Sunday Reflection: 2nd Sunday in Lent ( Year C )

Gospel Reading:

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James and went up the mountain to pray. As he prayed, the aspect of his face was changed and his clothing became brilliant as lightning. Suddenly there were two men there talking to him; they were Moses and Elijah appearing in glory, and they were speaking of his passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were heavy with sleep, but they kept awake and saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As these were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is wonderful for us to be here; so let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ – He did not know what he was saying. As he spoke, a cloud came and covered them with shadow; and when they went into the cloud the disciples were afraid. And a voice came from the cloud saying, ‘This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him.’ And after the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. The disciples kept silence and, at that time, told no one what they had seen.

Further Readings:

The Servant of God’s spirit of sacrifice, from ‘The Incarnational Aspect of the Spirituality of Joseph De Piro.”

– His own money

Mgr John Baptist Ghigo testified that Ursola, the mother of the Servant of God, used to tell him about the charity her son used to make, “He is always asking for money, ‘Do you have £2.00, because what I had I gave to the poor.’” Mr Christian Scerri witnessed that, “He gave both the cathedral salary and what his mother used to give him.” Ms Piera De Piro Gourgion, a niece of the Servant of God, confirmed the above.

It was already a lot that the Servant of God provided the orphans of the Institutes and the members of his Society with whatever they needed. Yet, this was not all. There were times when Monsignor gave to these his own money. Carmena Mallia, an old girl of Fra Diegu Institute, was quite explicit about this:

In his capacity of Director the Sisters of the Institute came to him for all their needs and he was always ready to provide all they required. He never ever mentioned where or how he obtained the things which were asked of him and sometimes it was evident that it was he himself who was the donor. One day the Mother Superior asked us to say special prayers as the sum of ninety pounds was urgently needed to pay off our debt for bread. Soon after we came to know that the Director had acquired the sum in question. During the war (the First World War) he saw to it that we never lacked anything even though the times were difficult. We had all we needed and never missed our morning tea and we also had sugar and bread every day.

While in Rome for his studies, De Piro did not have any other income except that given him by his mother. In spite of this, not infrequently, Joseph used to send donations to St Joseph’s, Malta.

Dr Cachia Zammit said this about the Director’s charity to St Joseph’s, Malta, “He gave all his wealth to the Institute … It is true that Mr Alphonse helped St. Joseph’s Institute, but the same Mr. Alphonse said that De Piro made most of the contributions.”

De Piro did not give his own money only to the ecclesiastical charitable institutes and to the members of his Society. Anthony Scerri testified to the Ecclesiastical Tribunal that the Servant of God addressed some of his finances for the teaching of catechism, “De Piro hired a room near the first house of the Society in order to gather together the boys for catechism.”

George Wilson, who was himself from Mdina, showed that De Piro gave to the poor even the money that was really necessary for him, “He was so generous with the poor that he would often be obliged to go back home on foot, because on leaving the Institute to go home he would find that he had given away all the money he had, even the tram fare to take him home. I myself have seen him take to the road to walk back home.” Later on Wilson added that, “He was a charitable man and he often gave money to the poor. The funny thing was that he used to have to go back home on foot because he was penniless.” Fr George Cassar, a seminarian at the time of De Piro’s rectorship, said the same thing, “There were many times when he wanted to go to Mdina with the tram and he did not have the money to pay the fare because he would have given it to someone…” Later on Cassar also said that, “Sometimes instead of using the train he used the cab. In this way he saved the money and gave it to the poor drivers.” The same thing was repeated by Sr Bibiana Zammit, a nun at Fra Diegu.

                – The Society’s, and therefore his own houses

It was the Founder who provided the housing for the members of the Society. Therefore the houses of the Congregation were his own, or at least it was he who paid from his own money for their renting. Just a year after the foundation of the Society, De Piro opened the first house of his Congreagation for the teaching of catechism. Because of this one can say that Monsignor was indirectly paying for the catechism classes in the Society’s first House. Not only this! While the 1917 CIC asked of religious that they make available all their parish churches for the teaching of catechism, De Piro exhorted the memebrs of his Society to make available even their other churches, besides the parish churches, and their houses, for the catechetical instructions. This meant nothing less than all the Society’s property!

