by Andrea Gemma
(translated from: Fuoco al Mondo!)
“Father Luigi Orione appears to us as a marvelous and ingenious expression of Christian charity. It is impossible to summarize in a few phrases the adventurous, and sometimes dramatic life of he who defined himself humbly, but wisely as: “God's porter”. But we can say that he was certainly one of the most eminent personalities of this century for his heroically lived Christian faith.
He was totally and joyfully a priest of Christ, traveling Italy and Latin America, consecrating his life to those who suffer most, due to misfortune, poverty, and human wickedness. It is enough to remember his active presence among the earthquake victims of Messina and Marsica. Poor among the poor, driven by the love of Christ and of the most needy brothers and sisters, he founded The Little Work of Divine Providence, The Little Missionary Sisters of Charity, and then the Blind Sacramentine Sisters and the Hermits of Sant'Alberto. (…)
From his so intense and dynamic life, emerge the secret and the geniality of Father Orione: he let himself be led, only and always, by the serried logic of love! Immense and total love for God, for Christ, for Mary, for the Church, for the Pope and an equally absolute love for men and women, for the whole person, body and soul, and for all persons, small and great, rich and poor, humble and learned, saints and sinners, with particular kindness and tenderness towards the suffering, the outcast, those in despair. He announced his program of action as follows: “Our politics is great and divine charity, that does good to all. Let our politics be that of the Our Father.
We don't look at other than the souls to be saved. Souls and Souls! Here is all of our life: here is our cry and our program: all of our soul, all of our heart”.
And thus he exclaimed with stressed lyrics: “Christ is coming carrying the Church on his heart and the tears and the blood of the poor in his hand; the cause of the afflicted, of the oppressed, of the widows, of the orphans, of the humble, of the rejected: behind Christ new heavens are opening: it is like the dawn of God's triumph!”.
So, with the words of Pope John Paul II, pronounced on 26 October 1980, on the day of the solemn Beatification, we can outline as a summary, the life, the works and the spirit of he whom is called “il pazzo della carità” (The mad man of charity) , “the father of the poor”, “the benefactor of the suffering and the outcast”.
The life of Father Luigi Orione, rich in virtue and works, is like a beautiful adventure to admire, but above all to imitate. For this reason we will tell the story…
THE FLOWERED DAWN
On 11 February 1858, at Pontecurone, a large village in the Province of Alessandria , between Tortona and Voghera, a new Christian family was born. Carolina Feltri e Vittorio Orione were united in marriage in the parish church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was the same day in which – we would know later – at Lourdes , the Immaculate Virgin appears to the little Bernadette.
Vittorio is a robust and strong follower of Garibaldi, a good sort of man, but not over practicing when it comes to religion.
Mamma Carolina , illiterate and analphabet, is the true strong woman, of the Bible, a sage of natural and Christian wisdom.
She proved this some time before her wedding, when, at Pontecurone, she met for the first time, he who would be her husband. He, with the typical impertinence of a soldier, permitted himself to give a compliment to Carolina . It was not in the least bit welcomed by the virtuous young lady, whose only reply was to give him a sonorous slap. Vittorio remembered it well if, a short time later, he decided to ask to marry that lady, who appeared to him so resolute and virtuous.
Vittorio and Carolina Orione are very poor. He is a paver of roads, she cares for the house and the children. They already had two, Benedetto and Alberto, when on 23 June 1872, Luigi was born, our Father Luigi Orione.
The Orione family, that doesn't have a house, live in a little building in the rustic part of the Villa that the minister Urbano Rattazzi has in Pontecurone. A noble and reserved poverty and the assiduous work are the most beautiful ornament of the industrious family. Sometimes the same minister, who spends some time in his country villa, stops with his guests whom he respects.
One day in one of these visits, when Luigino was eleven months old, he held him in his arms and happily cradled him. Then, turning to papa Vittorino, he jokingly said:
- What will we make of him? A “Jesuit”?
- We will make him a General! – he added immediately, thinking of the past military profession of the little baby's father.
Yes, Luigi Orione will be a Commander, but not of soldiers or of war. He will be commander of the army of goodness and charity…
Mamma Carolina kept herself busy in many ways: she goes to serve in various houses, she goes to gather sticks of wood. In the summer she goes to gather wheat behind the harvesters (later she will go with the grown up Luigino and she will say: Pick it up, Luigino: it's bread!).
When he still very small and Carolina has to leave the house early, whilst in heaven the last stars are still shining, Luigino cannot be left alone in the house. The mother wraps him up in a shawl and brings him with her. Arriving on the field, she puts him down gently like this, placed at the foot of the tree, so as to protect him in some way. Luigino goes back to sleep whilst the mother starts her work. And so it is in every season up until the time he can follow mamma Carolina with quick footsteps.
