Servant of God Joseph De Piro – reflections from his life and writings; 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Isaiah 66:10-14; Psalm 65:1-7,16,20; Galatians 6:14-18; Luke 10:1-12,17-20.

** Gospel Reading

The Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them out ahead of him, in pairs, to all the towns and places he himself was to visit. He said to them, ‘The harvest is rich but the labourers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to his harvest. Start off now, but remember, I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Carry no purse, no haversack, no sandals. Salute no one on the road. Whatever house you go into, let your first words be, “Peace to this house!” And if a man of peace lives there, your peace will go and rest on him; if not, it will come back to you. Stay in the same house, taking what food and drink they have to offer, for the labourer deserves his wages; do not move from house to house. Whenever you go into a town where they make you welcome, eat what is set before you. Cure those in it who are sick, and say, “The kingdom of God is very near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not make you welcome, go out into its streets and say, “We wipe off the very dust of your town that clings to our feet, and leave it with you. Yet be sure of this: the kingdom of God is very near.” I tell you, that on that day it will not go as hard with Sodom as with that town.’

The seventy-two came back rejoicing. ‘Lord,’ they said, ‘even the devils submit to us when we use your name.’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Yes, I have given you power to tread underfoot serpents and scorpions and the whole strength of the enemy; nothing shall ever hurt you. Yet do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you; rejoice rather that your names are written in heaven.’

** Further Reading

This Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word abounds of strong messages, amongst which there is one about evangelisation. De Piro’s charism was that of evangelisation; he was invited by God to spread the Good News.

An option in favour of those lacking the Good News.

Reflecting about De Piro one may think that the Servant of God opted only for the poor in need of material things. But it is at the same time quite clear that even in the very same orphanages under his care, he did not cater only for the material needs of the orphans or poor children and youths living or attending there. Even in the orphanages and in the Birkirkara Oratory De Piro realised that the children lacked greatly the Good News. And he helped them even in this.

            The choice between remaining in Rome in order to go to the “Academia”, or returning to Malta where he could start the Society which was expected to help “those who did not have workers of the gospel”.

The Servant of God started the pages of his Diary by saying that after finishing his studies in Rome he wished to take up residence at St Joseph’s Orphanage, Malta. Almost immediately afterwards he also wrote that an internal feeling told him that from that Institute, God wanted the setting up of a Congregation whose members would go even abroad. Therefore when De Piro preferred coming to Malta rather than staying at the “Church Academy”, he did not opt only for the poor orphaned boys of the orphanage. He also favoured the orphanage in order to set up in it a Society for those countries which were poor of evangelisers.

De Piro registered the above option in another place in his Diary. He was writing about his experience in Davos, Switzerland, “In the meantime, during this time, I continued to treasure my ideas that had by now become old. But, on the icy Alpine mountains, so far from the country where I intended to put them into practice, I had nothing left for me except prayer – my best companion – and I prayed, prayed and prayed.”

The country mentioned here by De Piro was undoubtedly Malta. For him the island was therefore the place where he intended to concretise his “ideas by now become old.” In another place in his Diary, the Servant of God explained what were “his ideas”, “a society of missionaries.” The aim of this Society was going to be, “foreign missions.” Therefore when De Piro favoured Malta instead of remaining at the “Academy”, he opted for the country where he could found a society which was going to cater for those who were poor of evangelisers or missionaries. Or one can say that De Piro did not opt for Malta only in order to go to St Joseph’s Orphanage and there live with other priests among the poor orphaned boys. He wanted also to start there his Society, a one that was to cater for those peoples who lacked evangelisers.

After being ordained priest, the Servant of God made another choice. This time it was not between the “Church Academy” and St Joseph’s Orphanage where De Piro wished to work among the poor boys who lived there. It was not even between the “Academy” and the orphanage where he also thought to start a Society the members of which were to dedicate themselves for the evangelisation of those who lacked the Good News. These options he had already made since his retreat for the diaconate. As a newly ordained presbyter, Fr Joseph had to make another choice. On the one hand he could live like his brother, Fr Sante, as a priest in his family mansion, surrounded by all the commodities which could be found in noble surroundings. On the other hand, he was faced by the possibility of being the founder of a Congregation for the evangelisation of the people who had not yet heard of the gospel. De Piro again opted in favour of the poor, this time those lacking the Good News.

