things turn out in their favour, but a certain hope, based on God’s love through his Holy Spirit.
In his book Found among sinners, (Malta 2010), Martin Cilia mssp wrote extensively on the virtue of hope lived by Joseph De Piro.
“Hope is an important Christian virtue and is an essential virtue in a missionary spirituality. To hope is to be nurtured and sustained by a great faith, based upon a promise made by a power beyond one’s own; that of God. Hope is believing in the promise of God and that God has the power to fulfil that promise. To hope is to let the ideals of the Gospel lead and shape one’s life in such a way that even when everything seems impossible, one holds firm to the promise, since the one who made the promise is faithful:
“The task of a missionary is to go to places where he is not wanted, to sell a pearl whose value, although of a great price, is not recognised, to people who are determined not to accept it as a gift… to accomplish this he need not be a saint but he must come close to passing one. And in order to achieve this hoax, he must do so many things that a saint does, that it becomes for him a serious question if the easiest way is not simply to be a saint in the first place and be done with it.” (Louis J. Luzbetak, The Church and cultures, (New York, 1993), p.2)
A missionary spirituality must be hopeful. Joseph De Piro believed in the Divine words: “Unless the Lord builds the house its builders labour in vain.” These words reflected his trust in God’s help. When thinking about founding the Missionary Society of St Paul he felt it was nearly an impossible task. In his diary he wrote: “Knowing that the Maltese priests love their native country very much, it must be through some miracle that my ideas can become realities.” Nevertheless he stood firm hoping in the One who made the promise:
“When we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft and true witnesses without being manipulative. Therefore to be a fruitful Christian leader one needs to move from the moral to the mystical.” (Henry Nouwen, In the name of Christ, (New York, 1989), p.35)
Such hope beyond rationality becomes the characteristic of the missionary. The missionary becomes for De Piro someone who takes steps beyond what is purely secure and reliable, trusting only in the One who calls him. Cardinal Martini writes:
“I am what I am meant to be in the measure in which I follow that tendency to trust in hope. It is from man’s innate tendency to move beyond himself, to make an act of faith in an other person, that society is born, as are friendships, love and brotherhood. If no one ever takes a risk, nothing happens. It is this trust in the promise of Jesus the Word, which makes salvation possible, it is a very special kind of trust that makes evangelisation possible. The evangelist is formed as he learns to surrender himself at Jesus Word.” (Carlo Martini, Ministers of the gospel, (USA, 1993), p. 46)
Surrendering in faith and hope in the hands of the One who calls, becomes the foundation stone of a spirituality of hope and trust. To hope is to believe that there is something holy and something hidden in the most ordinary situations. Helping people growing in faith is therefore the greatest possible service that one can render to society. If it is true that humans have different needs, their deepest need is surely for faith, hope, and ultimately love.
The missionary must be ready to understand people’s most hidden needs, the most subtle needs, emerging from their innermost being. If one wishes to preach the Gospel to others with compassion and conviction, one must open one’s heart to experience the unlimited compassion of the Lord: “it is essential that our eager zeal for evangelisation should have its source in a true sanctity of life… this world is looking for preachers of the gospel to speak to it of God whom they know as being close to them, as though seeing him who is invisible.” (EN 76) Paul VI comments: “The men of our day are more impressed by witness than by teachers and if they listen to teachers it is because they also bear witness.” (EN 41) Joseph De Piro gives advice that: “each one is to be very careful to avoid even the least idea of giving a bad example.” (Regole)
A spirituality of hope and trust lived to the full is a witness that the Gospel is Good News, and that Jesus is not a moral reformer of humanity but a manifestation of the unlimited and boundless love of God. A spirituality of hope is a conviction that in any human situation there is a profound thirst for truth, justice and brotherhood, and that at the foundation of all, there is a sincere thirst for God.
A true missionary spirituality, according to Joseph De Piro, holds the conviction that those engaged in missionary work and in any ministry must be above all individuals of deep living faith. God must be the very heart and centre of their lives and they must sincerely believe what they preach. De Piro was aware of what Evangelii Nuntiandi articulates so well; “our age is thirsting for sincerity and honesty. Young people in particular are said to have a horror of falsity and hypocrisy.” (EN 76) This implies that Christians should take to heart the words of St Paul, “to put on the mind of Christ” (1Co 2:16) to such extent that De Piro could say “for me life means Christ.” (Ph 1:21) “It is not we who are living, but Jesus Christ who lives in us.” (Homelies)
It is clear that there is an intimate connection between spirituality in general and missionary spirituality in particular. De Piro’s spirituality in fact calls for a balance between the busy hands and the praying hands; it demands an attitude of life which vitally blends contemplation and action, the love of God and the love of others. (Found among sinners, pp. 63-68.)