In the winter, when the field rests and the evenings are long and cold, the neighbors gather in one of the more spacious stables. The warmth of the animals is a blessing: the coming together is a distraction. The women do their chores of sewing and knitting. The men play cards. The children enjoy playing in their own world. Among these is also Luigino.
He has an all particular attraction for the meek donkey that likes to be gently caressed. Probably he thinks of the little donkey in the stable in Bethlehem of which his mother spoke to him many times. And his tiny but growing fantasy becomes alive with many visions.
When it is time for the rosary, the men stop playing. A circle is formed. Luigino huddles against his mother and he too prays like the others. It is thus that he learns to love and to pray to the heavenly Mother.
On the roads around his town, as in all the streets of Italy, there do not lack the humble chapels dedicated to our Blessed Lady, with some devote image; Luigi Orione goes in the fields to gather little flowers, he makes a bunch and then brings it before the Madonna whispering a prayer and casting a glance full of love towards she whom he had learned to call the heavenly Mother.
BENEATH GOD'S SIGN
In the Orione family, God's name was respected above all others. Prayer was habitual for them. And they all had to participate, even the very small ones. As too all had to go to Church to participate at the sacred functions.
“I received the first elements of Christian doctrine – Father Orione would later say – from my mother…”. And one can deduce, that it was a school, of rare educative efficacy!
On hearing the various testimonies, including the autobiographic ones, if there is one thing to point out about Luigi Orione's infancy, it was his great vivaciousness. Luigino, therefore, was the opposite of that that would be said or imagined as the little holy saint.
Extremely intelligent and strong-willed, furnished with a strong nature, that at times could appear somewhat savage, aroused in his mother some serious worries, and therefore she never lost sight of him. “They called me Barabba's leader” (il capo dei Barabba) – he himself shall affirm. And certainly he would not have omitted sometimes to put out the child's fingernails to defend his rights or to keep in their place some impertinent peer, or also to take advantage in some ingenious naughtiness. In fact for this reason he was landed with the, in no way edifying nickname of “fughein”, that in dialect means “wild cat”.
The pedagogic wisdom of the analphabet Carolina will find two optimum remedies to prevent possible deviations of such a character: toil and Christian piety.
With regards to the latter, moreover, the little Luigi showed a most precocious liking.
In 1878, at the age of six, he was put forward for making his first Holy Communion. “I then asked a grace – he later confided – and, the older I become, the more I feel that Jesus has given me that grace…”.
The year after, on 26 October 1879, in the parish of Our Lady of the Assumption, he received, the Sacrament of Confirmation from Mons . Cappelli, the bishop of Tortona.
We repeat: Luigi showed a great interest for everything that referred to God and to the things of God.
And meanwhile a perfumed flower of a heavenly vocation began to bloom in his heart. The little Luigi feels that he must dedicate himself completely to God. In fact he is attracted by the holy things, especially when, led by his mother's hand, he devotedly assists at the Church functions. As soon as the voice makes itself clear and insistent in his heart and the generous response breaks forth, he entrusts the holy proposal to our Blessed Lady, secretly convinced that it will be she who will lead him there where the Lord wills.
Very soon Luigino emerges among his companions for his intelligence, liveliness and initiative. For this reason they willingly follow him, even when, having brought them with him, he accompanies them into the Church for a short visit to the Lord or to the niche of our Blessed Lady. He is small, but he is already an apostle and a swayer.
And one can be an apostle even with the little genial means available, for example, with the puppets
– Ladies and gentleman, the show is beginning!
Luigino Orione, makes himself industrious in many ways, imitating the puppeteer that he has seen a few times in the town square. It is he who in the house courtyard, puts up a tottering wooden frame, behind which wave in the very mobile little hands the puppets that he himself has put together, and it is he who lends the voice of a little actor on the grass. It is a simple way to keep his peers around him and to keep them far from places that are less healthy and from dangerous situations.
The years pass by and the secret desire that Luigi cultivates in his heart, far from diminishing, makes itself felt more strongly everyday: he wants to consecrate himself to the Lord. He understands that along the road to giving himself to the Lord, he will encounter different obstacles, among which is that his family are need of his hands – poverty always triumphs in the Orione house -. One winter's day, near to Casalnoceto where he was in the house belonging to one of his uncles, without anyone knowing, he went to the ruins of a little shrine dedicated to our Lady of the Fogliata, of which people had spoken. He knelt down on the snow and whispered:- Holy Lady of the Fogliata, if you obtain for me the grace to become a religious and a priest, I will rebuild this, your temple… It goes without saying: later Father Orione would keep his promise.
It was said: papa Vittorio also needs the hands of his smallest son, Luigi. And when he reached the age of ten, the father did not think about it too much and, taking him out of school, he took him with him, on the roads of Piemonte to learn the same trade as him: a paver of roads.