            A choice between continuing the option of the apostolate with migrants and the more immediate approval of the Society

De Piro had every reason to put aside, at least on paper, the Maltese migrants’ apostolate and present the missions as the one and only aim of the Society. Had he done so he would have undoubtedly acquired what he wanted so much from the Congregation of Propaganda Fide; if not the Decretum Laudis at least the affiliation of the Society with the Missions Congregation. The Founder did explain to his superiors why he always included the Maltese abroad in the aim of the Society. At the same time he stuck to his charism and continued mentioning the Maltese migrants in the draft constitutions of his Society. Because of which he had to accept his Society’s affiliation with the Congregation of Religious.

What helped De Piro opt for the poor lacking the Good News

            The love of the Father shown through the Incarnate, suffering and Eucharistic Son, the One with a Heart full of love for all

Joseph De Piro can be said to have been imbued with the love of God the Father, expressed in a special way through the various mysteries of Jesus Christ. In his sermons the Servant of God referred very frequently to the Lord’s incarnation – through it Jesus became one with us. The passion and death the Son suffered for us, sinners, were the mysteries that influenced so much the Servant of God himself since his early youth and continued helping him move forward all through his own life. The Eucharist was for De Piro the continuation of the incarnation – the Sacrament invented by Jesus and through which he becomes one with us. Christ’s Sacred Heart was for the Servant of God nothing less than the abode of the divine love and therefore that which saves us continuously. Being permeated with this divine love, De Piro, personally or through others, could not but continuously tell his brothers and sisters, whether the Maltese in Malta, the Maltese migrants or the people in mission countries, about this same divine love. He also uninterruptedly evangelised the faith that was the civilization and the holistic melioration of the human being, that which introduces liberty in human society, the giver of life, and light for humanity.

There is then a sermon of De Piro where he showed quite clearly what was his concept of evangelisation. De Piro was rector of the Maltese Major Seminary from 1918 up to 1920. Some time later, a newly ordained priest who had been a seminarian during those two years, invited the Servant of God to preach the sermon at his first solemn high mass. Since De Piro was preaching on the occasion of the feast of a priest, he presented the teaching of the Good News as the work of the priest, but from De Piro’s words one can easily see what the Servant of God understood by evangelisation in itself:

It is a fact that our society has made progress in the arts, science and all kinds of inventions. Those who love their country are therefore happy with this upgrading of civilisation. However, progress alone is not enough: society always needs a light that can lead it to glory. Religious instruction is an absolute necessity. Society needs to be taught how to behave in front of God. Who addresses this need? I cannot give you an answer, nor can the ancient philosophers and even less the modern ones. It is only Jesus Christ himself who can provide the answer. He points towards his ambassador, his priest, and tells us that he is the light that could lead us to glory. See how Jesus Christ speaks and gives orders: ‘Go and teach’ (Matt 28). In another place, as confirmation of his mission, he says: ‘Those who listen to you, listen to me’ (Lk 10). Thus, if society bans the Catholic priest, it deprives itself of all good: eliminating the priest means eliminating Jesus Christ, and where he does not reign there is darkness instead of light, errors instead of truth, and death instead of life, because only Jesus can say: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (Jn 14,6).

Whenever error starts to spread in a country and minds become obfuscated and hearts corrupted, it is the priest who cries out loudly to keep alive the Catholic faith. When egoism triumphs, when the poor, the widows and the orphans are ill-treated, it is the priest who preaches about evangelical love. With apostolic courage he reminds everyone of that justice that awaits us in the next life. When family life is endangered, it is the priest who can bring back peace and serenity, order and harmony that can put back a family on the right track, restoring its dignity. The priest speaks to everyone, the young and the old, the powerful and the weak, the rich and the poor, the intelligent and the ignorant, the kings and the subjects: through his word everything becomes sacred: the children, the people, the government – because his message is only one: love God, love one another, be virtuous, avoid evil.

When one reads these words of De Piro, one can already understand why he opted so much for those brothers and sisters who lacked the Good News!