                – His own bed and clothes

Lawrence Grixti, the De Piro family butler, narrated this story about De Piro:

When Monsignor visited his family, at Mdina, he used to travel by train. This used to stop at the station which was below the bastions, where there is the bridge. Once I saw him coming towards me and I noticed he was trembling. I asked him what had happened. ‘Lawrence, I had a big fright today,’ said Monsignor. ‘But what happened?’ I asked him. ‘On my way to Mdina, from the station,’ said Monsignor, ‘I was attacked by two men who gave me a terrible fright.’ ‘What did they do to you?’ I asked him. ‘Nothing,’ answered Monsignor. ‘As soon as they realised who I was, they let me go.’ ‘So I will come and meet you every evening, at about 7.00, and accompany you on your way,’ I told him. Once when I was waiting for him with a lantern in my hands I saw him coming with a boy whose clothes were dirty and torn. ‘He had been alone on the shore and so I brought him with me,’ said Monsignor. He brought the boy with him to Mdina.  In those days rich people used to have two matresses on top of each other, which were stuffed with weeds. On top of these they used to have one stuffed with wool. He took the boy to his room and without thinking twice removed the sheets from his bed, took the matress which was on top, put it in one corner of the room and prepared it so that the boy could rest on it. After a few days without telling Monsignor himself, Lawrence went to Monsignor’s mother so that she could give him a matress for Monsignor. ‘What happened to the one he had?’ asked Ursola. Then I told her what had happened. When Monsignor came home his mother gently told him, ‘Joseph, why did you do that? You are very tired after a day’s work. You will not be able to rest on those two matresses.’ On his part Monsignor said nothing. When he and I went out, he turned to me and told me, ‘Lawrence, whatever you see and hear in my room is not to be reported to my mother. ‘Who else could I tell if not your mother?’ I asked him. ‘Who else could give me a matress for you?’ ‘Silence is the best thing in such circumstances,’ he answered me.

The case of the poor boy was mentioned also by Ms Elena Refalo, one of the nieces of the Servant of God. Joseph Tonna, who hailed from Mdina, said this:

In summer the Founder used to go to Birzebbugia and he used to take even Lawrence Grixti with him. When the latter went to Mdina and Ursola, the Founder’s mother, asked him about her son, Lawrence used to answer her, ‘As usual; he would sleep on the floor on some sheets and only wearing a jumper because the matress and the other clothes he gave for charity.’ He never showed off his charity.

Anthony Scerri, who attended the Mdina catechism classes in the first House of De Piro’s Society, testified this, “When he used to come to Mdina to see her (his mother), and he had some old shoes she used to tell him, ‘Oh, Joseph, what a pair of shoes you have. This is not appropriate for you.’ On his part he would tell her, ‘No worries, mum. What I save from the shoes I give as charity.’ ”

                – His own rest

Obviously, living his duties very responsibly made Monsignor many a times keep back from having enough rest. At least this is what Nazzareno Attard testified more than once.

                – His own food

George Wilson was an employee at St Joseph’s, Malta. On one particular occasion he noticed that De Piro deprived himself of something more vital than his own money, clothes, bed or rest:

He used to be grateful for the least thing. If you offered him an apple he would be glad to have it. He would take it and thank you for it and then surprisingly pass it on to someone else.

One day, while waiting for the relic of St Francis Xavier to arrive at St Joseph’s Institute, he got tired and hungry. ‘Would you kindly bring me some coffee, Wilson?’ he asked me. I brought him the coffee. But he gave it to Canon Aquilina.

A certain Anthony Gatt referred to the same thing. He quoted Fr Joseph Spiteri, one of the first members of the Society of St Paul and a very close collaborator of De Piro, “As Fr Joseph Spiteri used to say, there were many times when Monsignor used to give his food to someone and he had only a cup of tea. He was a very charitable person; he gave everything and never had anything.”

