Acts 10:25-26,34-35,44-48; Psalm 97(98):1-4; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17.
The life of God within us expresses itself in love. God is love and we live out our sharing in God’s life by the way we love our sisters and brothers. Jesus puts himself as a role model for his disciples. His total love led him all the way to the cross. Jesus tells us that, like him, we too need to learn to love, not in an egotistical way, but in the same way God loves us, an agape type of love. We too are invited to lay down our life for those around us.
In the second reading John again reminds us that the sure way to know that, like healthy branches, we are still connected to the divine vine, is through our deep, sincere and selfless love. In my relationships with my sisters and brothers, as I witness God’s love to them, I need to be ready to put myself aside and ‘love until it hurts.’
For the Apostles, this also meant putting aside their religious laws, handed down to them by their ancestors. Peter had to learn that while Jesus was the Messiah promised to the Jewish people, his salvation was to be applied to all peoples. The early Church tried to resist this new development, but Peter experienced the Spirit moving in a very different way, coming down also on the non-Jewish Cornelius. The divine life and love we receive cannot be limited but needs to be shared with all.
The Servant of God Joseph De Piro had his own experience of love that pushes itself beyond the boundaries. On 8th May 1898, during the supplica prayer he offered up himself and everything he had to the Lord and to the brethren. This he did all along his life.
Joseph De Piro could have enjoyed a very prosperous life. He could have become a painter. In his teens he spent three and a half years as member of the Royal Malta Regiment of Militia where, had he remained, he could have easily been promoted to higher ranks. In 1898 he started a law course at the University of Malta, this would have led him to a lawyer’s career. As a member of the De Piro family, he would have undoubtedly become a member of the Maltese nobility; this title came with a lot of property, both mobile and immobile, for which Joseph had a right. Nobility also implied popularity in Maltese society and the possibility of important roles in the civil administration. The Servant of God left all these behind and opted for the priesthood.
Joseph had not yet began his seminary studies at the Rome Gregorian University when on 24 August 1898 he wrote to his mother:
According to my, unfounded, calculations, if I am still alive, I will be ordained in four years’ time. I do not think I will be asked to do more than two years of philosophy studies, and after two years of theology I think I will be allowed to be ordained. Pray to St Thomas Aquinas to intercede on my behalf to enlighten my mind a bit more, in which case, even one year of philosophy would suffice, making the time shorter still. The theology course lasts four years, followed by three years of studies in Canon Law. If my addition is correct, I will be studying till I am thirty years old.
In his letter Joseph De Piro had a plan of ten years of study in Rome, finishing with a specialisation in Canon Law. At the same time, during his first year at the Capranica College, a short time after he had made his choice for the priesthood, Joseph seemed to be favouring a different route to the one just mentioned; he seemed to be thinking of going to St Joseph’s Home, rather than academic specialisations. Through this last option the Servant of God showed that his was going to be a priestly life dedicated to the poor. When he returned to Malta for his summer holidays, at the end of his first year of studies, he visited St Joseph’s Orphanage to meet Mgr Francesco Bonnici, the Founder and Director of the orphanage. To his astonishment, Joseph discovered that Bonnici had left the orphanage and had been replaced by Fr Emmanuel Vassallo, assisted by Fr George Bugeja. De Piro told Vassallo that, after finishing his studies, he wished to take up residence with him at the orphanage. As a seminarian, Joseph, stayed in contact with Vassallo and Bugeja and corresponded with them throughout his stay at the Capranica.
At the end of his studies in Rome, Archbishop Peter Paul Pace, the Bishop of Malta, offered him the possibility to attend the Ecclesiastical Academy. The President of this academy also approached De Piro. Joseph did not accept this offer; he preferred to return to Malta and work at St Joseph’s Orphanage. Pace accepted the Servant of God’s decision. Again, De Piro left behind him a career full of prosperity and prestige, this time in the Church, and opted to live with the poor boys of St Joseph’s Orphanage.
After his ordination and three more months of study in Rome, Fr Joseph went to Davos, Switzerland, to recuperate his health. In Switzerland he spent 18 months, after which he returned to Malta and stayed for almost three years in Qrendi, a parish to the south of the island, to continue to regain his strength. Although De Piro had spoken to Vassallo about his wish to go to St Joseph’s, Vassallo did not offer him the possibility to live there. Instead, in 1907, Archbishop Pace appointed Fr Joseph to the direction of Fra Diegu, a residence for orphaned, poor girls. This was only the first of a series of orphanages to be entrusted to the care of the Servant of God. Another five followed: Jesus of Nazareth; St Joseph’s, Malta; St Jospeh’s, Gozo; the Home for babies; and St Francis de Paul.
De Piro’s acceptance of the administration of Fra Diegu Orphanage included other options. Pastoral work has always something young priests wanted. De Piro was quite settled in Qrendi, he felt accepted and loved there, and probably it was not that easy for him to leave the parish. In spite of this, he left it without hesitation and went to help the poor girls of Fra Diegu Orphanage.
Fra Diegu was not the orphanage he wished to administer, he would have preferred St Joseph’s Orphanage, which, besides being a residence for orphaned boys, was a place from where he had hoped he come found a male religious society under the patronage of St Paul. Fra Diegu was an orphanage for girls, and it was not possible to initiate a male congregation in it. The Servant of God put the society’s project aside, left Qrendi, set aside the orphanage where he had been thinking to start the society, and settled for Fra Diegu Orphanage!
In 1922 De Piro also accepted the direction of the Jesus of Nazareth Orphanage, Zejtun. This was another orphanage for girls. Yet, he accepted this orphanage and dedicated himself completely for the good of the poor orphans.
