‘He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave’
When Joseph De Piro speaks about the Eucharist in his homilies, he is fascinated with the total kenosis of Christ. He often quotes the canticle from Philippians 2:6-11 which describes how Jesus set aside His divinity and became human, the uncreated took on the form of the created. Not only did he hide himself inside humanity, he even took on the form of a slave.
When we read the narrative of the Last Supper, in the gospel according to John (13:1-15), we do not hear about the institution of the Eucharist, but only about the washing of the feet. We find John’s theology of the Eucharist in chapter 6 of his gospel not at this point. Some scholars suggest that in John’s theology, the washing of the feet is equivalent to the institution of the Eucharist.
John describes the washing of the feet in great detail, using a number of verbs to describe the actions in minute detail. We are told that during the meal, Jesus removed his outer garments. Some scholars point out that this would have rendered Jesus almost naked. In this state, Jesus would have looked like a slave who was not given garments to wear, their naked state shows their act of submission and dependence on the master.
This Last Supper scene in John brings to life once again the hymn of the letter to the Church in Philippi. At the moment of the incarnation Jesus had already emptied himself of his divinity and took on the form of created beings. At the Last Supper, he divested himself of his position as Lord and Master to take on the position of a slave. As De Piro points out, the Eucharist itself is another moment of great humiliation, Jesus empties himself even of his humanity to take on the form of bread and wine for us to eat and drink. On the cross he dies the death of the worst of criminals; the crucifixion was reserved for the worst crimes.
Jesus had said that he had not come to be served, but to serve (Lk 22:24-27). In order to be able to serve effectively, one needs to remove his or her outer garments. The one who is offering to serve needs to remove his or her opinions and kneel down in front of the person he or she intends to serve and listen to the person’s needs. If the servant or slave does not set aside his or her garments, then the person is not yet prepared to serve. It is not the role of the slave to tell his master what he needs, the role of the slave is only to listen and act.
This attitude of service is very obvious in the life of the Servant of God Joseph De Piro, and perhaps explains his fascination with Jesus’ kenosis. Although Jesus did the ultimate self-emptying, from uncreated God to created humanity, Joseph too lived through his own act of self-emptying. He was born into a wealthy noble family at a time when the nobility was still very highly respected, and when the vast majority of the Maltese population was living in misery. He was a budding talented artist, he could have had a promising future as a solicitor or in the army, being the son of a noble family, he would have been guaranteed a high office in the Royal Maltese Militia. Even as a priest, he could have joined the Church diplomatic service, as the bishop was encouraging him to do. As a Church diplomat, he would have surely been ordained a bishop.
Instead, the Servant of God threw all this away and chose to live poor, among the poor; he dedicated his life to the poor young children in the orphanages and ministered to the poor and the marginalized in society. De Piro not only lived for the poor, but he became one of them. He often did not have enough money to pay his fare to go from Hamrun to his home in Rabat, because he would have given away all his money. He used to insist on sharing the food the children in the orphanages ate, even if the sisters wanted to prepare special meals for him. When he died he was found wearing undergarments made of the same rough material used for the children in the orphanages.
He often also had to abandon his dearest and holiest plans. As he started preparing for the priesthood he thought he would be spending at least ten years studying in Rome, probably ending with a doctorate in Canon Law. This did not happen due to illness, he barely finished his third year in theology. After his studies he wanted to return to Malta to start working on setting up his dream of a new Missionary Society, instead, he was forced to go to recover on the icy Alpine mountains in Switzerland. When he eventually returned to Malta, he hoped he could take up residence at St Joseph’s Orphanage in Santa Venera. This did not happen as the director, Fr George Bugeja, did not invite him. De Piro was eventually made director of this orphanage in 1922, 17 years after he returned to Malta. His final dream was to send two more missionaries to work with Br Joseph Caruana in Ethiopia, and to visit the mission himself. The bishop wanted to give the young Missionary Society its own territory to look after. Joseph was even denied this opportunity, as he died two months before he was due to leave for Africa.
Joseph learned how to be a servant and slave. He learnt how to lay down his garments, listen to the needs of those around him, and offer them the service they needed. This is indeed a missionary characteristic. Like Jesus and like De Piro, the missionary needs to know how to lay down his or her garments and offer to be of service. The missionary needs to be ready not to share his knowledge, but to listen to the people he is sent to minister to. The missionary needs to learn to empty himself, leave everything behind, and live among those he is sent to minister to. Pope Francis calls this type of ministry ‘having the smell of the sheep.’ The missionary needs to be happy to dirty his hands and be a slave to all.
As Missionaries, let us continue to build our life on the life of Christ and empty ourselves to be able to listen and be with our sisters and brothers. Let us be inspired by the self-emptying of our Founder and let us also be ready to be slaves to all we minister to.