At times we find it very difficult to comprehend God’s ways. In this Sunday’s gospel reading Jesus uses the parable of the landowner who goes out at different times of the day to hire workers. At the end of the day he pays each worker a denarius, regardless of the length of time they worked. The denarius is a worker’s full day’s wages.
The workers who joined the workforce at the beginning of the day expected to be paid more than those who came later, or, perhaps, they expected the ones who came later not to be given a full days’ wages. All workers received the fullest possible wage allowed, so no one could expect more, but, in our mind, this is not just.
The first reading the prophet Isaiah reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways and we will always struggle to understand how God thinks. Our role is to try to discern God’s will and align ourselves with it.
Joseph De Piro understood that God’s ways are different than our ways and lived accordingly; many moments in his life witness to this.
On the 22nd December, a few months after his father’s death, Joseph wrote to his mother, sisters and brothers: “According to our judgment, last year was full of misfortune. I say this because God always acts in a perfect way and his actions can only be but the best. On that occasion we received many consolations and without any hesitation I would say that our consolations surpassed our pain.”
A few months later, his brother Berti died. On 15th May 1899, Joseph again wrote to his mother: “It seems that God and the Virgin Mary have not forgotten us; they frequently offer us moments through which we can grow in our hope in them. Regarding Berti, we can say without any hesitation, he is in a better place than us, he is close to other good people who are already departed ….”
During the course of his studies, twice Joseph fell seriously sick. He realised that he was not destined to stay in Rome for further studies, as he had written to his mother some days after he his arrival in 1898. He understood that it was not God’s will for him to advance in the Church’s diplomacy, as Archbishop Peter Pace had invited him to do: “With regards to my intelligence, I am not any special. I have coped until now. I almost failed in two, out of my three exams. If I consider my capabilities, and keep in mind the difficult exams, I have to admit that I do not have the possibility of obtaining any further academic degrees.”
While he was recovering in Davos, Switzerland, Joseph grew in the awareness that he had to place his full trust in God, and allow him to lead the way: “… amidst the icy Alpine mountains, so far from the land where I hoped to realise my dreams,…” he could do nothing about his “… plans I have matured in me for so long.” “… I was left with nothing but prayer – my most intimate friend. And I prayed, prayed and prayed.”
Joseph tried to understand God’s will for him. He felt discouraged and disheartened when he was misunderstood by the other priests whom he approached, trying to engage them in the foundation of his society. He soon realised that only the Lord could build the house and at the beginning of each section of the constitution for his society, he quoted Psalm 126. He also did this in his speech at the laying of the foundation stone of the Motherhouse.
De Piro was in Rome in November 1906. In his diary he wrote: “As I was in Rome, and today being the feast-day of the dedication of the Basilicas of the Apostles St Peter and St Paul, I celebrated Mass in St Peter’s, in the Vatican, on the altar dedicated to St Peter. I celebrated Mass in honour of the Apostles St Peter and St Paul, asking them to help me clearly understand God’s will for me and to help me put it into practice.”
With regards to the students who left the society after having received a good secondary education, De Piro quoted the words “My thoughts are not your thoughts” to Mgr Antonio Buhagiar. Buhagiar said that: “De Piro enrolled those aspiring to join the society at St Aloysius College, to prepare for the Matriculation Exam, then he would allow them to wear the religious habit of the society. The Jesuits, who ran this college, did not charge any money for their education. Unfortunately, some of the boys left the society soon after they had finished their secondary education; they easily landed a suitable job with their qualifications. Once I told De Piro: ‘Can’t you see that you these boys are abusing your generosity? They are only interested in receiving a good educated to be able to find a job.’ De Piro always answered with his usual calm: ‘It does not matter if this is what they are doing. I am happy for them to have received a good academic formation. They will benefit from this. Jesus never forced any of his disciples to stay with him. Who am I to impose anything on them? God knows how to make use of their education. The good they received will one day produce fruit.’”
The first member of the society who became a priest, also left the society four years after his ordination. De Piro had depended heavily on him. This priest spoke about De Piro’s behaviour when he obtained permission to become a secular priest: “De Piro approached me, he did not look at me in the face, and said to me: ‘The bishop accepts you as a priest in the diocese.’ I asked him: ‘What do you mean?’ This came like a shock. He then left me alone and went to the chapel, knelt down and stayed there praying, holding his head in his hands.”
