Boocklet by Antonio Sicari. At his beatification ceremony in 1980, Pope John Paul II said of him: Don Orione appears as a wonderful expression of Christian charity. We can certainly say that he was one of the most prominent personalities of the century, thanks to the courage with which he love his faith.
By Antonio Sicari
If you were to travel around the world you might be surprised to find houses carrying the name of Don Orione (30 to be exact).
A modern globe-trotter might be curious to come across in no fewer than 30 countries around the world, institutions all bearing the name “Don Orione”, all engaged in serving the most needy in society in various ways.
So who exactly was the person behind all this activity? And haw was he inspired?
At his beatification ceremony in 1980, Pope John Paul II said of him: “Don Orione appears as a wonderful expression of Christian charity. It is impossible to summarize in a few sentences the adventurous and sometimes dramatic life of this person who once, humbly but very aptly, called himself “God's labour”. We can certainly say that he was one of the most prominent personalities of the century, thanks to the courage with which he love his faith”.
As the Pope implied, it would be quite impossible to convey properly to the reader of such a small booklet who Don Orione was and what he did, but I hope that it will at least arouse his curiosity sufficiently to make him want to find out more, and even perhaps, inspire him to follow his example.
“It was a few days after the earthquake ( 1915, in Abruzzo , Italy ). Most of the dead still lay beneath the ruins of the houses, and rescue work was slow to get going. The terrified survivors were living in makeshift-sheets nearby, and I was in the middle of a particularly cold winter.
After a sleepless night, on one of those grey and freezing mornings, I witnessed a really strange scene. A very dishevelled and scruffy-looking little priest, with a 10 days' growth of beard, was wandering through the ruins, surrounded by a rabble of children who had been left orphaned. He was vainly asking around if there was any means of transport to take these kids to Rome , but the railway had been cut off by the earthquake and there were no other vehicle available for such a long trip. Just then, 5 or 6 cars drove up. The king, (Vittorio Emanuele III) had come with his retinue to visit the devastated areas. As soon as the distinguished group had left their cars, and without asking anyone's permission the little priest began loading the children into one to them. Naturally, the police in charge of guarding the vehicles objected, and then the priest's persistence caused such a heated confrontation that the King's attention was attracted. Not in the least intimidated, the priest approached, hat in hand, and requested the King to allow him temporary use of those cars to take the orphans to Rome , or at least to the nearest station still in use. Under the circumstances, the King could hardly refuse!
Together with others, I too, had observed the whole scene, full of surprise and admiration. As soon as the priest had driven off with his load of children, I asked the bystanders: “Who is that extraordinary man?” An old man, who had entrusted his little grandchild to him, replied: “He's a certain Don Orione, a rather strange priest”.
That was how Ignazio, a well-known Italian writer and Communist supporter, described his first meeting with Don Orione in his book: “Uscita de Sicurezza” (Emergency Exit). It took place when he, then barely fifteen years old, had just lost his home and family during the same dreadful earthquake.
In that year of 1915, that “strange priest” was already the beloved and respected founder of a religious congregation which was devoted to the support of those suffering from every sort of poverty. He had, however, immediately hurried in person up into the Appenine mountains, to seek out those poor orphans, lost among their wrecked homesteads.
At times he had to battle with wolves to protect the poor, half naked orphans he was searching out, bringing clothes, biscuits and sweets for them along with him. Day after day, soaked to the skin, he would tirelessly travel the snow-covered paths in order to reach little ruined mountains villages.
It was like some scene in a fairy tale, but instead, it was the all too tragic fact. Don Orione was wearing himself to the bone to rescue a few-dozen-children, starving and frozen, till he finally fell, exhausted. When some other members of his congregation came to his hep, they found him with a burning fever. Giving himself over to their care, he muttered faintly: “These days spent here have cast me two years of my life”.
But let us go back to the beginning of the story.
The man who was later to become Known as the “father of the poor and of orphans” was born in Pontecurone, a small village in the region of Piedmont, in Northern Italy , into a very humble family, in 1872.
His father worked as a road-maker and was proud of his socialist and rather anti-time,
gleaming in the fields. She used to take the little Luigi along with her, wrapped in a shawl.
He was the youngest of four children, and by the time clothes were handed down to him they were practically threadbare and worn our. However, their was an honest poverty.
