In the readings presented for this Sunday’s liturgy, we realise that it is not easy to be a prophet. The role of the prophet is to speak God’s word to the people. Often those to whom God’s word is addressed to are not ready to listen. God’s word challenges and invites us to change; change, although it is one of the constants in life, is never easy. Both the prophet Ezekiel and Jesus struggle to carry out their mission. Jesus is faced with the question: ‘Where did this man get all this?’ The people of Nazareth knew Jesus, he was one of their boys, he had grown up in their midst, they knew his family and friends, who does he think he is now?
Prophets do not get their strength from the people they are called to preach to, but from God himself who calls them and in whose name they preach. The apostle Paul shares with the Corinthian Church that he had been given a ‘thorn in the flesh’ to stop him from boasting and to remind him that it is only by God’s grace that he remains faithful to his mission. ‘My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness!’
In Found Among Sinners, Martin Cilia mssp writes: “Spirituality is not an ideology that one can discover and possess. It is more of a call to become, a journey to be made till we are transformed in God’s image and likeness.” (page 29). The Servant of God Joseph De Piro had to undergo his own journey to mature in his spirituality. This journey is marked by three ‘particular words.’
De Piro’s first ‘particular word;’
In the pros and cons exercise by which he discerned his vocation, and in the other one with which he decided to go to St Joseph’s Orphanage, Malta, and not to the Ecclesiastical Academy, young Joseph showed quite clearly that even though still at a young age, he already knew himself quite well:
In two of the reasons in favour of his joining the priesthood, Joseph showed that he knew so much the components of his own ‘nature’ that he could see quite clearly that the priesthood was the state that could match most with himself, “8. Having concluded, after a long reflection, that this is the lifestyle that best suits my character,” and, “11. The feeling that I should be happy in this lifestyle, considering all the issues that I have already had to face in this life.”
Among the reasons in favour of his going to St Joseph’s Orphanage and not to the academy, Joseph, a third year theology student, mentioned a particular characteristic of his, the wish to live in a community, “2. The love of living in a community of priests. I feel I should be happy living in the company of two priests, directors of the St Joseph’s Home.”
The one reason De Piro brought out against his becoming priest showed that he was conscious of the existence and power of his sexual needs, “1. The animal instinct drawing me towards married life, 2. and hence the fear that in my celibate lifestyle, in the fight between spirit and flesh, the latter should win.” When Joseph was deciding in favour of his going to St Joseph’s Orphanage, Malta, and on the other hand against his studying at the academy, he mentioned another two needs which he felt he had to educate in him: “4. Because knowing that if I live with my family, I would be putting myself in danger of being attracted to wealth, or at least that material concerns will certainly occupy a large part of my time and considerations. 6. Because I will be putting myself in danger of wishing for important Ecclesiastical positions, roles and honours,…. 7. While, on the contrary, by refusing to enrol at the Academy, I will have protected myself from the possibility of wishing for, and more so from asking for honorary positions and roles in the diocese.”
When dealing with his going or not to the acadent he mentioned his intellectual limitations “4. Considering my intellectual capabilities, I acknowledge that I am not bright….”
In the two exercises mentioned above, the Servant of God showed that he knew and admitted that he was a sinner. He used such expressions as, “… for my sins ….” “… He looked for me among sinners,…” “If I consider my own sinfulness.…” “The desire to do penance for my sins ….” And he mentioned a particular type of sin, “… especially for those that have offended my neighbour.”
From the above words of De Piro one can easily see that besides knowing himself the Servant of God also accepted himself.
This process of knowing and accepting self has to continue all through life if one is interested to know one’s own spirituality.
In the above mentioned exercises De Piro demonstrated also what was the particular aspect of the Word of God that could be considered as his first ‘particular word.’ In his vocational discernment exercise Joseph said that for him Jesus was the one: “…who has suffered so much for my sins.” A little more than three years later, or when choosing between the academy and St Joseph’s Orphanage, De Piro repeated exactly these same words. In this second discernment exercise he also declared that he wanted to imitate Jesus more closely. And who was the Jesus that De Piro knew at least until this age? Referring to the first available document, namely the drawing of the face of the suffering Jesus, and passing on to the two above mentioned exercises, one cannot but unhesitatingly say that the spirituality of young Joseph was until then the spirituality of the suffering Jesus.
De Piro’s second ‘particular word’
For some years I have continuously thought that the spirituality of the suffering Jesus was the only ‘particular word’ of our Founder all along his life. Recently Ronald Rolheiser has made me change my mind. In his book Seeking Spirituality this writer says that: “Pentecost has just taken place because, as Scripture tells us, the Holy Spirit is not a generic spirit, but a spirit that is given to each of us in a most particular way for the particular circumstances that each of us finds himself or herself in” (1998, p.136). In fact as the years passed by there were several changes in the life of De Piro:
During his 1900 summer holidays he showed that even before that time he had already been planning to live at St Joseph’s Orphanage after his priestly ordination. As also, he had already dreamt about the foundation of the Society.
