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The Servant of God Fr. Giuseppe De Piro (1877 - 1933)

Chapter II
His Public Life (1904-1907)

Part II          His Private life (1904-1933)

From first years of priesthood up the beginning of his Missionary dream

While the first twenty seven years of De Piro’s life were indeed private, the twenty years that followed were completely different.  In them he was more than the full timer priest, involved in the various aspects of the Diocese of Malta; the citizen who gave a big share for his Country’s development and well being; he was more than a benefactor to the many poor children and grown ups in Malta and Gozo; and God chose him to be the Founder of the Missionary Society of St Paul.

 Section 1         A priest dedicated to the Diocese

As assistant parish priest at the Qrendi parish (1904 – 1907).

Although at Davos, the Servant of God was almost completely cured he had to spend some time in convalescence even when back in Malta.  In  fact he went to Qrendi, a village where the De Piro family had one of its summer residences.  There Fr. Joseph went for rest while things turned out to be different:  he was attentive on his health, but he was also involved in pastoral work.  Each day, early in the morning, he went to the Parish Church for the six o'clock mass.  Here it is very relevant to say that as regards the mass intentions Fr. De Piro used to have the legacies left for the Parish.  These were quite cheaper related to those he could have got from elsewhere.

De Piro had his own confessional in the aisle of the Church and he used to sit in it hearing confessions both before and after mass.  Not to mention the many other times when he did the same thing.  He was so much sought for this ministry that even after leaving the Parish, he continued going to Qrendi regularly to offer his service.  Witnesses say that some parishioners even went to seek his help elsewhere.

This pastoral contribution of De Piro was strengthened all the more by his exemplary life.  Witnesses who still remember him, say that De Piro  used to be very frequently in Church for adoration to the Blessed Sacrament.  There he used to spend long periods.  He never missed the weekly one hour adoration ... and this he did on his knees. Father was often seen saying the Breviary in the garden of the house where he was staying.  When going from some part of the Village to the other he used to carry a big rosary beads in his hands in order to say this Marian prayer.

Fr De Piro realised that it was not only the laity who needed help in their christian growth.  Priests had to continue strengthening that formation which they would have started receiving in the seminary.  In fact De Piro had already planned to start gathering together the priests of the parishes near Qrendi to have some conference at the Church of St. John the Evangelist, at Hal Millieri, a church in the vicinity of Qrendi.  It was only because Fr Joseph had to leave the Parish that this project never came to reality.

Monsignor of the Metropolitan Chapter (1911 - 1933).

The Bishop of Malta, Mgr Peter Pace, thought it most opportune and reasonable to make De Piro Monsignor of the Metropolitan Chapter.  When De Piro came to know this, he refused.  It was only out of obedience to the Bishop that he accepted.

For many the title of Monsignor meant prestige and honour.  For De Piro it signified more than that.  He was being loaded with many responsibilities and therefore going to Mdina for the daily Conventual Mass and for the singing of the Lauds and Vespers was not an easy thing to do.  Besides these daily Chapter responsibilities he had also to attend the feasts celebrated at the Cathedral  which at that time were not that infrequent!

 Secretary to Archbishop Caruana (1915 –1918).

If one were to go to the Curia's archives and get the section where there is preserved the correspondence of Archbishop Caruana one would notice that the very first letter of this Archbishop was addressed to the Governor General of Malta, Lord Methuen.  But for us it is all the more interesting because after mentioning the choice of Bishop Portelli as his Vicar General, Caruana also informed the Governor that he had chosen Fr. Joseph De Piro as his secretary.

This four year contribution of De Piro to the Diocese may be considered by many as rather insignificant; there was no room for De Piro to practice his creativity and energy.  It may be so, but it is as much true that this was an occasion where the Servant of God could show his precision at work: he was very quick in answering all correspondence which came to his desk.  During these four years he also showed his dedication to the Archbishop.  But this period was particularly important for De Piro's contact with the Maltese who had migrated to other countries and with the priests who were working among them.  It was before the 1915-1918 years that Monsignor first thought about the Maltese migrants.  With Mgr. Peter La Fontaine who visited Malta in 1909, De Piro had already mentioned his Society's work among the Maltese who lived away from their Country.    But the letters he received as His Excellency's Secretary made De Piro more conscious of the urgent situation of his conationals living abroad.  Before he could send any member of his Society, De Piro did his best to find some other diocesan or religious priest to go instead. In fact he found one for California.  But this seemed to be a rather difficult thing to do.  De Piro's hopes were in the Society he was founding.