                – His own time

Since early in his life as a priest, the Servant of God offered his own time for St Joseph’s, Malta. Before De Piro was chosen Director of Fra Diegu Institute in 1907, Fr George Bugeja had to be away from the Institute for a whole month. He asked Fr Joseph to substitute him and De Piro accepted.

When the Servant of God became Director of Fra Diegu Institute he had no other official appointment. He therefore visited the Orphanage regularly and spent hours talking to the Sisters and the girls. Sisters Consiglia Vassallo and Felicia Vella, two nuns who were at Fra Diegu Institue at the time of De Piro, said this about the Director, “He used to visit the Institute three times a week, Monday, Thursday and Saturday… Whenever he visited the Insitute, he used to go around all the children on the place of work in order to encourage them.” But Mother Pauline Cilia who was the superior at the time of the death of the Servant of God, and Mother Cleophas Bondin, a teacher at Fra Diegu, showed that the Director continued with his regular visits to Fra Diegu even when he was loaded with many responsibilities.

After accepting to found and direct St Joseph’s, 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 do this. Not only! He went himself and stayed there for some weeks in order to help in the preparations.

In 1918 De Piro was already quite busy with Fra Diegu Institute and the Monsignorate. Yet he again sacrificed his time when he accepted being member of the National Assembly and of its Central Commission, when he intervened in the Sette Giugno 1919 events and while he gave his share in the Committee “Pro Maltesi Morti o Feriti il 7 o 8 Giugno del 1919”.

If Rabat was lacking in well organised catechetical activities, more and more did the small suburbs that surrounded it. Mtarfa was one of them.  De Piro’s charism to evangelise did not allow him to remain passive. He realised that there was this situation. He concluded what had to be done. And he took action by going himself there in orer to teach catechism. This was attested to by Mr Christian Scerri who gave his testimony to Fr Aloisius Aloisio mssp, “When I used to meet him (the Servant of God) on the bridge going to Mtarfa for the catechism classes, because he taught catechism there… Yes, when he found out that the children of this area did not learn any catechism he started going there himself. And he was a Monsignor already!”

The above testimony meant that the Servant of God did this evangelisation when he was already burdened with a lot of responsibilities! We do not know for which specific years Scerri was referring to, but if we were to take into consideration even the very first year of De Piro’s Monsignorate we find out that by that time he was already Director of Fra Diegu Institute. This had something like 138 girls in it, and the Director there had to go as far as running here and there begging alms for the girls and the nuns who took care of them. Also in 1910, a year before becoming Monsignor, he had just started his missionary Society. Its members depended on him for all the aspects of their life, whether human, academic or spiritual. And, De Piro went to Mtarfa on foot, which was a half hour walk!

After founding his Society De Piro opened the Houses of the Society and organised catechetical classes in them. But not only this. According to Joseph Tonna, the Servant of God, every now and then, made himself present and asked questions to the boys who were there.

In the ecclesiastical charitable Institutes the Servant of God dedicated his own time for the catechetical formation of the children who lived there. Mother Pauline Cilia, a superior of Fra Diegu Institute said that the Director insisted a lot on the teaching of catechism. Also, he so much cared for the catechetical preparation of the children for their first holy comunion and their confirmation, that he used to go to Fra Diegu and himself examine the girls about their catechetical knowledge. The same he did at St Joseph’s, Malta. Here it was also he who recorded the results in the register “Esami Conferma e Prima Comunione”. Saviour Schembri, another witness in the Cause of Canonisation of De Piro, said the same thing in relation to the Oratory, at B’Kara: every now and then the Servant of God went there to see how things were going. All this when De Piro had so many other duties!

De Piro dedicated a lot of time for the foundation of a Society the members of which were supposed to leave Malta in order to work among the Maltese migrants. But the Servant of God himself went twice abroad, in order to evangelise the Maltese who were away from their country. In 1922 he went to Tunis and in 1930 he went to Carthage.