He shared his ideas with Fr E. Vassallo, Director of St Joseph’s Orphanage, and Fr V. Sammut sj, from Collegio Pennisi, Acireale Italy. Both of them suggested that he should first finish his studies and then think about his dreams. De Piro obeyed.
There was a change regarding his studies: on the 19th July 1900 he fell sick. Fearing that he would die soon, he asked to be ordained priest during his third year theology.
After his ordination and after finishing his studies, owing to continuing ill health, he could not return to Malta. Instead he had to go to Davos, Switzerland, for 18 months.
In Davos as a newly ordained priest, Fr Joseph seriously thought about his “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…” he could do nothing.
His health having improved, he returned to Malta for good and tried to enflesh his dreams: he started meeting other priests with whom he shared his plans about the missionary Society, and he even invited them to join him in the adventure. He even talked to the Bishop of Malta.
One of these priests, Fr E. Vassallo, Director of St Joseph’s Orphanage, showed him support, but asked him to put down his project in writing.
The Founder hesitated twice to do this, but the third time, sometime between 31st July and 7th August 1905, he presented Vassallo with a piece of paper on which there were the nature, scope and spirituality of the future Congregation.
In these first statutes for his future Society, the Founder put down what can be considered as his second ‘particular word’ “Our password should be: ‘I follow you, wherever you go.’”
Referring to the Founder’s diary, one finds that in fact the second ‘particular word’ forms part of the very first statutes of De Piro’s Society. This very fact may mislead the diary’s reader. The latter may easily get the impression that the author is addressing his Sequar te only to the members of his prospective Society; the Founder may seem not to be including himself in this ‘programme.’ De Piro is challenging even himself with this ‘particular word:’ in these very first statutes he uses such words as ‘with great generosity we must’ (dobbiamo) and not ‘you must’ (dovete); ‘Our’ (La nostra) not ‘your’ (la vostra) – “… we must be prepared to submit to the Divine will. Our password must be …” Unfrt the new circumstances, or in the case of his being called by God to be the Founder of the Society, Joseph De Piro himself was ready to go wherever the Lord wanted him to go.
When Joseph De Piro was still 20 years of age he had at his disposal the nobility with all its riches, high positions in the Maltese civil society, a military career, his artistic talent, a lawyer’s profession, etc. In order to put aside these many riches and instead be consecrated to God in the priesthood he needed quite an internal strength and God provided him with one: the Lord helped him experience the first ‘particular word,’ the love of the suffering Jesus for him who was a sinner. The Lord wanted De Piro to be the Founder of a Society of which the Servant of God did not know since the beginning neither the when to start it, nor its exact nature, nor its exact aims; De Piro had to be available to the Lord’s will. All through this period God enriched him with the second ‘particular word’ – “I follow you wherever you go.” With the beginning of the Society there was again a change in circumstances in the life of De Piro:
He had to work for the recruitment of vocations.
He was the only breadwinner in the Society; he had to provide for all the needs of the members, whether material or spiritual.
He had to accept the fact that several youths who joined the Society left after getting their secondary education.
Even the first priest of the Society left after only four years of ordination.
The Vatican authorities could not understand the main aim of the Society: whether it was one ad gentes or for the Maltese expatriates.
A few Maltese ecclesiastical authorities did not support the building of St Agatha, the Society’s Motherhouse.
While facing these circumstances the Founder continued living the love of the suffering Jesus for him who was a sinner. He even continued being disposed to do God’s will unconditionally. Yet De Piro no longer mentioned his “Sequar te ….” Instead he started referring to the third particular word or “If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the workers labour.”
When he wrote the Original Constitutions for the Society, he quoted Ps 126 (127) before each of the three fascicles that made up the rule. Bishop Andrea Jarousseau was the bishop with whom De Piro communicated, about the foundation of the Society’s first mission station in Abyssinia. He reminded this bishop of these Biblical words in the letter he sent him on 30th October 1927, and he referred to the same Psalm twice in his speech on the occasion of the blessing and laying of the foundation stone of St Agatha’s Motherhouse:
“Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.
The divine words kindle total trust in us, without any reserve, in God’s help. Better still, they give us strong faith in the first movement of the Principal Agent; they were already chosen and placed at the beginning of the rules which guide the new Missionary Institute which gathered us here for the benefit of its increase and prosperity. These words are no less fitting and worthy to be remembered today.
As everybody knows, God’s works and not ours, bear contrariety as a sign and as an ornament. In the work we have before us and in our hands, for the span of about fourteen years, there were so many difficulties one after the other, that they could have tired every man. Since it was God who set to work at the task, His servants never lacked courage. Moreover, like a firm and sweet breeze God’s spirit, which always accompanied every difficulty, blew in the sails of our poor boat, troubled by the waves.
