Jesus said to his disciples: ‘If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him. Those who do not love me do not keep my words. And my word is not my own: it is the word of the one who sent me. I have said these things to you while still with you; but the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you. Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give you, a peace the world cannot give, this is my gift to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. You heard me say: I am going away, and shall return. If you loved me you would have been glad to know that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. I have told you this now before it happens, so that when it does happen you may believe.’
“If anyone loves me he will keep my word.” This verse can be read in either of two ways: I can only love God if I live his words, or, I am only obeying the Lord and doing his will when I love him. The Servant of God Joseph De Piro certainly obeyed God when he loved him declaring: ‘I follow you wherever you go.’
The spirituality of the suffering Jesus was not the only ‘particular word’ of the Servant of God Joseph De Piro. In his book Seeking Spirituality (1998), Ronald Rolheiser says: “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.” This reality can be seen also in De Piro’s life.
During his 1900 summer holidays he showed that even before that time he had already been planning to live at St Joseph’s Home after his priestly ordination. As also, he had already dreamt about the foundation of the Society.
He shared his ideas with Fr E. Vassallo of St Joseph’s Orphanage and Fr V. Sammut sj, of the Collegio Pennisi at Acireale, Italy. Both suggested that he should first finish his studies and then think about his dreams. De Piro obeyed.
Things had to change with regards to 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 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 Fr Joseph thought at great length about his already mature ideas but … amidst the icy Alpine mountains so far away from the country where I could put them into practice … he could do nothing.
His health improved and he returned to Malta. Here he tried to give life to his dreams. He started to meet 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, supported him and asked him to put down his project in writing.
De Piro found this difficult. He tried this twice, and each time he failed to come up with anything. At the third attempt, sometime between 31st July and 7th August 1905, he gave Vassallo some notes about the Society. He had written about the nature, aim and spirituality of the future Congregation.
In this first draft of the statutes for his future Society, wrote what could be considered as his second particular word. ‘Our marching order must be, ‘I follow you wherever you go.’
Since this particular word forms part of the initial thoughts about the Society, one could easily conclude that it was only addressed for the members of the future Society. In his diary, De Piro writes: ‘our’ motto, and speaks about what ‘we’ must do, clearly including himself in this project.
Fr Paul Sciberras, a scripture scholar, reflected on De Piro’s second particular word.’
“According to De Piro’s Diary this motto was written on the 7th August 1905, in his presentation of his idea for a Missionary Society to Fr Emmanuel Vassallo. The Servant of God did not indicate his source. So I suggest we analyse the following two points:
In Mt. 8:19 the phrase is “Master, I will follow you wherever you go”. In Lk. 9:57 the word “Master” at the beginning of the phrase is omitted. However this does not mean that the Founder necessarily took Luke’s phrase as the motto; he could have taken the phrase and applied it to God instead of to Jesus, as it is in the Gospels. If we were to look at the context of the notes he wrote down after he had written the Diary, we would find that in note 5, where the motto appears, it is stated we need to be prepared to offer ourselves to God’s will with the greatest generosity and this could have been the case. Yet this is only our speculation about what the Founder thought.
The phrase in Matthew.
The immediate context of the phrase: in Kafarnahuum Jesus cures a lot of people possessed by evil spirits, and all the sick they brought before him. For Matthew this healing amounted to the fulfilment of Isaiah 53,4: “Yet ours were the sufferings he was bearing, ours the sorrows he was carrying”. On seeing that the people were coming to see the wonders he was doing, Jesus then ordered them to cross to the other side. There he meets two people who want to follow him (8,19-21). Thus this context already gives us an idea of the confusion in the people’s mind as to who is Jesus.
Verse 19 shows that the first person to go and tell Jesus that he was going to follow him was a scribe. With this detail, the evangelist shows that this person was an outsider to the disciples. He calls Jesus “Master.” It should be noticed that in Matthew no disciple ever calls Jesus “Master” but always “Lord.” This can be shown by the same cited text (1:21). Thus this scribe uses words which normally were used only by Jesus. So instead of Jesus saying to the scribe “Follow me”, as happens in line 22, it is the scribe himself who tells, and not asks, Jesus “I will follow you wherever you go”.
Jesus’ answer, especially when seen in the light of lines 21-22 and the answer he gives to the second person, indicates that Jesus did not accept the first one. He showed him what it meant to follow him. It implied following not a master but someone who does not even have anywhere “to lay his head”. The Biblical literary technique of parallelism between the two cases implies that since he did not say to the first person “Follow me” (1:22) Jesus had refused his proposal. The pericope also gives an indication of the radicality of the call in an indirect way. However, from the overall context of the two cases in lines 19-21 and the answers of Jesus it appears that there is an emphasis on the notion that it is Jesus himself who calls whom he wants.
