The story of the life of Jesus, the Son of God, does not end with his passion and death; if it did then Jesus would have been simply another good man, a prophet perhaps, but nothing else. As Paul reflects with the Philippians (2:6-11), God raised Jesus to new life, glorifying him and God at the same time. Thus Jesus become the Christ, the anointed one, the instrument of our salvation.
Easter Sunday brings to a glorious conclusion the season of Lent, Holy week and the Easter Triduum. Christ has indeed risen, as can be witnessed by the empty tomb and by the experience of the apostles who ate and drank with him after the resurrection. In the gospel reading, John insists that the empty tomb is not a hallucination. He carefully observes the setting, noting that the linen cloths that had held the lifeless body of Jesus, were on the ground, they were no longer necessary. Moreover, the cloth that had covered Jesus’ face was neatly rolled up and placed in a separate place. This was not a hurried job, the body of Jesus had certainly not been stolen. This is the work of God!
Paul reminds us that through our Baptism, we too already share in the new life of Jesus because we have been baptised in Christ. To be baptised is to be totally immersed. We have been totally immersed into Christ’s death and resurrection and given a new life in him. We now have to wait for the time when we too will enjoy the same glory into which Jesus has gained new life.
Like Jesus, the Servant of God Joseph De Piro emptied himself, setting aside his noble birth and living among the poorest of the poor. As we celebrate the resurrection, we can reflect on what helped De Piro live this Love until it hurts.
Jesus who suffered for him, a sinner
In a discernment exercise to decide whether to leave the course of law at the University of Malta and become a priest, Joseph wrote reasons in favour and against his decision. Reason 5 shows quite clearly that Jesus’ suffering love was the motive of Joseph’s self-offering, ‘The desire to give myself totally to God; He who suffered so much for my sins.’ Joseph started his philosophy and theology that same year. While in Rome for his studies this young seminarian thought that, returning to Malta after ordination, he would go to St Joseph’s Orphanage to help other priests with the poor boys at the orphanage. During his third year theology the Servant of God wrote down the reasons in favour of his going to the orphanage and against what Archbishop Pace had offered him, the Ecclesiastical Academy. Even here the sufferings of Jesus for him were presented as one of the main reasons for his preferring St Joseph’s Home, ‘So that on my deathbed I may be able to find some comfort in knowing that I would have suffered a little for Jesus’ sake, He who suffered so much for my sins.’
Even before his years in Rome, the Servant of God had shown that the experience of God’s love for him, expressed in the sufferings of Jesus, had been quite vivid in him. When Joseph was only 14 years old he drew the face of the suffering Jesus. In studying this drawing, one reflection made is that the passion in general, and the thorns around the Lord’s head, caused Jesus great pain and suffering, because of which the Lord could have shouted and screamed. Yet it was noted that in his drawing De Piro presented Jesus with his lips closed, or almost closed, suffering in silence. Br Joseph Caruana, one of the two young men who joined De Piro on 30 June 1910 in the first residence of the Society in Mdina, wrote this about De Piro’s own suffering in silence, “One can imagine how many conflicts he encountered; yet he did not show this as he was always smiling. This is what impressed me the most.” Caruana continued, “One day he came to St Joseph’s Orphanage on a Saturday to celebrate confessions for the children. He told me how when he was going up the stairs and noticed that some children were making funny signs behind his back, in order to ridicule him. He was very sorry for this and told me, ‘Now I can understand what you would have suffered when they did this to you.’”
The Founder suffered in silence in relation to the members of the Society. Fr John Vella, the other person who joined De Piro on 30 June 1910, said that:
“Sometimes when someone did something wrong and did not admit it, he used to punish himself for the wrong deed. He went to the centre of the refectory, knelt down, placed the plate on the floor and start eating. He did not place the fork and the knife on the plate, but on the floor. He did this instead of the person who was guilty and had not admitted it.”
When Vella requested to leave the Society and become a diocesan priest. The bishop sent Vella’s acceptance decree with De Piro himself. Vella spoke about how the Founder behaved at this hard moment when the very first priest of his Society was leaving, “He approached me, looking downwards, and told me, ‘The Bishop accepts you in the Diocese.’ ‘What are you saying?’ I asked him. This hit me like a thunderbolt on a fine day! He left me alone and went to the chapel, knelt down and stayed there praying, holding his head in his hands.”