De Piro tried to understand God’s will even when he encountered setbacks in his relationship with the Maltese Church authorities about the principal aim of the society.
De Piro faced difficulties both before he stared his society and afterwards. When he encountered these difficulties, he always saw God’s hand in them. Fr Augustine Grech, one of the first members, said: “During meals he would ask us whether we had any dreams. He once shared with us one of his own dreams. He dreamt that he was on a big ship, together with people from many different nations. Suddenly the propeller stopped working. The founder went down into the engine room to fix the engine. While he was there, a lady approached him and told him to go back on deck; she was going to fix the engine herself. The founder said that the woman was St Agatha.”
What motivated De Piro to live in this way?
Life is a like pendulum, swinging from one side to the other. There was a time in the history of the Church when great importance was given to prayer, and apostolic work was considered irrelevant. Christians later realised their mistake and started to prioritise pastoral work, abandoning prayer. Often we thought that we had to choose since we could not be both Martha and Mary at the same time. Some spiritual leaders taught that while one could have a more active or a more contemplative role, one still needs both aspects in life. St Ignatius of Loyola was among those who insisted on this reality. Although he was not the initiator of this spirituality, he certainly promoted contemplation-in-action.
Jesuit priests, members of the religious congregation started by Ignatius of Loyola, had one of their residences at Mdina, next to the De Piro family residence. Members of the De Piro family, including Jospeh, visited the Jesuits for spiritual direction. From them De Piro learnt to be a contemplative-in-action.
De Piro had a number of ministries in the local, the universal Church and the Maltese society. He was involved in almost fifty-three different initiatives. He was also continuously at one with God and could unhesitatingly say of himself: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is within me.’ De Piro continuously recognised God’s presence within him; God was the spirit that animated his thoughts, words and actions.
Joseph De Piro wished to be totally united to God since his early years. At the age of twenty-one, when he was discerning about his vocation, he wrote: ‘The desire to give myself totally to God;…’
During the third year of his theological studies, De Piro engaged in a discernment to decide whether to continue his studies and join the Church diplomatic service, or return to Malta and join the community of priests living at St Joseph’s Orphanage. In listing the reasons against continuing his studies he wrote:
“… when He decided to choose me as His minister He looked for me among sinners, so also now, if He has determined for me some other role, He should know to look for me among His chosen ones.”
“… I felt great consolations when I considered that I had chosen a crown of thorns with Jesus, rather than one of roses.”
“Because in this way I can follow Jesus more closely.”
“So that on my deathbed I may be able to find some comfort in knowing that I would have suffered a little for Jesus’ sake, He who suffered so much for my sins.”
Several of De Piro’s contemporaries, among them some early members of the society, testified in the diocesan phase of De Piro’s Cause of Canonisation, that he was really a ‘man of God.’ Fr Augustine Grech said that people who met De Piro “… noticed that he lived continually in the presence of God.” Br Felix Muscat confirmed this. Fr Louis Gatt said “… I noticed that God was always in his mind ….” Br Venanz Galea indicated where he noticed the founder’s union with God, “The Servant of God had a deep spiritual faith. When he spoke to us, individually or as a community, he left a deep impression on us, much more than other persons did. He was a divinely inspired person, with deep convictions.”
Sr Marie De Piro, a niece of the Servant of God, said that her uncle was very close to God. She witnessed her uncle’s union with God in his ministry: “His deep union with God enabled him to carry out the various outwardly incompatible initiatives, serenely and competently ….” When she spoke about her uncle’s ability to give advice, his niece said: “I am sure that my uncle’s wisdom and prudence were the result of his union with God, and not simply the fruit of his natural qualities and character.”
Mgr Paschal Robinson visited Malta between 3rd April and 2nd June 1929 as an Apostolic Delegate during the politico-religious conflict between the Maltese Church authorities and the Prime Minister, Sir Gerard Strickland. Robinson told Fr Daniel Glavina sj that he believed De Piro was ‘a man of God.’ Fr John Vella, one of the first two members who joined the society, and the first priest of the society, Fr Raphael Azzopardi osa, John Vella, and Victor Tedesco, who for a time formed part of the society, Fr Arthur Vella sj, nephew of Fr John Vella, and John Buhagiar, an employee at St Joseph’s Orphanage in Malta all shared the same opinion about De Piro. Fr Azzopardi also mentioned that De Piro had the same reputation among the religious in Rabat.