Don Orione would say later: “My mother, that poor old peasant woman, used to get up at three o'clock in the morning, and be off to work. She was like a shuttle tirelessly dashing back and forth, constantly on the run. With our father away working in Monferrato she could be both the woman and the man of the family for the children. She was so thrifty that she used to sharpen the scythe herself instead of taking it to the grinder, and she wove cloth from hemp she had spun herself and my brothers each received beautiful sheets and household linen when they got married. My poor mother! So you see, my dear boys, what our saintly and beloved elders did”.
But, above all, Don Orione's mother was a firm believed, and he was always deeply moved remembering how often she would go to Communion, telling them on her return: “ I prayed first of all for you and afterwards for myself. I received the Lord first of all on your behalf, and then on my own”. It seemed to the young Luigi almost as if she was denying herself for the sake of her children, even when she went to Communion.
He also recalled how when he and his brothers were quite big, she used to keep places for them in church. “ I want to see you there,” she would say. She wanted to keep an eye on us, and to be able to hear our voices reciting the prayers, and she would only allow us to pray seated when we were ill”.
Such little glimpses of days gone by give us some idea of the atmosphere of humility, strength and faith in which Luigi grew up, from which he drew his incredible ability to endure fatigue so characterized him later, together with the truly Christian passion for the poor which was to possess him for the rest of his life.
For many Christians, this love of Jesus Christ embodied in the poor is acquired later in life as their adult faith matures, and is only attained with some effort, but it came quite naturally to Luigi through his undying devotion, his esteem and deep regard for those poor Christians who were his parents and hi brothers. Between the ages of ten and thirteen he had in fact himself helped his father labouring on the roads and pushing wheelbarrows far from home.
His Religious Formation
Even at that age, his dream was to join the Franciscans, because he saw them as the Brotherhood of the simple and humble people, those who he, too, wanted to help. He, in fact, tried for admission to the Franciscans when he was thirteen, but he fell seriously ill with pneumonia, and was obliged to go back home.
Then, in 1886, he managed to get a place in the institution run by Don Bosco, a priest well-known for his work with homeless boys, but who was to die within a couple of years.
When he got these, the young Orione requested special permission to have as his confessor Don Bosco himself, who usually only attended to the older boys. To be sure of making a really good and full confession, Luigi had consulted some of those set formulas for the examination of conscience, copying them down almost entirely and filling up a few notebooks with his sins. It is worth listening to the story in his own words: “ With one hand in the pocket with the notebooks and the other on my breast, I knelt there trembling, awaiting my turn. “Whatever will Don Bosco say”, I wondered, “when I read all this stuff out to him?” When my turn came, Don Bosco looked at me for a moment and, before I could open my mouth, held out his hand, saying: “So, give me those sins of yours”. I pulled one of the rolled up notebooks out of my pocket and handed it over, and without even opening it, he tore it up. “ Give me the others”, he said, and they suffered the same fate. “And now, your confession is made. Don't think about what you wrote any more, and don't look back at the past”. Then he smiled at me, as only he could smile.
This glimpse of these two saintly individuals, the wise old priest as confessor and teacher to the shy and scrupulous boy, is a beautiful portrayal of the mystery of the Church. Both their hearts were aflame with love of God and their neighbour, both were intent on holiness, and both are now saints, venerated on the altars of the Church.
No wonder that when Don Bosco fell seriously ill, Luigi was among the 6 boys in the seminary who offered their lives in exchange for his during a solemn Mass.
It would have been logical to assume that Orione would stay with the Silesians, and in time become one of their most faithful and brilliant members. After that famous confession Don Bosco had looked at him very intently, and said: “Remember, we will always be friends”. Luigi had never doubted his vocation, and was in fact on a retreat in preparation for his entry into the novitiate. It was during prayer that the doubts first came to him, and when the idea of entering the diocesan seminary initially occurred to him. He at first dismissed these doubts as a temptation, but they only intensified. He spent a whole night weeping and praying at Don Bosco's tomb, begging him for three signs (“it was a childish thing to do “ – he was to comment later). One of these signs, however, concerning his father's return to being a practising Catholic, mattered to him most of all. In fact, all three of the signs were granted. His last worries vanished the next night, when he dreamt that Don Bosco, smiling in fatherly tenderness, helped him to put on the cassock worn at the seminary.