During the events of the Sette Giugno 1919 riots, De Piro was offended at least three times. On Saturday, 7 June, he put aside all his other duties and dedicated himself to mediate between the Maltese population and the British government. Some people in the crowd told him, “You are to blame for all this.” On Sunday, 8 June, when he was trying to stop the mob from continuing the attack on the Francia residence, some criminals who were in the crowd, started to boo Caruana Gatto and De Piro; they even swore at them and stole money from their pockets. On Monday, 9 June, while in the company of Bishop Angelo Portelli, De Piro went out of the Bishop’s Palace, Valletta to try to calm the people. Some were heard shouting, “We want to burn the Curia,” a place that was very dear to De Piro! De Piro did not react to any of the above-mentioned offences and at the Inquest Commission, while he gave a detailed account of the events, he chose to remain silent about the offences against him.
Jesus at prayer
Another reflection about the drawing of the face of the suffering Jesus was that, although Jesus’ lips are closed or almost closed, his eyes are wide open. He is looking up, communicating … with the One above. Jesus and the Father are one, even at this painful moment. The eyes are pleading. Jesus is asking his Father to have pity on him. Jesus is silently praying to the Father. His is eloquent silence. For Joseph De Piro prayer was central. Many of his contemporaries spoke about De Piro’s life of prayer. There were also some vital, important, and, at times, even intense and hard moments when it was De Piro himself who clearly expressed that for him the solution was communion with God through prayer.
Joseph De Piro had been considering his priestly vocation since the age of 14. When he shared this wish with his father, the latter disapproved. For some years young De Piro stopped thinking about it, but at the age of 20 it came to his mind again. This time he did not abandon his wish. It was not an easy decision; Joseph had a very promising life in front of him. He had the drawing and painting talents. In the Royal Malta Regiment of Militia he could have easily been promoted to high ranks. The law course which he started in 1898 at the University of Malta could have led him to take a lawyer’s career. As a member of the De Piro family he was part of the Maltese noble class. He was also entitled to a lot of property, both mobile and immobile. His nobility implied popularity in the Maltese society and the possibility of important roles in the civil administration of the island. The Servant of God faced a great challenge. He sought the help of prayer by practicing the intensive pros and cons discernment method. Supported by this means he left everything behind and opted for the priesthood.
Three years later De Piro had to face another challenge. The Bishop of Malta invited him more than once to go to the Ecclesiastical Academy after becoming a priest. The president of the Academy was of the same opinion. Again, there was a very promising career in front of the young seminarian; accepting to go to the Academy could have meant important Church roles for De Piro. Meanwhile Joseph had been thinking about something completely different; he wanted to go and live with other priests at St Joseph’s Orphanage, Malta. Communication with God through prayer was again the help for De Piro at this crucial moment of his life. Once again he resorted to the pros and cons discernment exercise and opted in favour of the orphanage. Besides the exercise in itself, Joseph said that he carried out this discernment exercise during his spiritual retreat in preparation for the diaconate.
The Servant of God was ordained priest in 1902. After some more months in Rome, he went to Switzerland for convalescence. Returning to Malta, he lived in Qrendi for almost three years to regain his health. In 1907 he was nominated director of Fra Diegu Orphanage and in 1922 he was chosen to direct the Jesus of Nazareth Orphanage. Immediately after taking over the direction of this orphanage, De Piro started building a new residence for the girls, whose number was growing. Unfortunately De Piro encountered by a big problem; there was no more money to pay for this project and the work had to stop, at least for some time. For the Director this was a “… a great pain …,” but he also spoke about “… a steady look at heaven …,” which helped him look forward.
In 1925 De Piro was chosen as the first Director of St Joseph’s Orphanage, Gozo. De Piro went to Gozo to prepare for the opening of the residence. On the 25 April, after his siesta, the stone slabs of the floor in the room he was in suddenly gave away, and he fell about four meters into the room below. Because of this incident, opening day of the new orphanage was postponed from the 8 May to the 21 of the same month. At the opening the Director made two speeches, one addressed to the Governor-General and the other to the Bishop. In the latter, the Servant of God referred to this incident, presenting it as having happened, “… to strengthen our perseverance in keeping our gaze and hearts fixed towards heaven.”
Since his first year at the Capranica College, Rome, De Piro had been thinking of founding a society under the patronage of St Paul. It was only because his spiritual director had told him to suspend his planning that Joseph stopped for a moment. When the Servant of God was ordained priest in 1902, he could only go to Malta for a short stay. Because he was feeling sick he had to go to Davos, Switzerland, to regain his health. There he said that he often thought of his society, but felt helpless and could not do anything about it. He was too far from the country where he hoped to carry out his dream. At such a hard moment in his life all he could do was to pray. “As I waited to get better, I continued to nurture the plans I have matured in me for so long. But amidst the icy Alpine mountains, so far from the land where I hoped to realise my dreams, I was left with nothing but prayer – my most intimate friend. And I prayed, prayed and prayed.”