The formation of young priests (1915 - ).

It was already said that at the time spent in Qrendi, Fr Joseph had planned a project for the formation of priests in the nearby parishes.  A few years later, during his time as secretary to the Archbishop, he was chosen to make part of a commission in charge of the formation of young priests.

It was the time of the first World War.  Archbishop Caruana was noting that newly ordained priests were encountering huge problems when they left the Seminary to start their pastoral activity.  His Excellency realised that these newly ordained priests needed other more mature and exemplary priests who could accompany them in their new experience and who could help them to gradually tackle the transition from the seminary to the parish life.  On 19 July1915 the Archbishop issued a decree exposing his intentions.  He himslef was to assume the responsibility of the whole project.  Fr. De Piro features first in the list of members for this commission.

Rector of the Major Seminary at Mdina (1918 – 1920).

It was in order to be involved in another responsibility that De Piro's services as secretary to the Archbishop came to an end.  On 30 September 1918 Archbishop Caruana nominated De Piro Rector of the Major Seminary, at Mdina.  Mgr. Caruana had been noticing De Piro's ‘... intellegence, good life, and many oher capabilities’ and it was for these that he chose him for such an important work in the Diocese.

The priests who were seminarians during his rectorship, emphasised, in the interviews we did to them, the humanity with which  Monsignor behaved when relating to them.  They also referred to his continuous attention in finding ways and means how to improve the hygiene of the place, and the menu.  But that which shows most the Rector's dedication is an eleven page report which he prepared before terminating his office. 

Dean of the Metropolitan Chapter (1920 – 1933).

At the Cathedral there was a fixed number of Monsignori and it was only when there was a vacancy that one was nominated for that post.  In the case of De Piro it was Mgr. Vincent Vassallo who was to be replaced.  But the latter was also the Dean of the Metropolitan Chapter.  This meant that the Servant of God was to take sooner or later Vassallo's place even in this latter responsibility.

Again, the deanery might have been considered as an honour to look for.  But it was not in fact only this.  The Dean had all the duties of the other Monsignori  as regards the liturgical celebrations.  Besides these he had to preside on all Chapter meetings.  Here one must remember that the Chapter was in those days what the Presbyterial Council is nowadays for the Archbishop.  Therefore members had to meet frequently to discuss many matters of importance.  Besides the Chapter sessions themselves the members were expected to do even their homework!  As dean, Fr. De Piro had to lead delegations to the Archbishop.  Since, as already said, the Chapter was the consultative body to the Archbishop,  these delegations were quite frequent.  But not only this!  Because the relations between Church and State were bigger in De Piro's times there were more occasions when there was need of some delegation from the side of the Church to go to the government.  And Fr. De Piro was supposed to head these delegations.

At the Gudia Parish (1922).

The Servant of God was not destined to spend his life working in a parish.  After his stay at Qrendi Bishop Pace entrusted him with another completely different duty in the Diocese, for which he had to leave the Parish.  But years passed by and De Piro was asked to give a helping hand in another parish, this time Gudia.

It happened that in this village the parishioners were divided into two, one group supporting the main feast while the other favoured the secondary one.  These two parties had been in trouble for a rather long time, but in the year 1922 the conflict reached its climax.  It was so much so that the parish priest abandoned the place and the church was closed on weekdays.  The Archbishop did his best to find someone to take over but knowing the situation no one was couragious to do it.  After one month the Archbishop thought of  De Piro as a temporary solution.  Monsignor was again ready to obey.  In spite of the not so much favourable situation in the Parish and the many other duties already at his back, De Piro went immediately and succeeded in getting peace among the parishoners.  After a few weeks he could leave the Village and let the newly appointed parishpriest  take over.

Minister of the Word and the sacraments.

During his seminary years in Rome Joseph did not show very good qualities as a prospective preacher.  He suffered from an inflammation in his throat which, apart from being painful, often created dificulties when speaking.  Though when still in Rome he got rid of this, he continued suffering from TB.  In fact during his first years as a priest in Malta he was afraid to accept the offer of the director of the Opera della Missione, Mgr Debono, to begin to preach in Maltese parishes.  However as time went on he overcame this fear and though not with Mgr Debono, embarked on this apostolate with fresh zeal.