With hindsight we can now understand why Don Bosco, heaven, knew why Orione should not become a Salesian. Don Bosco's activity, in fact, was directed solely at youth, whereas Don Orione's apostolate embraced people in every kind of need, and aimed to support the disadvantaged of every sort. He drew inspiration from other founders of religious congregations, even the greatest, and something from each of them was to be found in his work and in the man himself, as we will see.
His Apostolate develops alongside his study and work
He completed his high school course at the Tortona seminary, proving himself a model student. He excelled in his studies, and was known for his charity and for the contagious enthusiasm so characteristic of him. As an old man, he would think back nostalgically to those years when his passion for Christ and his Christ was taking ever-deeper root in him, saying: “I was good in those days!”
His father died just when he started his theological course, so even the little financial support his family could supply ceased.
Luckily for him, the three poorest seminarians used to be offered the chance to work as caretakers in the Cathedral. They were allowed to attend their courses at the seminary, but they lived in same small rooms under the roof of the church, near the bell tower. Their duties were to serve at Mass two or three times each day and to look after the vestments and candles, and for this they were paid a small wage, as well as a few tips from the senior clergy. It was not much, but enough to live on. Of course, it meant they had to study harder, having less time.
So young Orione studied, prayed and worked up in that attic, all the while preparing for his mission. He did not use his freedom from the stern discipline of the seminary in dissipation, but rather to stake the fire Don Bosco had kindled in his heart. The little rooms under the cathedral roof soon became the haunt of the numerous urchins Orione used to collect off the streets and bring home with him.
He taught them a bit of catechism, kept them amused, playing hide and seek in those huge attics and taking them to collect chestnuts to roast. Among the old wooden statues of Saints relegated to the dusty loft, he was doing just what he had seen being done in the Don Bosco youth centre.
But, clearly things could not go on like this. The elderly priests down below in the church could hear strange thumping and bumping overhead. Moreover, the sacristy would be full, not of penitents or the pious, but of queues of street boys asking how to get “up to Orione”.
It could not last. Even in town when he was seen out walking with his noisy gang in tow, many people were puzzled, some even annoyed and suspicious.
Then there was the problem of money. The pay he received as sacristan was no longer sufficient, as he was now trying to deal with the boys' more serious need.
Anyway, orders were issued from the authorities to put an end to the improvised boys' club high up above the cathedral. So then the boys started to meet in the street, and they would gather in a little square where Orione would be waiting for them. He led them to the castle ruins to play, and there, on the grass, he would teach them catechism. It became a mobile boys' club.
It was Holy Week, really a time of suffering for the poor seminarians who did not know how he cold carry on, but was convinced that it was God's wish he should continue this particular kind of activity with the boys.
Luckily, the local bishop was a kind and fatherly man. For some time he had been observing the young seminarian's unusual and creative apostolate, reflecting how the parish priests might well follow his example in providing facilities for the youth. Accordingly, he sent for Orione and offered him the use of his garden. It only took one Sunday for the flowerbeds and beautifully kept paths to be completely ruined! All that remained was a bare yard and scores of yelling boys. The only bit of greenery left was an old pine tree, because there was a tradition that the Virgin Mary had once appeared on it, but even that eventually got cut down when wood was needed to make some swings. Orione felt sure that Mary was pleased about this, too, as her beautiful statue smiled down on the boys, like a mother, happy to watch her children at play.
Early Problems and Setbacks
“ There were those who grumbled, who criticized, laughed at me, made fun of me, took me fro a madman ”, he would recall, in later years.
It is true that criticism does not leave bruises, but it does in time wear down good will and trust. Only a little more than a year later, the bishop told him he had to close the boys' club, even though they numbered hundreds by then Luigi received the news with bowed head and, taking the key, went and placed it in the hands of the statue of Mary. Then he went up to his little room to weep in the darkness, his head resting against the window, which overlooked the courtyard facing the statue of Mary. This is how he tells it later: “ I looked down over the boys' playground, which would never again be opened, weeping and praying because I felt it was all over. I cried desperately like a child, and with childlike innocence and faith. I prayed to Mary, putting the boys and myself in her hands. And so, praying and crying and offering absolutely everything to Mary I fell asleep there, leaning on the window sill. And I had a dream e have never ever forgotten, a marvellous and blessed dream ”.