Luigi would undergo this rough training between 10-13 years old. Later he would say that he had learnt a lot from this arduous experience, and also to have helped to lost a bit of his health.
One day the little Luigi is transporting stones to the pavers who cobble the roads in Monferrato. One of them, having hurt his finger, let's rip a great curse. Luigi is horrified. He leaves the wheelbarrow where it is, and runs into the nearest Church. He stops at the stoop of holy water, takes some with the cup of his hand and brings it the man's mouth: a gesture of purification and of reparation for that offense against God that he, as with every other sin, according to the school of mamma Carolina , had learned to abolish.
FINDING HIS WAY
Finally also papa Vittorio is convinced that his Luigi is not made for being a paver of roads. He grants him permission therefore to follow his religious vocation. “Make sure, however – he says solemnly – that you must be a committed religious, or else it is better that you continue to be on the roads…”.
Those words go into Luigi's heart like a blessing from heaven. It is the Easter of 1885: he is 13 years old.
With the help of the assistant parish priest, Father Milanese, he was accepted by the Franciscans of Voghera.
Mamma Carolina prepares his things in a modest traveling case. Everything is loaded on a gig and … away towards the Lord's house ( the friary). Luigino is truly happy. In his heart he gives thanks to God.
Half way – he remembered later – he looked back to look at his little village that he left forever – yes, forever: he had decided to consecrate himself to the Lord forever – and he bids it farewell like the pioneer who leaves his homeland for distant countries in search of adventure. For Luigi Orione, the holy adventure of giving himself to God and his brothers and sisters.
Having arrived at Voghera, before unloading his case, he offered 5 lire to the driver of the gig. He realized that he had some money leftover. He didn't want to enter the Franciscan friary with money in his pocket: he felt that it would not make sense. He who would have to manage so much as a minister of charity, already had a disliking for money. With the money leftover, he bought some rosaries, sacred images, a devotional book and got back on the gig in order to reach the door of the friary connected to the Church of St. Peter , of Voghera.
He pulls the bell and waits. A friar came forward who, to tell the truth, is not the most sympathetic:
- What have you got in that thing there? Your rags?…
Poor Luigi, who thought of the loving care with which mamma Carolina had prepared his clothes, poor, yes, but not rags…
- Where are you from? – continued the impertinent friar.
- From Pontecurone? Ha! Ha! the village of goiters! … - and sniggered noisily.
Luigi Orione is rather mortified and disillusioned.
- If I become a friar – he thinks to himself – I will not be like him…
Fortunately the Father Guardian arrived and saw to everything with the best smile in the world… Luigi felt himself to be truly in paradise! How much he had dreamt of that place!
Unfortunately, that happiness was to be short lived. He became sick. On the Holy Thursday of 1886. He is at the end of his life – the words of the doctor. Mamma Carolina , having been called urgently, was in the parlor of the friary, ready with the clothes for dressing the dead body of her son… She cries anxiously and … prays.
In the mean time, in a moment of drowsiness, the sick boy – Father Luigi Orione told many years later – had what was like a dream: next to his bed his saw an array of seminarians, with white cottas, looking towards him: he had new seen so many clerical students all together like that… After the beautiful vision he started getting better. Notwithstanding the diagnosis of the doctor, the crisis is overcome.
Years later – in 1928 – the Franciscan friary passed into the hands of Father Orione's Congregation, and it housed crowds of his aspirants: the dream had come true.
The friars, even if they observed the improvement of the young aspirant, adhering to the doctor's advice, reluctantly told the young one to return home. Thus Luigi Orione, at the age of fourteen, does not yet know the road that the Lord wants him to take. He returns to Pontecurone with a shattered dream, but he does not feel defeated. He is not discouraged. He prays and continues to be good and fervent under the loving glance of mamma Carolina and of his parish priest.
The hopes of the young Luigi Orione are not disillusioned. In the Autumn of 1886, due to the interest of Father Milanese, he is accepted into the Salesian Oratory of Don Bosco in Torino , where he will remain for three years.
Here he gets to know the Saint of the Youth. He confesses to him (there remains the famous story of his first confession to the Saint, in which he had prepared two note books full of sins) and he hears Don Bosco tell him: We will always remain friends! The memory of his holy Master will accompany Father Orione for the whole of his life, and he will affirm this with unconditional praise and gratitude, and he loved to repeat - “We are indebted to Don Bosco”.
But not even the Salesians are for him. Strangely, on the eve of the entrance into the Salesian novitiate, Luigi Orione, following a strong inspiration, and also reassured by some not ordinary signs, decides to enter in the diocesan seminary at Tortona.