After eighteen months in Switzerland, De Piro finally returned to Malta and he immediately started sharing his plans with other priests, but he met with little support. None of the priests offered to join him. At this difficult moment De Piro referred again to prayer:
“November 18 1906: As I was in Rome, and today being the feast day of the dedication of the Basilicas of the Apostles St Peter and St Paul, I celebrated Mass at St Peter’s, in the Vatican, on the altar dedicated to St Peter. I celebrated the Mass in honour of the Apostles St Peter and St Paul, asking them to help me clearly understand God’s will for me and to help me put it into practice.
Despite the many hurdles, Fr Joseph De Piro started his Society on 30 June 1910. This did not mean that now the Founder was then saved from problems and difficulties. In a letter he wrote on 17 November 1916 to Fr Wiliam Bonett, in Australia, the Servant of God admitted that, “… so much effort and sacrifice … in spite of the smallness of the Institute, the work is hard and requites a lot of patience.” In this same letter De Piro twice mentioned his real remedy, “During the celebration of the Mass do not forget to say a little prayer for our nascent institute for foreign missions … therefore help us with your prayers ….”
Joseph De Piro started the Society by accepting two young men, one desiring to become a priest and the other as brother catechist. John Vella was ordained priest on 20 September 1919. This was certainly the cause of great joy for the Founder, but his happiness was not to last. In 1923 Vella left the Society to become a diocesan priest. Vella said that at that hard moment, the Founder did only one thing, he prayed.
In 1927 De Piro was intently planning to send the first member of his Society to work abroad. On 5 April 1927 he wrote to Fr Angelo Mizzi, a Maltese Capuchin Friar in charge of the mission in Abyssinia, for the first time and promised to send him one member. This was obviously going to be a great challenge for De Piro, but again he trusted in the power of prayer. “Please ask the young Somalian children to pray …. I say this from experience. Since I have asked the young children in the orphanages to pray, our small missionary Society has progressed significantly.”
All along these difficult moments in the history of the foundation and first years of the Society, the Servant of God was facing yet another very big problem. The Vatican Congregation of De Propaganda Fide could not understand the main aim of De Piro’s Congregation. During these difficult years the Founder expressed what helped him move forward.
“Courage, my brothers; my faint-hearted brothers, courage! This is not something which one cannot do, especially when we understand the strength and power we receive through prayer in any difficulty and obstacle. Prayer gives us all we need from God; it opens the great infinite treasures of God’s grace. So we ask people to pray and courage will not be lacking.”
Referring again to De Piro’s drawing, one can conclude that as a result of his passion, Jesus was obviously very weak. At the same time the Servant of God presented him strong, neither tired nor feeble. The Lord is holding a stick in his hand; he is holding it straight. He is strong in his fragility. This attitude could also be seen in De Piro. De Piro was naturally very weak; he suffered with problems in his throat, had tuberculosis, experienced a nervous attack and frequently felt exhausted. Yet he kept on working in his six orphanages, the Society and the many other responsibilities he had in the Church and in the civil society until the end. He too was strong in his fragility.
As in the case of Jesus, one can say that De Piro was a sign of contradiction. His life was one of suffering, which he often endured in complete silence. Yet, in this silence, he was communicating with the Father through prayer. Although weak by nature, he did great things, and did them till the very end.
Was De Piro’s ‘love until it hurts’ was a need in him.
In his book L’Essere e il Nulla (tr. H. Marcuse, Milan 1968, pp. 459-461), Jean Paul Sartre wrote that in its essence, one loves others because of the need to feel loved. Although this affirmation may be considered as irremediably contradictory, I understand that at times we love because we need to love or to be loved. There is nothing wrong in this when this motive of our love is not the first and only reason why we love. Human love is not always or only motivated by this need to love and/or be loved. Love can be the result of other things. Undoubtedly De Piro had other motives than that mentioned by Sartre.
Having recuperated his health in Switzerland, De Piro returned to Malta in 1904 and continued his convalescence in his family’s residence in Qrendi. At that time Fr Emmanuel Vassallo was Director of St Jospeh’s Orphanage, Malta. Vassallo knew quite well that De Piro had long wished to live in that orphanage. In 1905 Fr George Bugeja took over the administration of the orphanage from Vassallo; he too was aware of Fr Joseph’s wish. Archbishop Peter Pace also knew of De Piro’s wish; Pace knew why De Piro had not accepted his offer to go to the Ecclesiastical Academy. This notwithstanding, on the advice of Fr George Bugeja, in 1907 Pace nominated the Servant of God director of Fra Diegu Orphanage and not at St Joseph’s Orphanage. Fr Joseph wanted to go to St Joseph’s Orphanage because he wished to live in the company of other priests, and “Because an inner feeling tells me that from this orphanage God wants to establish in Malta a congregation of priests under the patronage of Saint Paul….” In spite of this De Piro accepted the nomination to become Director of Fra Diegu Orphanage.
