In the Old Testament, God shepherds his people and provides prophets to shepherd his people and speak in his name. This shepherding shows God’s care for us, his creation. Paul reminds us that out of his great love, he sent his only Son to save us, reconciling us to God through the cross.
In last week’s gospel we saw Jesus send out his twelve apostles to go out in twos to preach the good news. On their return, Jesus is the good shepherd who welcomes the twelve back and cares for them. Jesus notices that the twelve are tired, and invites them to go with him to a lonely place to rest.
The good shepherd cannot help but notice that those who were gathering around him are like sheep without a shepherd, and starts teaching them. Like the charismatic person that he is, Jesus looked, analysed the situation, made his conclusions, and acted. Moreover, Mark presents the Good Shepherd interested in the whole human person: body, mind, spirit and soul.
The Servant of God Joseph De Piro was another good shepherd to his flock. When one looks at the way he responded to the needs of the members of his Society, one immediately notices that he looked after all the aspects of the members’ lives, physical, spiritual – dealing with the human character – and religious. In this reflection we will only refer to the physical dimension of the members:
In the constitutions, De Piro considered the Society as a “…loving Mother … constantly looking after the spiritual and material needs of its members,” he provided for the basic needs of the members, including their food. Michael Vella Haber, one of the first members, pointed out that since the Society depended on the Founder for its financial support, at times this was very limited, at times even lacking in food. Fr Louis Gatt, Fr Joseph Caruana and Paul Xuereb, three of the first members, felt that the food was sufficient.
In the constitutions, when writing about the one responsible to do the shopping, the Founder mentioned that this member had the duty to ascertain there was enough food for all the members. “It is very important for each house to have a responsible person to do the shopping. He needs to keep the place supplied with all that the Superior deems is needed for the daily life of the community, and he is to give these supplies to the store keeper or the cook in due time.”
The Founder wrote that it is similarly the responsibility of the store keeper to “keep in the house store all the food needed and that has been bought, according to the Superior’s instructions. When there are not enough supplies left, promptly the store keeper needs to inform the Superior so that fresh supplies can be bought.”
The one who does the shopping must buy enough food and ensure that the food is “of good quality.”
In the same section of the constitutions, De Piro instructs the one doing the shopping to guarantee there is enough food for the community, and that the food is healthy. Whenever possible, the one who does the shopping has duty to vary the type of food served to the members. “He must also inform the house treasurer what seasonal produce is available at the market at a good price, so that he can vary the menu while still respecting our vow of poverty.”
What Michael Vella Haber said about the food he also mentioned about clothes. Once again, Vella Haber felt that there were not enough clothes provided for the community. Gatt, Caruana and Xuereb did not agree with Vella Haber’s judgement.
With respect to the local treasurer, the Founder wrote: “Apart from the house treasurer who, acting on the Superior’s instructions needs to ensure that all the Missionaries have whatever they need, in every community there should also be someone responsible to look after the clothes.”
By including a separate section about the person who looks after the wardrobe, the Founder showed that he was also concerned about this aspect of the members’ life. Here he wrote: “The one responsible for the wardrobe must ensure that all clothes, even those used at home, are mended properly, so that the Missionaries have the external decorum that our status entails. This also applies to underwear, so that it is not ruined through negligence.”
The Founder also included a section about the habit of the Society, emphasising its simplicity. He also emphasised simplicity when he wrote about the members’ hairstyles and their outward appearance.
In the conferences he delivered to the brothers during the 1929-1930 novitiate, he repeated the same instructions put down in the constitutions.
There is no section dealing specifically about hygiene in the constitutions, but in different places the Founder indicated that this was another very important aspect regarding the members of his Society. The Servant of God referred to hygiene when speaking about the pantry, “The store keeper should see that the pantry is kept clean, and all that is kept in it is also clean. Everything is to be placed in its proper place, so as no confusion arises. Food and drinks are to be served in their original and genuine state.”
He also spoke in a similar tone when writing about the one who looks after the dining room. This member is to see that the dining room and everything that is used there, is to be kept spotless. The table-cloths and the napkins, when used, need to be changed weekly, and all the linen used in the refectory is to be carefully accounted for.
He must also see that nothing is lacking, e.g. glasses, cups, cutlery, etc, and that everything is kept clean. Glasses are to be washed separately from cups, and tea-towels used have to be different.