The surroundings are so different to that that he left in Valdocco. A hard impact for the fervent youth educated in the school of Don Bosco . Above all, rather than letting himself be dominated by the mediocre environment, it is he who becomes the soul of an authentic renewal. It begins with charity. In fact, whilst the less fervent make fun of him, he gets his revenge by being amiable and at the service of all. In brief, he becomes the … water supply of all of his dormitory companions, and the soul of the conversation and recreation.
THE YOUTH APOSTOLATE
Poverty has always been a distinguishing feature of Luigi Orione. Also in the seminary there is the problem of the fees, and he is unable to pay, and his family cannot pay either. He accepts therefore to be the sacristan and caretaker of the Cathedral of Tortona, together with two other companions. He receives twelve lire a month. The duties that he carries out with scrupulosity and common edification give him a way of satisfying his desire for prayer and also, when the Cathedral is closed, for him to practice, on the beautiful pulpit, to be a preacher. It is a vocation that he feels very strongly. His work companion acts as … a critical audience.
Who has listened to Father Orione preaching must admit that those nocturnal rehearsals were anything but useless…
Whilst he is caretaker in the Cathedral, the spark appears that will make of the student priest, Luigi Orione, an Apostle and a Founder.
The young boy Mario Ivaldi, sent away from catechism classes, runs into him who says “And if I teach the catechism, will you come?”.
- Certainly I will come…
- Then I will expect you…
Mario came and many of his companions came… Many…
By this time there are about a hundred boys that, since that first one, have gathered around the enterprising student priest. It makes sense to see him surrounded by screaming boys who invade the streets and the Cathedral vicinities, and who sometimes, also disturb the sacred functions.
Many complain, but the Bishop give thanks to God: at last there is someone to take care of the boys of the town. And he gives the episcopate garden so that Orione may run an Oratory: the San Luigi Oratory, that is inaugurated 3 July 1892. This could well be the birthday of the Little Work of Divine Providence, the Congregation founded by Father Orione.
Father Orione, speaking of that first Oratory opened in the bishop's garden in Tortona, says: - And there were those who complained, those who criticized, those who laughed and mocked, and took me for a madman… -
Other successive facts forced the bishop to take a reluctant decision to suspend the activity that had started so well in the Oratory…
The student Orione obeyed. He sent the boys away, put the keys of the Oratory rooms in the hands of a statue of our Blessed Lady and expressed his sorrow with tears.
Our Blessed Lady replied to those tears with another dream, “the dream of the Oratory”. Luigi Orione saw the Virgin herself breezing gently on the bishop's garden. Suddenly the heavenly blue mantle opened widely and under it crowds of young people of every race and color, male and female religious, priests and many other people, appeared to the amazed student: an immense multitude. At one point the voices started singing the Magnificat…
Once again heaven responded to the sufferings of Luigi Orione, showing him the future developments of his activity as Founder.
A little while before, in the Autumn of 1893, when there were already signs of a storm, Luigi Orione had occasion to travel to Rome with a free rail ticket.
At last – he thinks – I will see the Pope!
But they didn't let him see him, not even from a distance. So he contented himself by contemplating the Pope's house, having decided to spend the night under the colonnade of St. Peter's, in front of the Papal apartments. But a security guard woke him up and told him that it is not allowed to stay in that place.
Providence , however, sent him a boy who accompanied him in a guest house, where a kind lady – he thought that it was really our Blessed Lady – put him up for the days that he stayed in the Holy City .
The Oratory closed, Orione is unable to put out the flame that is alight in his heart. He does not consider himself defeated. He continues doing good works for the boys: it is his passion. Thinking of the poverty of many who are unable to earn their keep for their studies, he thinks of opening a college for them. He asks for and receives the Bishop's blessing. He goes in search of a place and finds it in the locality of San Bernardino of Tortona. He hires it for four hundred lire…
Now he has to find the money…
He doesn't have to wait long. As soon as he left the proprietor's house in the residence in San Bernardino , Signor Stassano, came across an elderly lady, Angela Poggi, who knowing from the student of the opening of the college, immediately enrolls her nephew, paying in advance the fees for the whole of Grammar School: exactly four hundred lire. Orione follows her to her residence, receives the nest-egg, brings it immediately to Signor Stassano, and full of joy, returns to the Cathedral. The college will open 15 October 1893. The boys enter in swarms.
The college of San Bernardino is pulsating with life: first there is the piety of which the student Orione is an untiring animator; then comes the study done seriously with the collaboration of clever teachers that help the same Orione; and then there is so much joy: animated recreation in the courtyard, outings in the town and sometimes also little longer outings in the gig. Everyone is bursting with joy, except for the poor donkey that submits it's back to the exuberant and noisy youth that have a great desire to live, like his director, for the rest…
Luigi Orione, the soul of those hundreds of boys and of that pulsating life, does not forget his fundamental aspiration: the priesthood. And notwithstanding the great work in the college, he continues his accurate preparation to the final end with his theological studies, with prayer, reflection, penance to which he is also recalled by that skull that he had had given him as a gift and that he keeps in good view on his table, as a recourse to higher thoughts. The scholastic grade of the courses frequented in the seminary is excellent.