It seemed that he was never going to be asked to administer the orphanage for which he had sacrificed an ecclesiastical diplomatic career. The Servant of God did not refuse the direction of these two female orphanages and accepted to become director of both orphanages.
De Piro wanted his Society to work among the poor in its apostolates. In 7 August 1905 the Servant of God wrote about his ‘idea’ of starting a society. After mentioning the foreign missions as the main aim of his congregation, he mentioned the other three apostolates. St Joseph’s Home, Malta, was going the first of these secondary pastoral works.
On 30 June 1914 the Founder wrote to Bishop Angelo Portelli, Malta’s Apostolic Administrator, requesting permission for the members of his Society to wear a habit. Together with this petition, De Piro sent a short prospectus of the rules of the society where he writes: “the aim of this small society will be to help those peoples who lack gospel workers, especially and in the first place reaching out to Maltese expatriates, and, for this reason, will look after orphanages.” These words clearly include an option for the poor. This time it was not only St Joseph’s Orphanage, Malta, it was not even limited to the other orphanages in his native country, rather he wanted the members of his Society, wherever they were going to be, to work in homes for poor children.
In the part of the Constitutions of the Society, written by the Founder, and approved by the Bishop of Malta on 18 March 1924, De Piro almost repeated what he had written in 1914; “It has as its aim… to reach out to those people who lacked gospel workers, and to take responsibility of orphanages.”
On 5 March 1910 the Salesians of Don Bosco were asked by Notary Michael Casolani, Founder of the Oratory, Birkirkara, to take responsibility of the place. Fr O’Grady sdb wrote to the Bishop requesting permission to build a chapel for the Oratory. Seven days later, Canon Alphonse Borg, Provost of Birkirkara parish, wrote to the Archbishop recommending this request. Together with this letter, Borg sent the Archbishop an extract of the rules of the Society of St Francis de Sales. Part 1, chapter 1, of these Rules had these articles:
“Art. 1223 – The aim of the Oratory is to distance the young people from the dangers of laziness and bad company, especially on feast days. Thus all young people are welcome, without any exception.
Art. 1224 – However, the poor, the most forsaken and illiterate are to be preferred since they have greater needs in their faith journey.
Art. 1226 – Physical defects should not prevent anyone from being welcomed, unless they are contagious or so repulsive as to scare a lot of youths away.”
The above Rules clearly stated who the Salesians accepted in their oratories: they welcomed boys of all conditions and grades, yet the poor, abandoned and the uneducated were preferred.
A few years later, Canon Michael Camilleri took the oratory over from the Salesians and wrote an undated letter to Field Marshal Lord Methuen, Governor of Malta (1915 – 1919). Its contents showed that article 1224 of the Salesian Rules was still practiced at the Oratory at the time of Sammut:
Field Marshal Lord Methuen G.C.B.G.C.V.O. C.M.G
Governor of Malta and its dependencies and commander in chief of the troops serving within the same.
… the hundreds of poor boys attending the institution whereof I am in charge… There are hundreds of poor boys who daily flock to our institution (The Oratory, St Julian’s Street, Birkirkara) … It is heartrending to see so many of our children shivering with cold for lack of sufficient clothing, and to know that, however we might strain our resources in order to provide for a very bad care … those who are kept away from attending the Government’s Elementary School simply because their parents are so poor that they cannot dress them with even the minimum degree of decency required for the purpose.”
On 15 December 1925 Casolani wrote to De Piro “… I have been told that you have returned from your trip some time ago, and I hope that it was beneficial for your health, so precious for so many people who love the orphanages in these islands.” Casolani showed that he was aware of the specific contribution of De Piro in Malta; De Piro was Director of orphanages looking after poor and orphaned boys and girls! On 4 April 1927 Notary Michael Casolani donated the Oratory to the Servant of God. This was a centre for poor boys. On his part, De Piro, accepted responsibility for the Oratory and bound himself and his Society to continue directing it on the same lines on which it had been led before. This was another option of the poor!
The letter from the Treasury, Malta, sent to De Piro on 24 March 1927 proved that the Oratory was renowned as a centre for the poor boys:
“With reference to your application dated the 22nd April, I have the honour to inform you that His Excellency the Governor has been pleased to direct that the transfer to the Company of St Paul of the title of the field called ‘tal Uita’ in St Julian’s Str. Birkirkara, together with the Chapel and other buildings erected thereon, in order that the said property may be used as an Oratory for the education of the children of the poorer classes, be exempt both from Donation and from Stamp Duty.”
In June 1928 De Piro, as director of the Oratory, Birkirkara, wrote a letter to the Minister for the Treasury. He spoke about the place by these words and was quite clear about who were the boys who attended the Oratory:
“The ‘Oratory,’ St Julian’s Str. Birkirkara, is an institution established in 1910 for the religious and moral education of the sons of the people, on the identical lines of the Salesian Oratory at Sliema and of the other similar ‘oratories’ of the Venerable Don Bosco, existing all over the world.”
In a contract between De Piro and the Provost of Birkirkara parish, on 1 February 1930, the same aim was emphasised, “Firstly that the Notary Michael L. Casolani established an institute intended for the religious and civil education of the sons of the people.”
On 11 June 1930, in another contract between De Piro and Fr George Preca, Founder of the catechetical Society, MUSEUM, in the presence of Notary Louis Gauci Forno, the Oratory was described as, “a place for the civil and religious education of the children of the working class in Birkirkara.”
The above shows that the Oratory was a centre for the poor children of the common people, and it was this place De Piro accepted in his care.