The Servant of God gave details about the cook’s attention for cleanliness: “He must see that cleanliness be the hallmark of his work. He is not to touch food with his hands, but using the appropriate instruments. Vegetables must be washed in a container kept for this purpose, and plates are to be dried with a cloth reserved for this.
In the conferences he gave to the novices between 1929-1930, De Piro spoke about the butler, the dining room, and the member in charge of this place. De Piro always emphasised the need of cleanliness.
Physical health and care of the sick
The members of the Society of St Paul depended on their Founder also with regards to their physical health. De Piro mentioned several exceptions with regards to those who were sick. The Servant of God insisted that the store keeper When dealing with the pantry keeper the Servant of God insisted that when distributing food to the members of the community, he must not show any preferential treatment to anyone except the sick, “… special care must be given to the sick and those in convalescence, following the instructions given.”
“The one responsible for the dining room must treat everyone equally and with charity. Sick members and those with special needs are to be especially looked after whenever the need arises. In these cases, the Superior is to be informed; no concessions are to be given without the Superior’s permission.” A little later the Founder wrote, “The cook must not allow anyone to prepare any food for himself or others without the Superior’s permission. The community nurse is exempted from this rule.”
The Founder wanted to express his care for sick members of his Society. In the constitutions he wrote a section about the need for each community to have a member appointed to nurse the sick. In this section certain articles are stronger and more sensitive than the others, “Even though in virtue of the charity that constitutes the bond and the strength of the Society, everyone is be ready to be of service to his sick brothers, nevertheless, the Superior is to appoint one or two members to act as nurses. These members are to be entrusted with the special care of the sick.” Moreover, “When the person starts his convalescence, the nurse is to make sure his is comfortable and provide him either with some light reading or with light and reasonable conversations, which should be also good for the spirit.”
The Servant of God also wrote a whole section about the sick members. The section is rather exhortative. As in other parts of the constitutions, the Founder emphasised that the Superior is to be informed about each step taken in favour of the infirm. De Piro also instructed the house Superior, “The Superior needs to supervise the medical and spiritual care of the sick person whom he is to visit every day. He is to see that the sick member is treated with love and that he is provided with all his needs for his body and soul.”
To all the members, the Servant of God said this: “Those who are healthy should remember that the sick are the Lord’s chosen ones, and that they draw heavenly blessings upon the house. Therefore, let all members pray for the sick and, according to the dispositions given, visit them with love and devotion, keeping in mind that whatever comfort they give them through uplifting words, or any help which they are allowed to give, Our Lord regards as done to himself.”
Here the Founder exhorted all members to continuously accompany the sick, especially during the last moments of his life. He also reminded the members to administer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick to their invalid companion.
Between 1929-1930 De Piro delivered three conferences to the novices where he spoke about the care of the sick. Here he often repeated what he had written in the constitutions.
The Founder saw to it that the members of his Society had an adequate house to live in. According to the Founder himself, the first house was no longer suitable. Michael Vella Haber joined the Society on 29 September 1929. He mentioned that the second house, and perhaps even the third house the Society had in Mdina, was still not sufficient. Once again Gatt, Caruana, and Xuereb, disagreed with Vella Haber and said that the lodging was relatively good. De Piro wanted the members to have a bigger and better residence. The foundation stone of this building was blessed by the Bishop of Malta, Mauro Caruana, on 3rd October 1932. St Agatha’s Motherhouse was inaugurated on 30th June 1933.
Financial and other material support
In the constitutions the Founder urged the storekeeper to think of the poor when storing the food, “Mindful of the vow of poverty, he must collect all left-overs, since they can often be reused or given to the poor, according to the Superior’s instructions.”
Gatt, Caruana and Xuereb agreed that each day the aspirants of the Society had some recreation after lunch and in the evening. They even went out for walks. Fr Augustine Grech said that all members in formation had some time of recreation each day. Br Venanz Galea spoke about the daily recreation of the other members. Gatt said that at the time of the carnival, before the start of Lent, the Servant of God invited the members to go to St Joseph’s, Orphanage, Malta, to watch some films. Galea said that the members went to Marsaxlokk, a seaside village, for their summer vacation. According to the council minutes, members also went to a place called Cavallerizza, near the sea. Other members spoke about the village of Qrendi, where the De Piro family had one of its summer residences. The Founder also rented a holiday house in Gozo, near St Joseph’s Orphanage, Gozo.