Also the college of San Bernardo is admired by persons of little goodwill, who do not support the enthusiasm of he who is unable to stand still doing nothing and he multiplies himself in order to do good. Critical voices arrive as far as the Board of Studies at Alessandria that decides to carry out an inspection.
The inspection takes place, and the result is of great praise for the educative work that is done by that student priest and by his very young assistants. Whoever breathed on the fire with the intention of harming the work remains disillusioned. Instead they obtain the opposite effect.
PRIEST AND APOSTOLATE
The boys grow in number. The Stassano House of San Bernardino is no longer sufficient. So Orione turns to the Town Hall and is able to rent premises of a large building entitled Santa Chiara, in the center of Tortona on the important Via Emilia. It was an ex-convent, later transformed as a barracks and then disused. Luigi Orione obtained it, not without some difficulty and opposition, and with the beginning of the scholastic year 1894-95, he transferred his boys. Life continued with the same ardor as before, even with new enthusiasm and activism.
With the permission of the Bishop, Monsignor Bandi, some seminarians from among the best of the seminary of Tortona, joined with Luigi Orione.
Among them, the student priest Carlo Sterpi, of most lively intelligence and of remarkable piety. Father Orione would later say that he had asked our Blessed Lady for him as “a special grace”.
Father Sterpi will be, for more than fifty years, the Founder's most faithful collaborator, the generous executor of his plans, the humble and hidden weaver of thousands of charitable projects. He would succeed him – in 1940 as leader of the Congregation.
13 April 1895: Luigi Orione is ordained priest (let it be understood: Luigi Orione is Founder at the age of twenty, even before becoming a priest!). He celebrates his first Mass surrounded by the boys of Santa Chiara college, for whom now, with greater possibility, he can break the bread of the Word of God and administer the Sacraments.
It is important to know that the Bishop of Tortona had given permission to Father Orione, still a student priest, to preach in the diocese, having experienced the rare efficacy of his speech, especially when it came to certain topics: first, the defense of the Pope and the Church, the absolute fidelity to the directives and to the Pontifical plans.
At Santa Chiara, everything is fervor and enthusiasm.
Life irradiates in every dimension: fervor of piety, seriousness of studies and lots and lots of cheerfulness. It was the same Salesian method, with which Luigi Orione had been won over and now put into practice adding his strong personality and his undeniable fascination upon the children and youth. The fact that in the holy enterprise the young priests, almost of his own age group, would be united to him and depend upon for everything, is an important confirmation.
In that way, around Luigi Orione there was by now formed a company of generous persons who had made up their mind to form a large religious family. It began to be called the Work of Divine Providence (later on the suggestion of Saint Pius X, Father Orione would add the adjective "Little" …).
1898 marked the first great jump of the very young Institution. Father Orione is called to Noto at Siracusa where he opens a college.
The year after, he gave life to a particular branch of the religious who were not priests "the hermits of Divine Providence", dedicated, in remote and isolated houses, to work in the fields and to prayer.
With the institution of the hermits, arise the "agricultural colonies", where young persons, with little capacity for study, are sent to work in the fields and given a Christian education. One of these colonies was opened in Rome in 1901.
At long last, in January of 1902 – how much he had desired it, - Father Orione was received in a special audience by Pope Leo XIII, who amply blessed the Work and in particular, the hermits.
In March 1903 the bishop Monsignor Bandi, after some understandable beating about the bush, conceded the diocesan approval of the new Congregation and blessed its Founder and director father Luigi Orione.
The following year, 1904, he acquired from the bishop the so called "casa oblatizia", situated at the center of Tortona, a few steps away from the Cathedral. It would become the "Casa Madre" of the Work and the General Headquarters of his programs for doing good.
In 1906, in a memorable audience, Pius X – successor to Leo XIII – invites Father Orione to open a parish outside the walls of St. John Lateran in Rome , "the Roman Patagonia" as he wittingly defines it. The apostolate, that flourishes today, began in an improvised chapel 25 March 1908. Later, through the generosity of the Pope, the actual spacious parish church would arise.
THE PRIEST OF THE EARTHQUAKES
The young founder, who is defined as having "a heart without boundaries", in his ardor sees very far ahead and has decided not to say no to any charitable initiative. It is for this reason that, immediately he received the news of the terrible earthquake of Messina and Reggio Calabria, in December 1908, he did not put anything in the way to cause delay, and he went with an eventful journey to the place of the disaster. The spectacle that presented itself is horrifying. He immediately gets to work.