He described this dream beautifully in great detail, and it is a pity to have to relate it so briefly. The houses and the wall around the garden seemed to vanish and vast plain appeared. Just one poplar tree remained at the edge of the garden, and among its branches was an apparition of the Virgin Mary. she was incredibly beautiful with the Child in her arms, and her blue cloak even more lovely than the colour of the sky, spread out further and further until it covered the whole of that huge plain. As far as the eye could see, thousands upon thousands of boys, of every race and colour, thronged that great space, more and yet more of them, and among them were seminarians, priests and nuns.
To return to his own account: “ Mary turned to me, pointing to them. Then from that vast multitude there rose the sweet sound of the magnificat. All those boys were singing, each in different languages blended into a single wonderful choir. Mary joined in the singing, too, …. and then I woke up” .
His heart was filled with peace.
The fact that he had to close the boys' club no longer bothered him. It only signified that he was meant to start an even bigger project, with a new vision.
The opportunity very soon presented itself. The bishop had just had a fine new seminary built, which, however, had turned out to be too small for the great number of applicants. There was also a problem concerning the boys who could not afford the fees. Orione offered to start an associate boarding school where poor boys could be educated, also with a possible view to studying for the priesthood.
The bishop granted him informal permission to go ahead, probably thinking that the young seminarian had neither money nor a house, much less a boarding school, and that his idea would come to nothing. But before the day was over, he decided to withdraw his permission. However, when he sent for Luigi to tell him to give up the idea, he was told that it would be a great pity, because everything had already been arranged, a house had been found, found, and a year's rent already paid!
How had he managed to do that? As soon as he had left the bishop's palace he had heard from a friend that his father had a house to let, just outside the town, at a rent of four hundred lire a year. On the spot, Orione had said he would take it, and would pay the sum within a week. On his way back, he had met an old woman he knew, and, as they chatted, the idea of a boarding school emerge.
“A boarding school? I'll send my nephew! What are the fees?
“ Not much …. Whatever you can afford”.
“If I give you four hundred lire (that was all her savings) how long can you keep him for?”
“Right through his high school years!” Orione had exclaimed, thrilled at this clear sign from Providence . After careful thought when he heard what had happened, the bishop decided not to risk apposing such manifest evidence of heavenly intervention.
Only a year later, the house had already become inadequate for the number of boys, and Orione took over an old abandoned convent in the centre of Tortona. There was never enough money. Food was bought with the fees, each family contributed what they could, as well as donations offerings, which often came quite miraculously. The founder himself provided the instruction, teaching Italian, history and geography, with the help of a few theology students from the diocesan seminary.
Although Orione was still only a deacon at this time, the bishop often sent him to preach in the diocesan parishes.
The Rapid Growth of the New Congregation
The last, in 1895, Orione was ordained priest. He is unique in the history of the Church, as the only person to have founded a religious institute while still a seminarian. In fact, on the day of his ordination the bishop allowed him to invest six of the boarders, who wanted to prepare for the priesthood under his guidance, with cassocks. Moreover, the bishop authorized a group of seminarians who felt attracted to Orione's enterprise to leave the seminary in order to join him in a form of community living, and this was how the “Little Work of Divine Providence” first came into being.
Three different groups, all living together as one family, were fathered around this nucleus of consecrated religious: there were boys from poor families who simply came for schooling, there were seminarians who could not afford the fees at the seminary, and then there were those anxious to join this new institute.
They were short of space form the start, and Don Orione had to use the entrance hall as his office. Before long, a further move became necessary. A group of boys was sent to an agricultural centre in the Voghera hills, which he sent up to teach farming skills to those lads who were less gifted academically.
In 898 the bishop of Noto in Sicily , having read a publication detailing Orione's “Work of Divine Providence”, wrote to the 27 year old priest, who had only been ordained for 3 years, inviting him to open a diocesan school for at least 60 students, and offering him a building for it. Don Orione travelled in person from Tortona to Sicily , 1000 Kilometres away, to set up this new foundation, and on his return back north,
He brought with him twelve seminarians from the Sicilian diocesan, who wanted to join his Congregation.