Therefore, all those who could recognise all the circumstances, whether very close or at distance, which during such a long time led to today’s solemn occasion, can understand quickly and well the great happiness which inhabits our soul at this instance. We have arrived at the longed-for rite; we can, in God’s name raise our voice, as we in fact do, to invite Your Grace to pray and call down from heaven your choice blessing on the Foundation Stone of this building. This building will receive those who, with a generous heart befitting their youth, accepted the invitation they heard from on high to devote themselves to spread Christ’s kingdom on earth through their work. Here these youths are prepared to be able to obey the order of the Lord of the harvest. ‘Go and teach all peoples, preach the Gospel to all creatures.’
‘Go and teach all nations.’ It is here, Your Grace, that we quickly feel sentiment of humiliation and confusion when we start to think about the greatness of the need and the small amount that our work, still in its beginning, can offer – Your Grace, 1,700 million people today inhabit the world. Of these 1,700 million, only a 1,000 million, more than half of them, are still expecting the blessing of divine redemption; they still do not know anything about our Redeemer. Their ears have never heard the sweet name of Jesus that, through of the work of Paul of Tarsus, has been ringing on our lips for two thousand years. Therefore, when we compare such a large number to our small fold for which today we are beginning this building, no one has to wonder if our senses, the mind and heart feel full of confusion. To say the truth, if the gospel event of the widow’s mite encourages us, on the other hand we look upwards and put our hope in him who is Our most beloved Father because, when God is building, those who build the walls do not labour in vain. We find another consolation in the thought full of truth that God’s power, which made everything out of nothing, and the power of the God Man, who fed thousands of people from five loaves, has never changed and is still there for ever. The sign of the cross which Your Grace puts today on this Foundation Stone, You the representative of the Vicar of Christ, Christ among us, this sign descends also like ointment with balm on all those pertaining to our Missionary Institute; it makes them grow in the spirit of Paul their Father; it makes their hearts similar to his because, as the Chrysostom says, the heart of Paul is the heart of Christ. Then he makes them grow more and more in number so that, in the extensive missionary work, in the infinite enterprise for the salvation of the pagan world, even they have their share as soon as possible. This was the living wish of the holy Pope Pius X while he blessed the beginning of the Institute. This is the ardent wish of the reigning Pontiff, Pope Pius XI, the Missionary Pope, whenever he repeats his blessing on us. This is the object so much longed for by us. Here finally we would be able to say that we have heard and fulfilled the commandment of Christ, ‘go and teach.’
Your Grace I would be guilty of failing you gravely if I do not take the occasion to thank you today for all the help which you were pleased to give to our small work, since it appeared among us up to the present day. We are therefore not sorry to remember our state in which we then were without form, surrounded by so much want and defects. Today we feel the satisfaction that we can say that our work, in its foundation, moved and led by Divine Providence, always found in Your Grace that Fatherly help which no one but us can esteem in all its greatness. The cession of this very devout temple was not the last among favours. To this we can add the proposal of the present meeting and the honour you have been pleased to shower on us by coming among us to bless and place this Foundation Stone with all solemnity. And therefore we feel we are fulfilling our duty when, in front of such a gentle and courageous gathering of our admirers and friends who know how to lift their minds upwards and know how to keep their heart full of the thought of God and of His works. Yes, at this moment we present you our thanks to gain in force as soon as it is united to that of all the others. We make ours the cherished words of the dear Missionary Pope gloriously reigning while we address them towards you, Your Grace, in the most kindled wish so that the Divine Founder of the Church pours always in abundance his graces on this diocese, so much beloved by your paternal heart.
Bless this Foundation Stone! And may this blessing, together with the blessing which the Father of all Christians was pleased to give us today, strengthen the truth that God started this work; that our hope in God’s help which is so necessary, is strengthened. According to what the words of the Royal prophet teach us: Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.
The first ‘particular word:’ particular circumstances:
Joseph De Piro was still a 20-year-old law student at the University of Malta when in his vocational discernment exercise he showed that the ‘particular word’ for him was “… he who has suffered so much for my sins.” That same year he abandoned the law studies and went to Rome to start his philosophy and theology. He planned to spend about nine or ten years studying in Rome.
The second ‘particular word:’ particular circumstances
The period between his first year of studies in Rome (1898) and the foundation of the Society (1910) meant for De Piro several changes of circumstances, regarding his studies and the foundation of the Society. While De Piro was experiencing these same changes, the Lord helped him discover his second ‘particular word:’ ‘I will follow you, wherever you go.’ De Piro was ready “… with great generosity … to submit to the Divine will.”
The third ‘particular word:’ particular circumstances
After the Society was started in 1910, De Piro continued living both the first and the second ‘particular words,’ but since the Society was then founded, there was a change of circumstances and there was therefore the need of another ‘particular word.’ The Lord provided him with one: “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.”