But De Piro’s Society was first and foremost for the missions ad gentes; its members were supposted to go to those peoples who were not yet evangelised. And he as its Founder wanted to set the example. Although Br Joseph Caurana, a member of the Society had already gone to Abyssinia, the Servant of God seriously planned to go himself for some time to this first mission station of his Society. It was only his sudeen death that impeded him from doing this.

 Fr Joseph Tonna who ministered at the Cathedral in Mdina, said that Monsignor, “… was very quick in helping the individual who asked anything from him. Even when someone went to him at night, or for confession or for anything else, he was always available.”

And what about the memberships in the many other committees, commissions, etc?

                – His own dignity, prestige, honour, status and reputation

The Servant of God was not satisfied with only giving nearly all he himself had to the poor. He, a son of one of the most noble families of Malta, a canon and dean of the Metropolitan Chapter, the director of six ecclesiastical charitable institutes, the Founder of a missionary Society, for two years rector of the Mayor Seminary, a member of the National Assembly and of so many other committees and commissions, both civil and ecclesiastical, many a times reduced himself to great humiliation and begged money and goods for the poor children of the institutes and the members of his Society. This is what Fr Joseph Tonna, a priest from Rabat, Malta, said, “Sometimes when he wanted money for his institutes, he used to pass even twice from the same road. He never asked anybody but walked with his head bowed down. People became accustomed to this and they always gave him money for his institutes, whenever they saw him walking with his head bowed down.” Fr John Vella, an ex member of De Piro’s Society, testified that, “Every Thursday the Founder used to go to the rich families and ask them alms for the institutes.” Sisters Consiglia Vassallo and Felice Vella, two nuns at Fra Diegu at the time of De Piro confirmed the above. As did Sr Iole De Piro Gourgion, one of the nieces of the Servant of God, Mr Saviour Camilleri, an oldboy of St Joseph’s, Malta and Fr George Cassar, a seminarian at the time of De Piro. Another niece of De Piro, Elena Refalo said that during the First World War her uncle used to go to the market and beg alms, and from there he used to get a lot of things. Often, the Servant of God turned to his understanding mother who used to call him “my poor one” and who was worried that he would neglect himself for his beloved orphans.

As regards the members of his Society, the Founder had to provide for all the dimensions of their life. He did have his own money, but at times this was not enough for the Society’s members, whose number was always increasing. When he lacked the finances necessary for these he again turned to his mother:

On another day I was speaking to Monsignor’s mother. While we were talking we mentioned the Society which Monsignor had just started. ‘The Society is improving,’ I told her. ‘I am the one who is suffering because he has impoverished me. At one time he comes here to ask for help. At another time he asks for money. When there is not enough food he takes from here. He also comes to take the bed linen,’ lamented his mother.

During the Sette Giugno riots De Piro did not beg any money for anyone; he only struggled with the British authorities for the basic rights of his fellow Maltese. At  the same time some Maltese who made part of the Valletta mobs blamed especially De Piro for all the injustices.

During De Piro’s times no one would have ever imagined that a member of a noble family, and a Monsignor, would have ever gone on foot, to a remote rural area, to teach catechism to small poor children. According to Christian Scerri, Monsignor did this when he realised that the Mtarfa children did not have anyone to teach them catechism.

                                – Promotions in the civil society

De Piro came from a family which was one of the noblest in Malta. Because of their nobility the De Piros had a lot of riches. Also, Joseph was himself quite promising artistically, had the possibility of becoming a lawyer, and could also look forward towards a high ranking position in the Royal Malta Regiment of Militia. All this made young Joseph highly aesteemed, with so many possibilities of becoming influential and powerful in the Maltese civil society. In spite of all this he put everything aside and opted for the priesthood.

Exactly because of the above credentials in his favour, the Servant of God could have had certain important roles in the civil society, even as a priest. Before De Piro’s time, contemporanious to him and even after him, clergymen with less credentials than him were given important roles in the Maltese civil society. On his own part the Servant of God preferred to be given to other different works. He dedicated himself to the ecclesiastical charitable institutes. He gave himself to preaching. He was a lot involved in the teaching of catechism. He spent a lot of time on the foundation of a Society that was expected to work in the ad gentes countries and for the Maltese migrants. He himself went twice to the Maltese abroad. And he spent time planning to go to Abyssinia.