In that same year he also inaugurated a new branch of his “Little Work”, the Hermits. Recognizing the need for continuous prayer to support his active enterprises, he gathered a group of laymen, farm labours and agricultural workers, who wanted to consecrate themselves to the Lord in a life of contemplation and toil, in the Benedictine Style. Several such communities of Hermits of Divine Providence soon sprang up all over Italy , forming a powerhouse of prayer, and making land, which had long remained barren, productive. These Hermits included some blind members, among whom was Frate Ave Maria, who is soon to be beatified.
In 1915, Orione began opening care homes, both in Italy and abroad, designed to take in the outcasts and the dregs of society, regardless of race or creed, buy who had been rejected by hospital and others such institutions. Some 80 years previously, a famous Italian priest, St Joseph Benedict Cottolengo, had started similar hospices in Turin , and now Don Orione adopted and developed his idea, calling his homes “Little Cottolengos”.
In the same year,1915, Don Orione founded a women's branch of his Congregation called the “Little Missionary Sisters of Charity”. They took over the nursery schools, the parish work, girls' schooling, the care of the poor and the sick, as well as the housekeeping in the other institutes.
He called the first 3 girls to receive the habit Sr Faith, Sr Hope and Sr Charity.
In 1927, he founded the Blind Sacramentine Sisters, dedicated to perpetual adoration and prayer, to provide support for all the Congregation's other activities. These included not only the orphanages we have already spoken of, and his explants during two earthquakes, but also the running of parishes shrines, schools printing works, and homes for the elderly. Before he died at the age of 68, Don Orione had set up more than a hundred different houses and institutions, not only in Italy but also in Brazil , Argentina , Uruguay , Chile , the USA , England , Greece , Poland , Albania and Palestine .
He even agree, at the request of Pope Pious X, to start a parish and a big school in a suburb Rome jokingly referred to as the “ Roman Patagonia” because it had no churches and needed “missionaries”. At the time of his death there were about 820 priests and brothers and several hundreds nuns engaged in all the various branches of the “Little Work of Divine Providence”. In his words, it was “a humble a Congregation”, as he was such a humble man himself.
Don Orione's Implicit Trust in Divine Providence
As he travelled around the world, Don Orione would be dressed as the poorest of the poor, his clothes patched and his shoes worn down at the heed. He never had either a watch or a wallet, and although he administered vast sums of money, he never knew if there was enough for the next day's needs. He thought of himself as only a “poor servant of Divine Providence”. The name for his Congregation sprang form his deep conviction that, just as a child can expect answers and gifts fro his mother, so could he from Providence .
Visitors would turn up with substantial sums of money exactly when some payment had to be made, explaining that they had been driven by some strange, irresistible inner impulse. The good priest would smile because he had just been pestering some statue of Mary or Joseph. There were times when he would be so preoccupied with worries at Mass, that he would insert pleas such as: “Holy Mary, do at least pay some of the rent for me!” into the liturgy and ten he would find the exact sum he needed awaiting him in the sacristy afterwards, left there by some anonymous benefactor.
Once, some anti-clerical enemies sent a government inspector along to check on the precarious financial situation of the school, but he was obliged to leave, mortified, and unable to do a thing. He later told his superiors that he felt he had been made a fool of because he had seen stacks of bank notes on Orione's desk. Instead, Don Louis laughingly told his companions that there had never been one single lira on his table.
Miracles simply flowed from his hands, and he would talk about them calmly and frankly, his only fear being that his listeners might be so silly as to attribute them to him although, of course, he had nothing to do with the matter. When he told his confreres about these miracles, he was hoping that they, too, would learn to trust in the tender kindness of God.
Some of the miracles, in fact, were examples of great tenderness. Once, he confided to those closest to him: “ I'll tell you something I have never told anyone before, and that I am almost ashamed to talk about, but let it be said to the greater glory of God. When, in the early days of the walking long distances to preach in distant villages, I would lie down for the night on some hard wooden bench. And the Lord, in His great kindness, would do me a very special favour, and I would have the impression that I was sinking into a wonderfully soft and yielding mattress, cushioning my exhausted and aching bones, and lulling me into a gentle sleep”.
God sometimes offered him such comfort which he would never ask for, for fear of depriving those in greater need. He used to tell his followers they must alternate stead toil and Hail Marys.
There were hundreds of young men asking to join the Congregation, although the life-plan he was proposing, and which he himself embodied, left no room for illness.