The Servant of God started his Congregation in 1910 and continued hoping to be appointed to the direction of St Joseph’s Orphanage, Malta. For many years De Piro’s wish to go to St Jospeh’s Orphanage was not satisfied. Yet, whenever the Founder was requested by Bugeja to send some members of his Society to help at the Orphanage, he always agreed.
In 1922 De Piro’s wish to go to St Joseph’s Orphanage was still alive in him, but instead, Archbishop Mauro Caruana asked him to administer another orphanage, Jesus of Nazareth Orphanage, Zejtun. Although it was again completely different from what he wished, the Servant of God accepted and became the Director of this second orphanage.
It was only when Fr George Bugeja died on 23 November 1922, that Archbishop Caruana turned to De Piro and asked him to be the Director of St Jospeh’s Orphanage; and the Servant of God accepted this third orphanage.
In 1925 De Piro was asked to look after a fourth orphanage, St Jospeh’s Orphanage, Gozo. On 25 December 1924, Fr Joseph Hili, the parish priest of Fontana, Gozo, wrote to the Servant of God in the name of all the other parish priests and asked him to direct the Gozo orphanage, which they wanted to set up in their diocese. Had it been a need for the Servant of God to be the director of orphanages, he would have answered Hili immediately; he did not. Hili wrote a second time to De Piro on 7 January 1925. De Piro answered on the 31 of the same month. Again, because this was not a need in him, he told the parish priests that before accepting, he wanted to have things clarified for him. Hili responded on 3 February 1925, giving De Piro more detailed information. Again, De Piro did not accept unconditionally. In the original draft of the statutes of the orphanage, Bishop Michael Gonzi had spoken of the Orphanage as a “… Diocesan Orphanage,” De Piro insisted that he would only get involved in this project if it was affiliated to St Joseph’s Orphanage, Malta. Moreover, the Servant of God wanted to be the authority in charge of the orphanage. Another condition presented by De Piro was that his Society be allowed to take over the daily administration of this orphanage. He refused to accept the numerus clausus mentioned in the first statutes; he wanted to be able to accept all boys who applied to come to the orphanage. De Piro afforded to present these conditions to the Bishop and the parish priests of Gozo because his charity was not to satisfy his needs.
De Piro’s involvement in the running of the two orphanages of Fra Diegu and Jesus of Nazareth, made him feel, in a particular way, the responsibility to do something for the girls who reached had the age of leaving these orphanages and had no family home to return to. On 11 April 1928 he opened the Sacred Heart Workshop. To start this project, the Servant of God had to beg government ministries to provide him with an adequate building and to find the money for the renting of the place. Since he could not stay there himself, he had to look for someone to run it, Maria Assunta Borg, and the instructors who could teach the trades and the crafts to the girls. Notwithstanding all these efforts, De Piro was free from the need to keep this place open. When he repeatedly found out that Borg had different criteria from his regarding who to accept at the workshop and who was in fact the director of the place, whether it was Borg or himself, he publicly declared the place closed. Had he opened it because it was a need in him to have another charitable institution under his care, he would not have afforded to close it.
In the Constitutions he wrote for his Society, he put in some articles about the sacrament of reconciliation. In this section, the Founder wrote, ‘always remember that the confessor is for the penitent and not the penitent for the confessor….’ Joseph De Piro was convinced that the confessor was not to use the sacrament to satisfy his own needs; he had to consider the sacrament as a service to the penitents.
When writing about the missions, the Founder again emphasised that the members were not to seek the satisfaction of their own needs in what they chose to do. Rather, they had to see first what was asked for by the local bishops.
The Brothers of the Society were expected to teach of catechism as their primary ministry. One would have expected De Piro to send Br Joseph Caruana to Abyssinia with this specific mandate. Instead, the Founder did not specify what Caruana was to do in the missions. When he presented Br Joseph to Fr Angelo Mizzi OfmCap., the superior of the Abyssinia mission, the Founder said that, Caruana was “a very spiritual man, skilled, has a knack to deal with children, and is also a nurse.” De Piro wanted the members of his Society to be ready to help the needs of the people they worked with, whatever they were.
Mizzi continuously asked the Servant of God to send him more missionaries. He also assured De Piro that Bishop Jarosseau wanted to offer the Gigiga mission to his Society. The Founder could have taken these opportunities and sent as many members as possible to Abyssinia to persuade Propaganda Fide that his Society was indeed for the ad gentes people. But the Founder did not want to rush or be over enthusiastic. He continuously kept in mind the needs of his Society, which was still small.