The phrase in Luke.
If the Founder took the phrase from Luke, which I think is more unlikely, the text has different nuances of meaning. Lk 9:57 describes the person, who told Jesus that he was going to follow him, simply as “a man”. This person does not call Jesus “Master” or “Lord”. Also when the second case (line 59) is seen parallel to the first case, the contrast is more evident: it is Jesus who tells this second person “Follow me”. In Luke we also have a third case where again it is the individual who takes the initiative and the answer of Jesus is the same as that given for the first case.
The context in Luke is slightly different than that of Matthew. Lk 9:51 marks the start of what has been termed as “The Journey of Jesus with his disciples to Jerusalem and the cross”. In Jerusalem he is crucified, dies, rises on the third day and ascends into Heaven. Thus Jerusalem marks the peak of Jesus’ Messianic mission. During this journey to Jerusalem Jesus walks and corrects the wrong attitudes and doings of his disciples. Thus what happens after is addressed to this theme. This means that in 9:51 there is more which is said to correct the disciples’ mistaken attitudes rather than a non-acceptance of a self-invitation to followership. This rather general context is made up of other contexts encompassed by this general description. Thus the restricted context of lines 57-62 also emphasises Jesus’ prerogative to call whom he wants. Here it is also important to see the three cases in relation and not as distinct cases.
It is probable that De Piro was not interested to cite either Matthew or Luke. He wanted to find a phrase which summarised his ideal and that of the members of his future Society. Definitely he did not want the phrase to be interpreted as a self-invitation for discipleship which is refused by Jesus, the Master. The words we need to be prepared to offer ourselves to God’s will with the greatest generosity in note 5 mentioned above do not leave any room for doubt on this point. De Piro did not take the phrase in the contexts of Luke and Matthew.
The context given by the Founder.
The Founder made this phrase the motto for himself and the Society which he wanted to set up. As motto he desired that it encompass the principles which the members had to follow. Apart from this he introduced this phrase in the context of the religious vows and the undertaking of God’s will with generosity. This shows that whilst refraining from using the formal religious vows for the time being, the Founder wanted to present a concrete application of the Evangelical Counsels to those who were to come together in this Society. From this we can conclude that De Piro knew how to project the radicality of the Gospel and the life style attached to it, to the future members. Therefore, it is in this context that he uses the gospel phrase in all its radicality.
The radicality of “I will follow you wherever you go”.
The scribe was well esteemed by the general public because he studied the Law and its interpretation in order to deliver them to the people as a concrete way of living the Covenant with God. This scribe tells Jesus that he was going to follow him, without Jesus having invited him. He addresses Jesus with a term he commonly used as a scribe, “Master”. This is a scholastic term, often used by a student when addressing his teacher, or Rabbi. Jesus answers to this term, which as I have shown was not used by the disciples, by saying that he is not the same type of Jewish Master that could be found in a Rabbinic school, where the student simply listened and repeated what the Rabbi said about the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings. Jesus did not have his own school, but rather a radical way of life, of total abandonment, worse off than foxes and the birds of the air. He does not even have anywhere to put his head.
To all those who have not embarked on discipleship.
The person who as yet has not begun following Jesus, he was a scribe who did not even know how to address Jesus, it was first necessary to clear some things Jesus seems to be saying to the scibe “what master do you want to follow if you don’t even know who I am. You want to follow me not because I called you, and yet you don’t know the least about who I am and what it entails to follow me?” Here we should note that Jesus replies only to the word Master. There was no need to say more before the scribe clarified exactly the identity of the one he wanted to follow.
As regards the second person in both Luke and Matthew (Mt. 8:21 and Lk. 9:59) Jesus confirms him in the discipleship but also lays down conditions: “let the dead bury their dead”. This has to be a radical decision. By doing the will of Him who is your All, you don’t look back to all that you have left behind: “once the hand is laid on the plough no one who looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62).
The Servant of God, Joseph De Piro adopted a very powerful phrase as motto for his future Society. This choice also sheds light on the saintly wisdom of your Founder: he did not want simply that the members be part of a Missionary Society by going to preach the Word, but also that what they announce be the result of a journey with the Master who has the Word. For this to happen it is necessary that those who announce this experience with the Master have to strive to live the radicality of the life of Jesus, for whom they are ready to leave everything.
The first particular word did not disappear, but was woven into the second to make up another particular spirituality: “Since Jesus is the one who has suffered so much for me, a sinner, I am ready to go wherever he goes”.