                – Ecclesiastical promotions

The same thing can be said as regards the ecclesiastical environment. As has already been said, the Servant of God was entrusted with some important ministries. But had he been less involved in these, he would have been undoubtedly given many other more prestigious roles in the Church. Archbishop Peter Pace believed in him so much that even before Joseph was ordained priest, His Excelleny invited him more than once to go to the “Accademia Ecclesiastica” for diplomatic studies. De Piro did not accept because he preferred to go the St Joseph’s Orphanage. Archbishop Mauro Caruana chose the Servant of God as his representative on many committees, commissions, boards, etc, not to mention his nominating him as his personal secretary and rector of the Major Seminary. Without doubt Caruana would have given him many more responsibilities, but the Archbishop himself could not but be conscious that De Piro had to take care of the several burdens he already had on his shoulders.

                – His own health … and his own life itself

Joseph De Piro was by nature rather weak in health. He had first been taken sick in a rather grave way when he was supposed 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. Because he still felt this sickness, he even went a few times afterwards to another doctor, this time Dr Egidi, the best one in Rome as a throat specialist. This sickness did not seem to be something very serious, but from Joseph’s own letter to his mother, written on 4 June 1899, it seemed it was going to take some time to cure. It was so much so that in his Diary, De Piro wrote that on 26 November 1906, and therefore seven years after he had had this sickness for the first time, he went to Mgr Emmanuel Debono and while talking to him, told him that because of his illness he was still unable to preach.

Concurrently with the throat sickness, the Servant of God seemed to be suffering from another disease, this time much more serious. When he was back in Malta from Rome for his first summer holidays, Mgr Coselli, the Rector of the Capranica College, where De Piro stayed while 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 mentioned again De Piro’s health, “Your letter, bearing good news about your health, was most welcome.”

All this emphasis about the health of the Servant of God meant nothing but a lack of it during Joseph’s stay at the Capranica! In fact De Piro himself confirmed in his Diary that the first time he felt this particular sickness was on 19 July 1900. In the same entry of his Diary he said that he felt sick again with the same illness on 10 July 1902. Not only this! This time he even said what was the sickness: “The doctor declared my illness to be tuberculosis …” In fact this time he had to abandon his studies, came to Malta for a few days, and afterwards go to Switzerland, “… for a cure of fresh air”. After 18 months there, De Piro seemed to be heal. But according to the letters written during April 1918, by the members of the Society to the Founder, who was staying at Fra Diegu Institute, it seemed that the Founder was sick again. In a letter written by Monsignor to Archbishop Mauro Caruana, and which was recorded in the Acts of the Society’s Council meeting of 5 April 1927, De Piro himself mentioned “the nervous breakdown which I suffered last year.” Therefore according to the Servant of God in 1926, he was suffering of a nervous attack! Monsignor continued saying to His Excellency that because of this attack, “… my energy and activity have decreased a lot …”

De Piro did take care of his health. It has already been said that when still in Rome he went to more than one doctor, at one time even to a medical specialist, to be cured of the illness he had. After his ordination he went for 18 whole months to Davos, Switzerland in order to get fresh air. Ruturning to Malta he went to Qrendi for two and a half years to continue recuperating his health. According to Lawrence Grixti, the De Piro family butler, the Servant of God continued going there every now and then for short breaks. Br Venanz Galea, one of the first Brothers of the Society, said that the Founder, in order to have some rest, used to accompany the members for some one day while they were having their summer holidays. As the years passed by Monsignor went abroad more than once to get some rest. After the 1926 nervous attack, he asked the Archbishop to let him choose two members of his Society to be his councellors or assistants. He was also attentive on his diet. But in spite of all this attention, De Piro because of his many different responsibilities, seemed at times very tired. Nazzareno Attard, an oldboy of St Jospeh’s, Malta, testified more than once about the Director’s tiredness. Frs John Vella and Michael Camilleri , two of the first priests of De Piro’s Society, were quite explicit about the link between the many duties of the Founder and the tiredness he showed when he visited the members in Mdina. They said that he used to sleep even while in the refectory. Mr John Buhagiar, who was quite near to the Society’s community at St Joseph’s, Malta, said the same thing. This tiredness seemed to have continued until the end of his life. Mother Pauline Cilia, the Fra Diegu Superior at the time of the death of Monsignor, testified this, “During the last few weeks before he died he was very tired and weak. In fact he used to tell me, ‘I have not come to work but to rest a little’. When I asked him if he wanted them to prepare him something he used to ask for some meat because he felt weak.”