“Our Congregation, so very small and so very poor, is none other than an old rag for Mary and the Church of Rome, a congregation of God's ragamuffins. And you know what rags are used for – they are used as dusters, to clean the floor, to wipe away cobwebs and to polish shoes. Well, if you really want to become rags in God's hands, rags under His feet, or under Holy Mary's poor feet, or under the feet of Holy Mother Church or in the hands of your Superiors, then this is the place for you”.
He expressed himself like this so that there could be no misunderstanding his meaning. Such a description in fact precisely reflected Don Orione himself, his great longing to be used for the good of the Church and the world, his dream of surrendering himself unresistingly into the hands of God and the Virgin Mary, like a rag for them to utilize. This was not a description of humiliation – rather of dignity.
He never missed an opportunity to humble himself, even if he did it jokingly. Pointing to a photo which showed him riding a humble, patient donkey, he remarked wittily: “There are the two of us, him and me!” Those present were moved, thinking of the patient perseverance he always showed.
Don Orione's Special Love for the Pope
Above all, however, what was so striking about Don Orione was the boundless and unconditional love he bore the Vicar of Christ in this world. He wrote: “The Pope is our creed, our moral standard, he in our love, our heart, our reason for living. For us the Pope is Jesus Christ, and to love the Pope and to love Jesus are one and the same. Listening to and following the Pope signifies listening to and following Jesus Christ, just as serving the Pope and giving one's life for him are the same as serving and giving one's life for Jesus Christ.
He asked that a special fourth Vow of loyalty to the Pope should be added to the other three of poverty, chastity and obedience. At the time this was not granted, but nowadays The Sons of Divine Providence, like the Jesuits, take this fourth vow that they will be faithful to the Pope.
The Founder claimed that the aim of all his work for and among the poor was to arouse “a very devoted love for the Pope”. He said: “The Congregation neither can nor should live except for the Pope. It should be a source of strength in his hands, a rag beneath his feet. We must live, work and die for love of the Pope”.
When he was asked what the distinguishing aim of his Congregation was, given that many were concerned with Charity Work, he would reply that his special purpose was to stimulate in the hearts and minds of the poor working classes a strong and loving bond uniting them to the Apostolic See.
He personally certainly devoted himself t the relief of the poor and abandoned, but he would have considered it utterly ridiculous if this had aroused in them love for him instead of for the Pope, because he saw himself as simply a loving hand reaching out to them on behalf of the Pope. The Pope well knew that he could ask anything at all, any sacrifice or undertaking whatsoever of Don Orione. A conscience like his, so church-centred and focused on the ministry of Peter in the Church, has never been seen before, especially in a founder who was so deeply involved in relieving human need.
This aspect of the witness given by Don Orione has yet to be understood and appreciated properly, especially by those religious who find in their commitment to the poor a justification for their “anti-Rome” notions. There are many today who would take exception to the values Don Orione so calmly taught: “First and foremost the Pope and the Church - and less important by far, bread and life”.
A Heart Beyond Boundaries.
The fast development of Don Orione's work was due more for the need of the people whom he was daily encountering rather than the fruit of a properly organized expansion plan. “Souls souls!” he used to repeat as echoing the cry of Jesus from the cross. For this thirst for souls he would spend all his energies, up and down along the Italian territory. But he was an open-minded man. He knew that his congregation was born as a gift for the whole world and could not be relegated to his country. As early as 1913 he sent the first missionaries to Brazil . The congregation settled in Mar de Espanha, near Rio de Janeiro, but soon several new houses had been offered to him so he thought that this was his moment to go and visit those Sons of Divine Providence whom the hand of the Lord had transplanted in Brazil.
On 4th August, Don Orione and other two priests left Italy to arrive in Brazil on 9th August 1921. The purpose of his trip was to organize the congregation there, however, before long he managed to open houses not only in Brazil but also in Argentina .
On 4th July 1922, Don Orione returned to Italy with the experience of new cultures and new challenges to be tackled. He found two big problems in the new world: the scarcity of clergy and the spiritual shortcomings of some of them. He could not allow his sons to be such, that is why he wrote:
“I think that the way –the only way- to become true missionaries is to do as the Apostles did. They began their apostolic lives by leaving everything to follow Jesus Christ.
