This Sunday we celebrate Palm Sunday, at times also referred to as Passion Sunday. Today we celebrate the solemn entry of Jesus into Jerusalem to suffer and die; we also reflect on the passion according to Mark.
The first reading from the book of the Prophet Isaiah reflects on the suffering servant of God. From the perspective of Jesus’ suffering and death, this suffering servant is very much Jesus himself who has set out to witness to God’s Truth and, as a consequence, has been punished with crucifixion. Like the suffering servant in Isaiah, even in the face of opposition and insults, Jesus did not turn back, but continued preach the good news.
In a similar fashion, Paul, quoting what seems to be an early Christian liturgical hymn, speaks about Jesus, the Son of God who set aside his divinity in order to become fully human like us. Paul describes Jesus kenosis (self-emptying) for our salvation. The divine did not simply become human, but even a slave, dying the death of a criminal, on the cross, in order to gain our salvation. Paul points out that the story does not end here, the cross became Jesus’ glorification.
The Servant of God Joseph De Piro often quoted Paul’s letter to the Philippians when he spoke about the Eucharist; Jesus emptied himself further, becoming bread for us. We can continue reflecting on De Piro’s own kenosis whereby he gave everything he was for the poor he was ministering to.
De Piro shared his own time
From the first years of life as a priest, the Servant of God offered his time to help at St Joseph’s Orphanage, Malta. Before De Piro was chosen Director of Fra Diegu Orphanage in 1907, Fr George Bugeja had to be away from the orphanage for a whole month. He requested Fr Joseph to substitute him, and De Piro accepted.
When the Servant of God became Director of Fra Diegu Orphanage, he had no other official appointments. He therefore regularly visited the orphanage and spent a long time talking to the Sisters and the girls. Sr Consiglia Vassallo and Sr Felicia Vella, who were at Fra Diegu Orphanage during the time of De Piro, said: “He visited the orphanage three times a week, on Monday, Thursday and Saturday…. Whenever he visited the orphanage, he went around to visit the children at their place of work and to encourage them.” Mother Pauline Cilia who was the superior at the orphanage at the time of the Servant of God’s death, and Mother Cleophas Bondin, a teacher at Fra Diegu Orphanage, said that he continued to visit the orphanage regularly even when he had many other with many responsibilities to look after.
After accepting to found and direct St Joseph’s Orphanage, Gozo, he had to prepare the building that was going to shelter the orphans. He sent Fr Michael Callus and a young lad called Vincent Galea to carry out this task. He also went there himself, and stayed there for some weeks, to help in the preparations.
By 1918 De Piro was already busy with the administration of Fra Diegu Orphanage and his duties as a Canon of the Cathedral Chapter. Yet, he again sacrificed his time by accepting to sit on the National Assembly and its Central Commission. He also intervened in the events after the Sette Giugno 1919 riots, and was a member on the Committee For the Maltese who died or were injured on the 7th or 8th June 1919.
While Rabat, a suburb of Mdina, lacked well organised catechetical activities, the small hamlets around had even less opportunities. Mtarfa was one of these. De Piro’s charism to evangelise did not permit him to remain passive. When he came to know about this situation, he decided something had to be done and started going to Mtarfa to teach catechism himself. Christian Scerri, interviewed by Aloisius Aloisio mssp, said, “I used to meet the Servant of God on the bridge on his way to Mtarfa for the catechism classes, because he taught catechism there…. When he found out that children in this area had no catechism classes, he started going there himself; and he was already a Monsignor then!”
This testimony shows that the Servant of God did this type of evangelisation even when he was already burdened with many responsibilities! Although we do not know exactly which years Scerri was referring to, if we look at the first year when De Piro was Monsignor, we notice that he was already director at Fra Diegu Orphanage, with 138 dependent girls, and that he often went begging for alms to support the girls and the sisters who looked after them. Moreover, in 1910, one year before becoming Monsignor, he had just started his missionary Society, whose members depended totally on him for all the aspects of their life, human, academic or spiritual. Yet De Piro travelled to Mtarfa on foot, a thirty minute walk each way!
After founding his Society, De Piro opened the residences of the Society and organised catechetical classes in them. According to Joseph Tonna, from time to time the Servant of God visited the classes and asked the boys some questions.