In a letter written by Fr Angelo Mizzi OfmCap., to De Piro on 7 October 1929, there is reference to the tiredness of the Servant of God, “… Br. Joseph … toldme that you are sick and that the doctors prescribed a holiday abroad for a good rest.”

But this time it seemed that De Piro was much more than tired; it seemed he was as far as mentally exhausted. This was in fact confirmed by Monsignor himself in the first draft of his secret will. Here he himself said that he was suffering of a: “… nervous breakdown …” Most probably this was the time when he also started feeling the symptoms of the fatal sickness, uremia.

– A lot of psychological, moral and physical suffering: lack of understanding and support, a lot of discouragement, disheartenment, disappointment, sorrow, sadness, deprivation and even pain 

Coming from a very noble family Joseph De Piro had almost everything. To add to this, he was quite convinced that he was the one chosen by God to be the founder of a missionary Society. Exactly because of his attempts to found this same Society, the Servant of God ended up begging from his superiors, and also from his companion priests, some dialogue and discussion time about the nature of his future Society, an understanding of the sense of his Society.

Because he wanted to help the Church’s hierarchy understand the nature and sense of his Society he had to wait a lot, be a lot patient, practice temperance, endurance and even perseverance.

Had Joseph lived as a priest in his family, he would have experienced a lot of encouragement. The other members of his family, especially his mother, trusted him a lot. These, and the family environment, would have given him a lot of support in his projects. When he opted for the foundation of the Society, De Piro found very little of this backing from the Church’s 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.

Disheartenment came for the Founder even from those priests who respected him a lot. Amongst these there was Mgr Francesco Bonnici. The latter did not believe that the Maltese priests could ever go away from Malta. Two other clerics, Frs George Bugeja and John Mamo, understood his project in the beginning, and did in fact support him in the first days of the Society, but after a short while they immediately abandoned him. Some youths did join him and were in fact members in formation, but left after getting a good education. Another one, John Vella, joined him, he finished his years of formation, and was even ordained priest. But after four years of priesthood abandoned him and became a diocesan priest. All this implied even a lot of disappointments, sorrow and sadness.

Because of his family, the Servant of God could have lived a very easy, tranquil, cosy, comfortable and challenge-free life. When he decided to dedicate himself for the foundation of the Society, De Piro opted for a completely different life. With the above mentioned challenges one can add such others as: the discomfort of the lack of money because he had to find lodging for the members of his Society, provide food, clothing, etc., for them, guarantee the members’ academic, spiritual and religious life formation, provide their recreation, etc; the discomfort of lodging – while at his mother’s palace he had his own room, he stayed in the houses of the Society where he had very small and uncomfortable rooms; the discomfort of food – the food of the members of his Society was, according to some member, not that rich; the discomfort of his not having any more time for himself, because he had to be with the members, even to sleep with them; the discomfort of travelling because much of his work was in the south eastern part of Malta, while the Society’s first houses were in the South western part of the Island, Mdina – in those days all transport was uncomfortable … and De Piro used the public transport; the discomfort of companions with whom to talk – the first members were still very young, coming from low class families and therefore not much cultured, etc.

Also, being a De Piro, had Fr Joseph stayed at home he could have easily enjoyed a lot of popularity both in the Church and in the Maltese society. The setting up of a missionary society implied for him a completely different life. In the Constitutions he himself prepared for the members of his Society, the Founder did not want them to accept honours. To be an example for them he did not want to accept to become Monsignor.