Apostle of the underprivileged
"To be able to see and love in the world only the souls of our brothers and sisters. Souls of little ones, souls of the poor, souls of sinners, souls that have been led astray, repentant souls, souls rebelling against God's will, souls proud of their evil state, souls greedy for money and power, souls full of themselves, wandering souls looking for the right road, sorrowing souls looking for refuge or a kind word - all these are souls loved by Christ; for all of them Christ died; all of them he wants safe in his arms and pressed to his transfixed Heart."
These words from the notes of Don Orione tell us the story of his life. He went to the rescue of everyone he saw in need, offering a helping hand to the outcasts and the most abandoned. He founded four Congregations and built houses for the old, the sick, the insane, the retarded, the maimed, the orphaned.
The blossoming of a vocation
Aloysius Orione was born in 1872 at Pontecurone , Italy . His father, Vittorio was a road-mason whose job was cutting stones and then pounding them into the ground to form the cobbled streets of his town. At the age of ten, Aloysius knelt down beside his father to do the same work. When it rained, Mamma Carolina used to provide her son with an umbrella. One evening, her son returned, soaked to the skin. "Why no umbrella?" Carolina inquired, "I saw an old man getting wet and I gave it to him," replied Aloysius.
On another occasion, Aloysius noticed a handicapped beggar dragging himself painfully along the street. Aloysius took out the lunch packet from his jacket and handed it over to him, then helped him to walk on his feet. As Aloysius accompanied the beggar further and further down the road, Papa Vittorio shouted at him to return, "Where are you going?" he asked his son, Aloysius kept silent. But his whole life would be spent seeking the poorest and most miserable in order to bring them comfort.
Wanting very much to become a priest, thirteen-year-old Aloysius was accepted by the Franciscan Friars of Voghera. The hard life of the monastery was too much for the lad. On Holy Thursday, 1886, he collapsed in the chapel. High fever and pneumonia followed and on the advice of the doctor, he had to return home. "How I wept and wept when leaving the convent!" he later confided.
Happiness soon came his way. In October 1886 he was admitted into the Salesian Oratory of Valdocco, Turin . Aloysius was fascinated by Don Bosco's personality. Whenever Don Bosco appeared in the courtyard, Aloysius would rush to be among the closed to the Saint. "Everything you see in me is the fruit of the three years I spent at the Oratory of Don Bosco," he affirmed. "My vocation flowered in that atmosphere which was saturated with prayer and love of God. Don Bosco made us feel surrounded by loving kindness." "Don Bosco! I would walk on hot coals to see him again and say, Thanks! "
On January 29, 1888, as Don Bosco lay dying, Aloysius was among the six boys who offered their lives to God in order to preserve the life of Don Bosco. When Don Bosco passed away two days later, on January 31, Aloysius was in the select band of students assigned the task of standing at the side of Don Bosco's body in order to help others to get objects touched to the body. He decided to rush to the refectory, cut a loaf of bread into tiny pieces, touch these pieces to Don Bosco's body and then take them to his sick friends in the infirmary. While cutting the pieces, he cut deep into the index finger of his right hand - being left-handed - and blood started flowing from the finger. How could he become a priest without his index finger? This was the thought uppermost in his mind. He ran to Don Bosco's body and laid the back of his bleeding hand on the body. "The wound healed immediately, the scar is still there," were the words that concluded his narration of the episode a few weeks before his own death.
On completing High School, Aloysius entered the Diocesan Seminary at Tortona. He took this decision after making a retreat at Valsalice and passing a whole night in prayer at the tomb of Don Bosco. The time spent with the Franciscans and the Salesians shaped him for his future apostolate.
Childlike trust in Divine Providence
1892, Don Orione (that is how they start calling him) loses his father Vittorio. Knowing that his mother would find it difficult to pay his seminary fees, he takes on the job of assistant sacristan and is given a room near the belfry of the cathedral church. He commences an Oratory for very poor boys who keep flocking round him, first one, then five, then ten, twenty, fifty. There are games, Bible classes, Stories about the Saints, even a swing.
The priests of the cathedral find the noise unbearable, so Don Orione moves his youngsters to a square in the city. The Bishop, Mgr Baldi, however, begins inquiring where the boys had disappeared. When told that they had been chased out from the cathedral, he calls for Don Orione and offers his own garden for the Oratory which is solemnly inaugurated on July 3.
1893, Some of the lads start asking Don Orione whether they can become priests like him. Don Orione approaches the Bishop for permission to start a school for the poor persons aspiring to the priesthood. "But," says Mgr Baldi, "it takes a lot of money to run a school." "Your Lordship has only to give me your approval and blessing. Divine Providence will see to the rest." "All right, go ahead," nods the Bishop.
Don Orione steps out to find a suitable place for a school. Within a short time he meets Luigi Stassano who wants to join. His father, Pasquale is ready to give him a little house for 400 lire a year. "Don't worry," Don Orione tells him, "I haven't got the money right now, but Divine Providence will think about that."
As Don Orione traces his steps back to the cathedral, Angelina Poggi asks him what he's doing. "I'm opening a boarding school." "A school? Then please take my grandson. How much do I have to pay?" "Little. Anything you wish." "Will 400 lire do?" "For 400 lire, your grandson can stay for ever."
Don Orione takes the 400 lire immediately to Pasquale Stassano and pays for the house. With his heart at ease, he enters the church only to hear the sacristan telling him to go immediately to the Bishop who wants to speak to him. Others have tried to sound a warning about the new school in Monsignor's ears.
"Listen, Aloysius," the Bishop says, "I want to take back the permission I gave you a few hours ago." "That's too bad," replies Orione, "because I have already got a place, paid a year's rent and admitted two students." "What? What? Tell me everything." On hearing the complete details, the Bishop orders Orione: "Kneel down. I again bestow my blessing on you and I will never withdraw it."
Love without barriers
In a few months there were 140 students. They had to shift to an old unused convent called St. Clare's. That is where Don Orione celebrated his First Mass in April 1895 and was allowed by the bishop to confer the habit on some of his aspirants. Thus began the Little Work of Divine Providence, the Order founded by Don Orione. "The Little Work exists to serve and to serve with love. With God's help it intends to live on in order to practice the works of mercy for the moral and material well-being of the most abandoned - its program: Our love had no closed doors."
Three other Congregations were also founded by Don Orione: the Little Missionary Sisters of charity, the Hermits of Divine Providence and the Blind Sacramentine Sisters (the only one of its kind in the world at the time).
Don Orione breathed his last on March 12, 1940, whispering, "Jesus, Jesus." His unembalmed body was found astonishingly incorrupt when they exhumed it in March 1965, the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death. Just 15 years later, on October 26, 1980, Aloysius Orione was beatified by Pope John Paul II who defined him as "a marvellous and genial expression of Christian love…with special tenderness for the suffering, the marginalised and the hopeless."