Father Orione is untiring. He goes to the debris of the huge disaster and seeks to extract those that are still alive. He places the orphans in his houses. He brings to all the comfort of his charity without limits and of his priestly ministry.
Father Orione stays at Messina until the end of 1912. He is named Vicar General of that Archdiocese by Pope Pio X, with whom he is very friendly, and who trusts him and gives him delicate duties. In that office Father Orione had also to suffer a lot because of the malevolence of persons without scruples…
Some years later, another terrible earthquake recalled the indefatigable charitable work of Father Orione: the earthquake of Marsica, January 1915. Once again, he shows himself as a priest of the earthquakes and the father of the orphans.
One day he was taking away a small group, frightened and cold, when the vehicle in which they were being transported came under attack by ravenous wolves- -just look at these bad beasts!… - he said to reassure the terrorized orphans… Luckily, the arrival of the other cars forced the famished beasts to beat a retreat.
Another day – as told by a famous figure of Marsica, Ignazio Silone, who was also an orphan of the earthquake – Father Orione has various orphans to get on the road towards Rome and doesn't know what to do. He sees and stops the cars of the King and of his entourage who have arrived on the scene of the disaster. Without thinking too much, he fills those cars with his orphans and, having obtained the King's consensus, he has them transported to Rome .
The days of Marsica – as he would later say to his Sons – were for Father Orione an exhausting trial that also threatened his health. "Once – he told – I couldn't go on any more and I let myself go, to lie on the recently fallen snow and I thought that I must die. It didn't displease me to leave the earth whilst exercising charity. I only suffered at the thought that my children would not have been able to have my body to pray over them, in as much as certainly they would have been devoured by the wolves…".
FOR THE POOREST
The earthquakes of Messina and of Avezzano render Father Orione father of the orphans. Not long after, the First Great World War: an unending bereavement. New needs, new orphans! The Christian charity and the fraternal solidarity find Father Orione, as always, ready for anything in favor of the sons of the fallen and of the combatants. Many of his collaborators are at the front: he, with the remainder, seem to multiply themselves in order to respond to every call to do good.
In order to better face the needs of the humble, the little ones and the poorest, going along with an old wish, he founded, in June 1915, the female branch of his Congregation, the Little Missionary Sisters of Charity, whom he wants to be mothers of the little ones, considerate sisters to the most derelict, servants of the suffering members of the body of Christ.
In that way Father Orione begins that that, among his activities, still causes great amazement and admiration and will make blessed the name: "Little Cottolengo", that is houses of charity that, in the name of the holy man from Torino, offer hospitality, spiritual and physical refreshment to all the kinds of infirmity and suffering, particularly those that are most repugnant.
The war, with its moral and material ruins, exasperate the souls. Also Tortona bitterly resents it. In May 1917 a people's uprising causes fear for the worst. Father Orione and those attached to him, rush to the Cathedral's piazza to impede that the restless crowd storm the Episcopate and threaten the safety of the bishop of the diocese. He succeeds, with his moral authority, to calm the souls. He above all understands that it is urgent to take on a vast work of moral healing and of pacifying the spirits.
For this, as always, he gets help from our Blessed Lady.
On 29 August 1918, in the small church of the San Bernardino district in Tortona, where Our Lady of Safe Keeping is venerated, and where he goes to carry out his priestly apostolate, notwithstanding that the locality is boiling with anticlericalism, he expresses in the name of the people, the vow to erect a very large Marian Shrine, if the war should quickly come to an end. At a distance of a few months the war comes to an end. The soldiers return. Life picks up again.
The vow was fulfilled 28 August 1931 when the shrine of Our Lady of Safe Keeping was solemnly inaugurated, on the occasion of the fifteenth centenary commemoration of the Council of Ephesus (431), where our Blessed Lady was proclaimed: "Mother of God".
Father Orione, Founder and Director of a religious Congregation, does not neglect his the ministerial priesthood, especially that of preaching and the hearing of confessions.
One day, after having preached on the mercy of God, whilst returning home on foot, he sensed a big man covered with a dark cloak coming towards him:
- You are Father Orione, who preached a short while ago, aren't you?…
You know me …
Astonishment of Father Orione: - No, I don't think so…
- Yet, you know me, because you spoke of me: I am the one in fact who put poison in his mother's plate and it killed her. No one has ever known about it… But the remorse has taken away my peace…
Father Orione had said exactly this: even if a son should put poison in his mother's plate, if he repents, God will forgive him.
- Do you believe that I can be forgiven by God?…
- Certainly, if you are truly sorry…
- Then hear my confession…
And on the side of the road the repentant sinner heard from the lips of Father Orione the consoling words: I pardon you of your sins…
The emotional matricide embraced him as he disappeared into the night.