The Servant of God wrote a whole section about recreation. He was very clear about the aim of recreation, “Recreation time, spent together after lunch and dinner, is not only meant to refresh the body and spirit, but also to foster mutual love and the exercise of many virtues.” He insisted that during this time all the members had to be actively present, “No one is to remain silent during recreation. Rather each member should do his best to contribute to the joy of all…”
He also spoke about the behaviour of members: “… to avoid making fun of others, the Rule or sacred things, and to avoid those defects which are both contrary to a religious behaviour, but also contrary to politeness and appropriateness, each member should avoid secular manners and those which are too friendly and carefree, and which contradict religious gravity and modesty.
Each member is to avoid conflict. If, however, there are any difference of opinion, and it seems right that each one expresses his view, let him express it with unpretentiousness and charity, with the sole aim of reaching the truth, and not to feel superior to the others.
Each member should beware of ever giving vent to his impatience and arrogance, being of bad example to the others.”
In the conferences to the novices, De Piro delivered three conferences about recreation, where he basically repeated what he had written in the constitutions. It is important to note the wholistic concepts, “Recreation should provide corporal and spiritual relief.” A little later he added, “The Rule tells us that afternoon recreation, after lunch and after supper should uplift us spiritually as much as it does temporarily.”
The Servant of God was also interested in the academic development of the members of his Society. He also showed concerned about those who had not even joined the Society. The Founder ensured that in their timetable the members had enough time for study. With regards the secondary education of the members, the Founder asked the help of the Jesuits, and for their tertiary formation, philosophy and theology he enrolled them with the Augustinian Fathers. He involved himself in this aspect of the members’ life and often discussed with them some topics they were studying.
Trades and crafts
De Piro wanted that the members of his Society shared in the running of the house. He taught them cookery, how to preserve food and other practical skills. The novices spent an hour every day doing manual work. He engaged instructors from St Joseph’s Orphanage, Malta, to teach trades to the novices and sent the Brothers to the orphanage to learn a trade with the boys.
Discipline and corrections
Fr Louis Gatt spoke explicitly about the Founder’s responsibility to correct the members of his Society, “He often corrected members of the Society. The novices, students and professed were disciplined by him.” Gatt also said that the members were happy to obey the Founder because he spoke to them “… with prudence and charity. He was never angry. We were all inspired with awe in his presence.” Fr John Vella, one of the first two members who joined De Piro’s Society, also spoke about the fact that the Founder was never angry.
Michael Vella Haber said that De Piro was like a father to the members of his Society and they often called him ‘Padre,’ (father). De Piro cared for the members greatly, was a man with a big heart and very humane. He treated each one of them as mature persons. His approach with the members was persuasive, not imposing. Vella’s words are clear: “… he always tried to make one understand what was wrong, so that one would not repeat the same mistake.” This attitude was very encouraging for the members.
The Founder saw the members as part of a community, but he also respected them as individuals. He often met with the members as a group, but also had individual conversations with them, even as aspirants and earlier. Fr Peter Paul Borda, an ex-member of the Society, this was very sound psychology.
Vella Haber who had spoken about De Piro’s personal contact with the members, said that the Founder did not spend much time with them when they were living at St Agatha’s. Fr Louis Gatt, who had said that the Founder spoke to the members individually, later said that De Piro only did this only if requested by the member. He even said that the Founder did not have much time to spend with individuals.
In the constitutions the Founder wrote about two types of discipline: self-discipline and the discipline to be carried out by the Superiors and those responsible for one aspect or another in the life of the Society or the community. De Piro wrote about self-discipline in the sections: ‘Detachment,’ ‘Modesty,’ ‘Silence and Punctuality,’ ‘Avoiding laziness,’ ‘Corporal penance,’ and ‘Visitations and Letter writing.’ Moreover, he dedicated the whole of the third fascicle of the constitutions to speak about discipline by persons in authority.
In his conferences to the novices (1929-1930), he laid more emphasis on self-discipline. He spoke four times about detachment, five times about silence, once about punctuality, nine times about avoiding laziness, five times about corporal penance and five conferences about how one needed to behave in the dining room. In these conferences he repeated what he had written in the constitutions.
Relationship with family members
Fr Augustine Grech reported that the Founder spoke to the members about their detachment from their families; Michael Vella Haber indicated the opposite. Vella Haber said that De Piro would invite him to accompany him when he visited the island of Gozo, where his family lived.