Servant of God Joseph De Piro – reflections from his life and writings; 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1 Kings 19:16,19-21; Psalm 15:1-2,5,7-11; Galatians 5:1,13-18; Luke 9:51-62.

** Gospel Reading

As the time drew near for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely took the road for Jerusalem and sent messengers ahead of him. These set out, and they went into a Samaritan village to make preparations for him, but the people would not receive him because he was making for Jerusalem. Seeing this, the disciples James and John said, ‘Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to burn them up?’ But he turned and rebuked them, and they went off to another village.

As they travelled along they met a man on the road who said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus answered, ‘Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’

Another to whom he said, ‘Follow me,’ replied, ‘Let me go and bury my father first.’ But he answered, ‘Leave the dead to bury their dead; your duty is to go and spread the news of the kingdom of God.’

Another said, ‘I will follow you, sir, but first let me go and say good-bye to my people at home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Once the hand is laid on the plough, no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

** Further Reading

This Sunday’s gospel reading is quite familiar with us Paulist Missionaries. The words “I will follow you wherever you go” were used by our Founder in the first draft constitution of our religious congregation. We can, therefore, reflect on these words of the gospel.

A theology of charisms

According to one of the theologies of charisms there is a process followed by God when he wants to endow an individual with a charism:

  • the individual is helped by God to live the Divine Word as a whole.
  • this living of the Divine Word introduces the individual to the living of a particular word, phrase, sentence, truth or aspect of the whole Word.
  • the living a particular word prompts the individual to;
  • to look around,
  • see the reality around him or her,
  • analyse this reality in the light of the particular word, and
  • through the living of the particular word, the individual takes a particular action and does something in favour of the amelioration of the reality around him or her.

The particular word or rule of life

In his book Seeking Spirituality, Ronald Rolheiser (1998) writes:

“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.”

The Servant of God Joseph De Piro lived this reality and in the course of his life lived three different rules of life. The first one was “Jesus who has suffered so much for my sins;” the second one “I follow you wherever you go;” and the third motto “If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the workers labour.” Today we can reflect on De Piro’s second rule of life.

De Piro’s second particular word or rule of life

During his 1900 summer holidays he admitted that for some time he had been thinking about taking up residence at St Joseph’s Orphanage, Hamrun, after his priestly ordination. This plan was associated with notion of founding a religious society.

He shared his thoughts with Fr E. Vassallo, Director of the orphanage, and Fr V. Sammut sj, his spiritual director. Both suggested that he should first finish his studies and then think about his dreams. De Piro obeyed.

In July 1900 De Piro was very sick and he feared that he was going to die. Therefore, he requested the permission to be ordained priest during his third year theology. Soon after his ordination and having finished his studies did not return to Malta but went to Davos, Switzerland to recover.

In Davos Fr Joseph had enough time to think 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 but pray.

After eighteen months in Davos, his health improved and he returned to Malta. Here he stared to give life to his dreams. He started to meet other priests with whom he shared his plans about the new missionary society, and even invited them to join him in the adventure. He also spoke to the Bishop of Malta.

One of the priests De Piro spoke to was Fr E. Vassallo. Vassallo supported De Piro’s idea and asked him to put down his project in writing.

De Piro found this exercise quite difficult. He tried to do this twice, and failed. Early in August 1905 he presented Vassallo with what he had written. The Founder hesitated twice to do this, but the third time, some time between 31st July and 7th August 1905, he presented Vassallo with a piece of paper on which there were the nature, scope and spirituality of the future Congregation.

In these “first statutes” for his future Society, the Founder put down what can considered as his “second rule of life” “Our motto must be, ‘I follow you wherever you go’.”

Referring to the Founder’s Diary, one finds out that in fact the second “rule of life” makes part of the very first statutes of De Piro’s Society. This very fact may mislead the Diary’s reader. The latter may easily get the impression that the author is addressing his “I will follow you” only to the members of his prospective Society; the Founder may seem as not including himself in this “programme”. But in fact De Piro is challenging even himself with this second motto: in these very first statutes he uses such words as “we must” and not “you must”; “Our” and not “your”– “… we must be available to do God’s will with the greatest generosity. Our rule of life must be …” In the new circumstances, or in the case of his being called by God to be the Founder of the Society, Joseph De Piro himself was ready to go wherever the Lord wanted him to go. This will be elaborated when dealing with the foundation and first years of the Society.

The Gospel quotation

In order to better understand the implications of this Gospel phrase, as used by De Piro, reference is made to what Fr Paul Sciberras wrote about it in our Alma Mater:

According to the Founder’s diary (1898 – 1909) 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:

1. Did he take the phrase from Mt. 8:19 or from Lk. 9:57?

2. Did the Founder take the phrase in its Gospel context or did he give it another con­text?

Mt. 8:19 and Lk. 9: 57.

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 “rule of life”; 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 must therefore be prepared to respond to God’s will with the greatest generosity” and this could have been the case. But this is only our speculation and not what the Founder thought.

The phrase in Matthew.

The immediate context of the phrase: in Capernaum 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 (the scribe). 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. On the other hand, 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.

To conclude this section, it is probable that the Founder 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 sequela which is refused by Jesus, the Master. The words “we must therefore be ready to follow God’s will with the greatest generosity” in note 5 mentioned above do not leave any room for doubt on this point. Thus 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. And 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 “discipleship of Christ” 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. He (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 his sequela (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 scribe “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.

The disciples.

As regards the second person in both Luke and Matthew (Mt. 8:21 and Lk. 9:59) Jesus confirms him in the doscipleship 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 do not 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).

Conclusion.

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 “Society of Missionaries” 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 “rule of life” did not disappear; it was woven with 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”.