The Congregation expands in Italy and in the world. Father Orione, in 1921, goes to South America for the first time, in Brazil , where he had previously sent some of his religious. He opened some works for the needy youth.. He returned to Italy the year after. The heart of Father Orione is always ready for everyone. He in fact receives whoever has the need of a word, of advice, of comfort, of help, of a prayer. The first to benefit of this affectionate availability are his Sons of the Congregation who open their souls to him with immense trust.
Also among the orphans gathered at Messina and Avezzano, he obtained optimum religious and priests who followed in his apostolic footsteps.
"TO DO GOOD TO ALL"
Save me! Save me! –a prisoner shouts towards his benefactor. It is Romolo Tranquilli, one of the boys that Father Orione had met among the orphans at Avezzano. He is in prison awaiting trial. He is accused of a serious crime. He knows he can count on the goodness and on the help of he who has become second father…
Like those of Romolo Tranquilli, Father Orione, as man and as priest, dried away other unending tears on his chest. He was the priest of sinners, of those who had gone off the rails and also of those who had gone away from the Church. For this he had the bad reputation of being a heretic and a frequenter of heretics. He left others to talk and continued to love. He felt the desire to be the priest of everyone. He felt the desire to love and to gather everyone with a tender, considerate love, a love like that of Jesus who came to save not the just ones, but the sinners.
This love, full of goodness manifested itself, in the life of Father Orione, in hundreds and hundreds of significant episodes that will be referred to.
It came to be known in the Congregation that it was necessary to keep watch on Father Orione because every time he returned home he was missing something, either clothing or other.
One time, to a poor person who asked alms, in the full of winter, he gave his trousers, not having anything else with him. The new shoes that a priest friend had recently given him as a gift, in exchange for those consumed and wet that he wore in a day of rain, were immediately given to the first poor person that begged from him. An unbelieving doctor who was next to him whilst he carried out that gesture, would remember the occasion on his deathbed, and wanted that it be that charitable priest and none other to administer to him the last Sacraments.
In 1903, during a stay in Rome , in the Colonia Santa Maria at Monte Mario, on the road that leads from the Vatican to home, he was approached by a Russian in a poor condition, who asked him for help. He let him get in next to him in his gig and he brought him to his Institution. He left him with his confreres to give refreshments, he also let him have the use of his bed. The guest stayed in the house for three months, during which Father Orione took some hours of rest during the night lying down in the trough of the stable.
This giving of his own bed to others, in particular situations of need, was a habit of Father Orione.
The Saints are also crafty. Father Orione said the same. One time, whilst traveling in a gig, he saw he had been caught sight of by certain mean looking characters who did not seem entirely well intentioned. Before they came near, he took out from his pocket a bunch of sacred images that in the distance could also have appeared to be banknotes and waving them in the air, he let fly down along the slope. They who went running greedily upon the … imagined loot. And the gig, with a good whip to the horse, to run towards salvation…
God comes towards whoever is always open to do good, even in extraordinary ways. One day in 1925, Father Orione had to celebrate the morning Holy Mass early, in the chapel that one of his benefactors had in Cortona, the town of Saint Margherita .
He had to arrive the evening before, guest of the good elderly lady of Cortona. In the dark he lost his way. He prayed to the holy patron of Cortona, who is portrayed having a small dog next to her. And so it was that a little dog in flesh and bone appeared wagging its tail at the priest and almost inviting him to follow it, acting as his guide.
He arrived in the Servetti house, welcomed by the worried owner. After a blessing by Father Orione, the little dog disappeared into the dark. It was not difficult for the holy lady and the same Father Orione to recognize the dog as that portrayed in the picture of Saint Margherita. Together they praised the Lord who is always wonderful in his undertakings in favor of his faithful servants.
* * *
The Little Work continued, blessed by God in its expression, so much so as to marvel its same initiator. He continued however to proclaim himself a simple instrument in the hands of God, or, as he picturesquely said, a rag, God's donkey, the porter of Divine Providence.
The ten years 1924-1934 were indeed characterized by this expansion of the Work outside of Italy – Poland, Rhodes, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay – and within Italy with the fruit of the “letter of request for vocations” that Father Orione launched in 1927: with the circular letter he invited the parish priests to send him aspirants for the priesthood, male religious and nuns to work with him in God's field. The result was surprising. At Tortona, focal point of the Congregation's apostolate, the shrine of Our Lady of Safe Keeping absorbed the energies and concerns of Father Sterpi. For the occasion, Father Orione's clerical students became “the workers of our Blessed Lady” and, on the day of the inauguration, 29 August 1931, according to the wishes of Father Orione, these boys dressed in cassocks went in procession single file with wheel barrows, shovels, picks, and other signs of that doubly sanctified work.