We can deal with this aspect of De Piro’s life because luckily, as in other areas of his life, he took pains to be exact.  In fact at the Archives of the Missionary Society of St Paul one can still find sermons which De Piro used to write, some of them complete, before delivering them to the congregation which was to listen to him.  There are two hundred and thirteen of these sermons.  This is already a good number, but these same sermons indicate that De Piro had made more than these.  Some of them are not complete; they imply that there was more material.  Others refer to sermons which do not seem to exist anymore.

De Piro did not only write the sermons.  He even put them in files according to the themes.  At the top of the sermon he often noted where, when, and to whom he was making the sermon.  Although he used Maltese when preaching, the written preparation was in Italian.

These written homilies show that Monsignor used to prepare homilies related to the Sunday liturgy or the Lenten spiritual exercises.  Sometimes he was asked to preach on more special and solemn occasions, such as the eucharistic Congress of 1913, the centinary of St Francis of Assisi or that of St Anthony of Padua.  At other times he was even requested to deliver the panegyric in the main feast of some town or village.  On other occasions he led retreats for groups of youths or religious.

De Piro’s preaching was quite pastorally oriented; with his word he wanted to help those hearing him to come closer to God.  Thus his homelies tended to be simple.  At the same time an analysis of the texts reveals sound biblical and theological foundations.

The Eucharist was central to Monsignor’s preaching.  There were also occasions when he speaks of marriage.  De Piro lived at a time marked by the devotion to the Heart of Jesus.  In fact Margherita Maria Alacoque was canonised in 1920.  De Piro paractised this devotion.  In fact there exist no less than thirteen homilies on the theme of the Sacred Heart.  Our lady and the Saints are also recurrent topics.  The Servant of God preached also about religious life, missions, health, death, and the end of the year.  In retreats a wide range of topics was touched upon.

As regards the administration of the sacraments we cannot expect to find records.  The interviews mentioned above shed more light on this aspect.  One person said, “Many people went to him for confession and he used to spend hours in the confessional”.  Another person stated that De Piro used to hear a lot of confessions and would not leave the confessional before listening to the last person.  Another person sheds light on De Piro’s approach at confession, “His confessions were not rushed affairs.  He used to speak little but what he said was food for reflection.  He stressed a lot on prayer because he was certain that the person who did not remember God frequently would not be able to face adversity.  De Piro used to encourage priests and religious not to stop doing their meditation which helped them think more of God.  His devotion to the blessed Sacrament is well brought out by the penances he used to give, namely visits to the blessed Sacrament.

 Section 2         A citizen who always loved his Country

Participating in the National Assembly (1919-1921). 

On 23 November 1918 a certain Dr. Filippo Sciberras was entrusted with the preparation of a draft of a Constitution for the Maltese Islands. First there was an appeal to all Maltese associations to send their delegates to form a National Assembly.  Amongst those present there were four Monsignori.  De Piro was the first of these.  The members met for the first time on 25 February 1919.  On 7 June of that same year there was the second meeting.  Here it was decided that there be formed a Central Commission made up of a representative from each important Maltese association, already present in tha Assembly.  Monsignor De Piro, being the Dean of the Cathedral Chapter, was chosen again.  In this meeting the members agreed to start work on the draft of the Constitution.  But outside the "Giovine Malta", where the members were gathered, there arose an upheaval and the session was suspended.  It was on 23 June that the Central Commission held its first meeting.  In all there were five sessions of the National Assembly and fourteen of tha Central Commission.  Although these meetings meant hours and hours of discussions,  De Piro was always present.  This was already a proof of his real love for his Country.  But it was not only a question of attendence; his was always a very active involvement.  Together with the other Monsignori he had to be present at ordinary and extraordinary Chapter sessions in order to discuss and prepare material which was to be treated in the Assembly or in the Commission.  It was not once that he had even to do research work on his own in order to support the Chapter's  convictions.  During the meetings he always behaved with the other members with an open mind: he was always and only after the good of the Nation and never wanting to impose his own ideas.  After each session he had to inform the other Monsignori, and this again meant much time for him.

De Piro’s efforts to be always present in all these meetings and his active participation in them are already a proof of his dedication to his Country.  But this love of his for whatever was Maltese was expressed more directly when the Central Commission discussed the language problem; he was among the members who were in favour of the use of the Maltese language in the future Parliament by those who wanted to do so.