I believe, and I feel it more strongly than ever now, that the work of the Missions is most holy and that it is the supreme grace of God to be called to the missions, I have also seen that it is supremely arduous and dangerous labour, one that calls for wisdom of every kind…
I have seen with deep distress that in Brazil and Argentina truly apostolic men are exceedingly rare. If missionaries were smaller in number and greater in virtue, detachment and spirit of sacrifice, the harvest of souls gathered in would be so great, so very, very great!”
He would have the opportunity of moulding this spirit in his sons when on 24th September 1934 he departed to Latin America again. This time he made the headquarter of his missionary activities in Argentina . During this trip he opened houses in Uruguay , Chile and more than 20 houses in Brazil and Argentina .
What made a man that was more than sixty years old to tear himself away from his creation (the Congregation in Italy), which had cost him sufferings and which was the consequence of splendid graces? Don Orione had a great power of detachment, that made him be ready to be renewed by and for new activities in an environment that was, for the most part, new. His secret was of being converted hour by hour, as he himself once said, of progress by self-renewal, casting aside and destroying the dross, the attachment and the ties to himself. His progress involved simplifying everything in love, without claiming the right to a break or a rest.
Only a basic disposition of this kind could have been the source of the ability and ease with which Don Orione uprooted himself from a world that God had allowed him to bring into being.
This same deep motivation, moreover, was displayed during his second journey to South America between 1934 and 1937 where Don Orione was to reach the peak of his pastoral effectiveness.
A Great Preacher
Don Orione's activity as a preacher and confessor, which he always undertook willingly and imaginatively, has yet to mentioned.
For the sake of God and souls he was oven ready to turn actor.
One evening he was asked to preach in a village where priests were particularly hated and despised.
I was pouring with rain, and he turned up the soaking wet, with muddy shoes. He staggered up the steps to the pulpit as though he was drunk, cawing like a crow and muttering the typical insults and abuse commonly aimed at priests, loudly enough for everyone to hear.
The parish priest was in despair, supposing Don Orione had taken leave of his senses. But as soon as the Wretched looking priest reached the pulpit, and everyone had recognized him, he gazed on them with total confidence, and then began to speak: “So, this is how you greet a minister of God, a priest, when he comes by!” And he went on to speak of the priesthood so eloquently that they were moved to tears.
Another time, a mission was being preached in a parish, but with a very poor response. Don Orione was to hear confessions on the last night. The parish priest, discouraged, felt that just one priest would be quite enough, but when Don Orione requested that ten more should be sent for, he nevertheless complied. However, on that final evening the people in the sparsely filled pews suddenly saw a scruffy figure wrapped in a shabby old cloak and hat, come in. Throwing himself down, he began moaning and groaning loudly: “Look at the state I have come to! And to think that in my father's house I lacked for nothing!” Of course it was the Prodigal Son! People soon came running and sent to fetch all those who had stayed away.
Once everyone had crowded into the Church, this unconventional priest spoke to them so movingly of God's forgiving that the entire congregation wept, even the ten confessors, who were scarcely sufficient to hear all the confessions as everyone in the village came to the sacrament.
He Died as He Had Lived
So we come to the end of our Story. In 1940 Don Orione was in San Remo , a beautiful seaside resort on the Italian Riviera. He was saddened by the fact that he would be dying in such a place, instead of among his beloved poor. He was upset because when he got there on March 9 th , the room he was given , although very simply furnished, seemed to him too luxurious. “I don't feel right here. I can't stay. Please look up the trains in the timetable”, he said to a confrere. He calmed down when he saw a statue of Mary in a corner. “Look how beautiful she is!” he said. “Perhaps all I need to do now is to close my eyes” and tree days later, he did close them, with the words: “Jesus, Jesus. I am going”. Eager to obey, it was the last time he felt he was being sent on a mission.
The coffin was carried in triumphal procession to a shrine he had built in Tortona to Our Lady of Safe Keeping. A vast crowd awaited the funeral cortege in Genoa , Novi, Alessandria and Milan and in every town it passed through.
A Franciscan writer who was passing by in a tram overheard two workmen talking, and reported their words to a newspaper “What is happening? Who has died?
“And who was Don Orione?”
“He was a priest, but nevertheless, he was a good man”.
No doubt, Don Orione would have smiled.