The Servant of God dedicated time to the catechetical formation of the children in the orphanages. Mother Pauline Cilia, a superior of Fra Diegu Orphanage, said that the Director insisted greatly on the teaching of catechism. He also visited the orphanage to personally examine the girls before their first Communion and Confirmation. He did this also at St Joseph’s Orphanage, Malta. At St Jospeh’s Orphanage he recorded the results a register entitled Exams for Confirmation and First Communion. Saviour Schembri said that this also happened at the Oratory, Birkirkara where, from time to time, he visited the catechism classes to see for himself how things were going. He did this even when he had so many other duties.
De Piro dedicated a substantial amount of time for the foundation of a Society whose members were expected to work among Maltese migrants. He also visited colonies of Maltese migrants twice to evangelise them. In 1922 he went to Tunis and in 1930 he visited Carthage.
De Piro’s Society main aim was for the missions ad gentes. The members were expected to minister among peoples who were not yet evangelised. As the Founder he wanted to set an example. Although Br Joseph Caurana, a member of the Society, was already working in Abyssinia, the Servant of God was seriously planning to visit first mission station of his Society; his sudden death stopped him from doing this.
Fr Joseph Tonna, who ministered at the Mdina Cathedral, said that Mgr De Piro, “… was very quick to help anyone who requested something from him. Even when someone went to him at night, for confession or for anything else, he always made himself available.”
He also formed part of many committees and commissions.
De Piro shared his own health … and his own life itself
Joseph De Piro was by nature of poor health. He had first been taken sick in a serious way when he was preparing to sit for the Matriculation exams. During his first year in Rome he wrote to his mother on 4 April 1899, telling her that he went to a certain Dr Petacci because of trouble in his throat. As he still felt unwell, he visited another doctor, Dr Egidi, few times. Dr Egidi was the best throat specialist in Rome. This did not seem to be a serious illness, but from Joseph’s letter to his mother on 4 June 1899, it seemed it was taking some time to cure. In his diary De Piro noted that on 26 November 1906, seven years later, he visited Mgr Emmanuel Debono and told him that he was still unable to preach because of this illness.
The Servant of God also suffering from another disease, this time much more serious. When he returned to in Malta from Rome for his first summer holidays, Mgr Coselli, the Rector of the Capranica College where De Piro was staying in Rome, wrote to him referring to the actual good health of the Servant of God:
“29 August 1899
My dearest De Piro,
I received your second and most welcome letter, from which I learned that you are enjoying very good health.”
Coselli made a similar reference on 7 October of the same year, “I received your dear letter from which I understood that you are in good health.” Even the following year Mgr Coselli again mentioned De Piro’s health, “Your letter, bearing good news about your health, was most welcome.”
This emphasis about the health of the Servant of God meant that Joseph had not been healthy during his stay at the Capranica. De Piro himself wrote this diary that the first time he felt this particular sickness was on 19 July 1900. In the same entry he said that he felt sick again with the same illness on 10 July 1902. This time he wrote: “The doctor declared my illness to be tuberculosis ….” This time De Piro had to abandon his studies, visit Malta for a few days, and go to Switzerland, “… for a cure of fresh air”. After 18 months in Davos, Switzerland, De Piro seemed to be healed. According to letters written by the members of the Society to the Founder in April 1918, it seemed that De Piro was sick again. In a letter from De Piro to Archbishop Mauro Caruana, recorded in the Acts of the Society’s Council meeting of 5 April 1927, De Piro mentioned “the nervous breakdown which I suffered last year.” De Piro here admitted that because of this attack, “… my energy and activity have been greatly reduced ….”