The 'Sette Giuqno'  riots (1919).

Reference has already been made to the '7 June uprisals'.  Since Monsignor De Piro was a member of the National Assembly and this was the body set up with the explicit scope of seeking the interests of the Maltese, he, together with a few other members, considered it his duty to intervene even in this historical moment.

It is a known fact that in the 'Sette Giugno' riots there were several criminals who mixed with the other Maltese and acted in a most condemnable way.  But these must be considered as the exception.  In general those who participated in the three day event were people who wanted to fight for their legitimate rights.  This was the only reason why De Piro intervened in this so delicate situation.  In spite of the fact that he even risked his own life, the Servant of God spent three days going here and there, at one time meeting some British officer, at another time the Commissioner of Police, at another time members of the Assembly, and at other times, even the mob.  It seems befitting to stress all this by a statement published eight years later:

"Don Giuseppe De Piro, a priest whom nobody can accuse of any fault, is an example of integrity, devoted dedication and holiness.  He is also a patriot, who was involved in heartbreaking events - the disorders and deaths on 7 June 1919. On that occasion he was in the midst of firing and close to the injured.  De Piro is, for the Church and his native country, an exemplary priest  and an ideal patriot.  Everyone should love and admire him."

And on our part we can add that Monsignor was a real proof of the power of non violence.

Mediator between Strickland and the Church (1930).

When one comes to know that Monsignor was so much involved in the social life of our Country one may conclude that he was also active in its political dimension.  One may arrive all the more at the same conclusion when one knows that the De Piros were quite involved in politics on one side or other.  The Servant of God might have had his own personal convictions but he never expressed these same opinions in public.  It was because of this that he could serve as a mediator between the Church and the Governor, Lord Gerard Strickland, during the years 1930-1932.  It was to this intervention that the Daily Malta Chronicle referred in an appreciation it published on 19 September, 1933:

'Monsignor De Piro - A Tribute to his Memory '

"... For a little more than a year ... since the opening of the present Parliament ... he (Monsignor De Piro) had, in addition to his manifold roles, yet another ... he was one of the Archbishop's representatives in the Senate ... a task we are inclined to believe, which he must have undertaken out of that sense of duty and utter selflessness which were uppermost in his character;  for he fought shy of politics and kept away from political strife.  Yet there has been a notable and quite recent occasion, when he played a remarkable and beneficent part in the political field, though he hardly figured in it at all.  It was he, in fact, who was mainly responsible, through his initiative, his tact and particularly his sincerity and earnestness of purpose, for putting an end to the unfortunate politico-religious dispute which caused so much harm to the Island; it was he who restored the relations between Church and State to their normal  and traditional state of peace and cordial cooperation.  No one was better fitted for the task ... no one enjoyed to a greater degree the confidence of both sides, nor possessed the qualities that were necessary to undertake the delicate mission and carry it to a happy conclusion.  Not for that alone, however, are we all in the Church and State alike profoundly moved by his sudden and untimely death: we mourn in him the loss of one who was indeed a pillar of both Church and State." 

After many interventions Monsignor was once again an instrument of peace between the two sides.

Senator in the Third Parliament (1932 – 1933).

One of the issues which caused most of the trouble between Lord Strickland and the Church was the participation of the clergy in the Legislative Assembly.  As had been just said peace was acquired. But the Archbishop held the right to have representatives in Parliament.  In fact when the Third Legislative was formed, on 17 October, 1932, His Excellency nominated two Monsignori as members of the Senate; One of these was again Fr. De Piro.

After his death the 'Malta Chronicle' commented about this other duty of De Piro:

"A little more than one year ago, Fr. De Piro was entrusted with another duty besides the others he had.  He was chosen as one of the Archbishop's representatives in the Senate.  We feel we can say that he accepted only because he considered it his duty and on his part he never sought his own interests.  For him duty and dedication to others came first..."

And we know what were "the other duties" of De Piro!  As has already been said he was Monsignor and Dean of the Cathedral Chapter.  He was also Director of five charitable Institutes.  Besides, the Servant of God had, in 1910, founded the Missionary Society of St Paul which by 1932, had already four communities in Malta and a missionary in Abyssinia.  Monsignor did not intervene too often in the Senate.  "The dedication" mentioned above could be seen in his regular attendence, even when this meant remaining until late at night in Valletta.

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