As we start a new liturgical year, on the first Sunday of Advent, the Church encourages us to “… stay awake …” and “… be ready ….” (Mt 24:42a, 44a) because the Lord will come at a time we least expect. At Christmas we celebrate the coming of God amongst us and in our own life. Unless we are careful, we will be caught unprepared, as did people at the time of Noah and Lot.
Ignatius of Loyola suggests a method of discernment to help those who follow his spirituality to observe and listen to God’s actions in their life. Joseph De Piro was familiar and practised Ignatian discernment; from his writings we can see him discerning God’s will in his decision to become a priest and in the establishing of his missionary society. De Piro was aware of the ‘signs of the times’ in his life. We are reminded of this need to ‘stay awake’ look out for the coming of the Lord in the various situations in our life.
In January 1898 Alessandro De Piro and his wife Ursola travelled to Italy for a holiday; there Alessandro felt sick and died. On the 8th May, their son Joseph, a first-year law student at the University of Malta, decided to start studying for the priesthood. In July he travelled to Rome to start studying philosophy and theology at the Gregorian University. From Rome he often wrote to his mother. On the 22nd December 1898 he reflected:
“According to our judgement, this year has been one of misfortune; this according to our human way of seeing things. God never acts imperfectly; his works can only be good. I can certainly say that the consolations we experienced have been far greater than the grief caused by our great loss.”
A few months later, on 13th May 1899, Berti, Joseph’s brother, died at the age of twenty-two. He was the sixth in the De Piro family. Two days later Joseph again wrote to his mother:
“Dearest mother, among all my brothers and sisters, I am the least able to comfort you, from Rome. It is clear that God and the Blessed Virgin Mary have not forgotten us; they often provide us with opportunities that invite us to deepen our trust in them. Regarding Berti, we can be sure that he is in a better place; he is with our loved ones who have left us. In a letter he wrote to me on 9th May, he shared … what he had experienced the day before at the Jesuits’ church; this made me truly happy. Berti wrote: ‘Today we can truly say that the 8th May is one of the most devotional days in the year.’ He wrote about his devotion to Our Lady of Pompei. He told me that he had prayed fervently and requested Our Lady to grant him a grace he needed. As we grieve, we can now see how Our Lady responded to this request. Berti did not have time to pray a Novena of thanksgiving; soon after she took him with her to heaven – the greatest gift that we can be given.”
These letters of the Servant of God are not the only witness to his ability to observe the signs of the times; his whole life is proof of this. When he was still young, he was convinced that God had chosen him to be the founder of a missionary society. To confirm this he sought the support of other priests, but could not find any. Mgr F.X. Bonnici, founder of St Joseph’s Orphanage and a great friend, told him that his dream was almost impossible to achieve. Like Noah in today’s gospel reading, Joseph De Piro trusted in God and carried on with his dream. He started the religious Missionary Society of St Paul on the 30th June 1910.