De Piro took care of his health. He visited more than one doctor in Rome, and even visited a medical specialist. After his ordination he stayed in Davos, Switzerland, for 18 months to in order to get fresh air. On his return to Malta he lived in Qrendi for two and a half years to continue recuperating his health. Lawrence Grixti, the De Piro family butler, said that the Servant of God visited Qrendi regularly, for short breaks. Br Venanz Galea, one of the first brothers of the Society, said that in order to have some rest, the Founder joined the members for one or two days during their summer holidays. As years passed by De Piro went abroad more than once to get some rest. Following the 1926 nervous attack, he asked the Archbishop to let him choose two members of his Society to be his councillors or assistants. He was also careful with his diet. Yet, inspite of all this, due to his many different responsibilities, at times De Piro seemed very tired. Nazzareno Attard, an old boy of St Jospeh’s Orphanage, Malta, spoke about the Director’s tiredness. Fr John Vella and Fr Michael Camilleri, two of the first priests of De Piro’s Society, also spoke about the link between the Founder’s many duties and the tiredness he showed when he visited the members in Mdina. They said that he used to sleep even at table. John Buhagiar, who was close to the Society’s community at St Joseph’s Orphanage, Malta, agreed with this. This tiredness seemed to have continued until the end of his life. Mother Pauline Cilia, the Superior at Fra Diegu Orphanage at the time of De Piro’s death said, “During the last few weeks before he died he was very tired and weak. He used to tell me, ‘I have not come to work but to rest.’ When I asked him if he wanted them to prepare him something to eat, he asked for some meat because he was feeling weak.”
In a letter written by Fr Angelo Mizzi OfmCap, to De Piro, on 7 October 1929, Mizzi refers to De Piro’s tiredness, “… Br Joseph … told me that you are not feeling well, and that the doctors prescribed for you a holiday abroad for a good rest.”
It seemed that this time De Piro was not simply tired; he was exhausted mentally. This was confirmed by De Piro in the first draft of his secret will where he wrote that he was suffering from a “… nervous breakdown …” Most probably this was the time started feeling the symptoms of uremia, a fatal sickness.
De Piro shared even more …
De Piro suffered psychologically, morally and physically due to lack of understanding and support, discouragement, disheartenment, disappointment, sorrow, sadness, deprivation and even pain.
Born in a wealthy noble family, Joseph De Piro had almost anything he wanted. He was convinced that he had been chosen by God to be the Founder of a missionary Society. Due to his attempts to found this Society, the Servant of God begged from his superiors and his companion priests, some time to dialogue and discuss the nature of his future Society, an understanding of the sense of his Society.
He wanted to help the Church hierarchy understand the nature and sense of his Society. He waited patiently and practiced temperance, endurance and perseverance.
Had Joseph lived as a priest with his family, he would have experienced a lot of encouragement. The other members of his family, especially his mother, trusted him greatly. These, and the family environment, would have supported in his projects. When he opted for the foundation of the Society, De Piro found very little backing from the Church hierarchy and his companion priests. Instead of support he experienced disheartenment from some of the Maltese bishops, from his Vatican superiors and some of the Maltese priests.
Even priests who respected De Piro discouraged him. Mgr Francesco Bonnici was one of these. He could not believe that Maltese priests would ever leave Malta. Two other priests, Fr George Bugeja and Fr John Mamo, who in the beginning understood his project and supported him in the first days of the Society, left him after a short while. Some youths joined him and started their formation, but left after acquiring a good education. John Vella was even ordained priest, but after four years left the Society and became a diocesan priest. This was the cause of great disappointment, sorrow and sadness.
Joseph De Piro could have easily lived an easy, tranquil, cosy, comfortable and challenge-free life. When he decided to dedicate himself for the foundation of the Society, De Piro chose a completely different way of life. Apart from the above mentioned challenges, one can also the discomfort of lack of money because he had to find lodging for the members of his Society, provide them with food and clothing, guarantee their academic, spiritual and religious formation and provide for their recreation.
At his mother’s mansion, De Piro had a room set apart for him, yet he stayed in the residences of the Society where he had very small and uncomfortable rooms. When he was with the members of the Society, he shared in the same food they ate, which was not very rich. He did not have much time for himself, he lived and slept in the residences of the Society. He was often traveling, as a large part of his work was in the south eastern part of Malta, while the members lived in Mdina, in the south western part of the island, and all forms of public transport was very uncomfortable. The first members of the society were still very young, uncultured and coming from poor families, so he did not have companions with whom to share his dreams.
Had Joseph De Piro lived in his family home, he would have easily enjoyed great popularity both in the Church and in Society. The setting up of a missionary society required him to lead a completely different way of life. In the Constitutions he prepared for the members of his Society, he did not want them to accept any ecclesiastical honours, and as an example to them, he tried to refuse the offer to be made a Canon of the Cathedral Chapter.