The interior flame of Father Orione makes way for other initiatives: that of the “living crib” that provides irresistible fascination, with real personages, to the poetry of Christmas, and that of the collection of the scraps of copper and of metal from which he wants to cast a large statue of our Blessed Lady (it exists today, but it was raised to its place after his death!) be placed at the top of the shrine. Thus he became known as “the priest of the broken pots and pans”.
BEYOND THE OCEAN
In September 1934, Father Orione he carries out his second journey to South America . “Today – he said before leaving – we have fifteen Institutions spread out there, in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay: now I will try to push my way into Chile and North America is not excluded; our work takes place in many parts, benefiting Italians and their children…”.
He travels on the ship Conte Grande with the Pontifical Legate, Cardinal Pacelli. He assists at the Eucharistic triumph of Buenos Aires : “An ineffable spectacle: I saw what it is, how great is God's mercy: greater than the heavens… I saw more than 200 thousand men adoring and receiving Jesus. What did I feel?… Christ! The people are tired – he writes – they are disillusioned, they feel that everything is vain, everything is empty without the presence of God. Christ has pity for the crowds, he wants to rise, he wants to take back his place: Christ advances: the future is belongs to Christ!…”.
Against the disparity of the social conditions, in those lands, Father Orione, bets on attracting the attention of the rich in favor of the poor; he inaugurates new Little Cottolengoes, inviting all people of good intention; he goes to Chile, flying over the Andes (1936); he pushes ahead inside of Chaco; more than once, he visits Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay. “There are Protestants – he says – Jews, cotton merchants and the wealth is there, and will there not be the priest of Christ for the souls and for the poor?…”. He stays three years: when he leaves again, together with a large crowd, the President of the Republic General Justo, the Nuncio Mons. Fietta and people of Authority go to thank him.
He will not see his sons and friends again. He disembarks at Naples 24 August 1937.
THE LUMINOUS SUNSET
In Italy he takes up again his charitable ways, surrounded by the goodness of Ecclesiastic and Civil personalities; he has frequent audiences with Pius XI and Pius XII. Beyond the prestige of the works, the fame of holiness accompanies him, that favors memorable meetings with benefactors and friends at Milan , Genoa , Rome and elsewhere, whilst at the same time he sends his religious to Albania , England and, with recurrent expeditions, to South America . He founds and inaugurates new schools in Alessandria (1938), Saint Philip Neri Institute in Rome (1938); the Philosophical Institute (1939); he builds a new Marian shrine at Fumo, Pavia (1939); has a thought of an exquisite charitable work for the war wounded nobles, for whom he prepares a decorous residence at Villa Santa Caterina di Molassana, Genoa (1939).
In February 1938, with a solemn and heartfelt apposite letter, Father Orione forms the Congregations little printing office “Ufficio Stampa”, in the “Casa Madre” at Tortona.
“For now we must limit ourselves to this – he says – nothing more; but I feel that, Deo adiuvante (with the help of God), we will not stop at the first step: I confide a lot in God, and I expect a lot from you, my dear ones. If it pleases God to give increase, with your valid help, with your alacritous daily work, this very modest Printing Office will become a school of our clever publishers, it will become the work of the apostolate of the good press of our dear Congregation. A printing apostolate pro popolo (for the people) that I have dreamed of for many years, a printing apostolate for the little ones, for the humble, for the masses of country folk, of the workers, the work of the good press for the workers, for the salvation of the people”.
He immediately expresses the profound reasons for this dream: “The press is a great strength: it is the great orator that speaks by day, that speaks by night, that speaks in the towns and in the villages, even upon the mountains and in the forgotten valleys. Where does the press not arrive? Oh, how much evil the bad press has done! But what good the press does when it is in good hands, when it is placed at God's service, at the service of the Church, of the Country!”.
And he concludes: “Can our Congregation be disinterested with such a strength?”.
And the printing apostolate was that to which he, the Founder, quickly applied himself, and with great commitment. In 1895 he gave life to the Congregation's first pamphlet significantly entitled “La scintilla” (The Spark) . In 1898 this title would be changed to that that qualifies more “The Work of Divine Providence”.
Later, in 1904, in Rome , light would be given to another magazine “ La Madonna ” that was blessed by Pius X.
In the 1920's he would publish weekly a pamphlet entitled “Il vangelo” (The Gospel) to explain the liturgy of the Word for each Sunday.
In preparation then, for the centenary of the Council of Ephesus, he will sponsor and have prepared from his printing press in Venice , the splendid Marian magazine “Mater Dei” , accepted as the official unit of the centennial celebrations.
Father Orione was never one of great health. But this didn't stop him from giving his life for souls, especially those of the poorest and sinners, even beyond his own strength.
Sickness manifested itself with particular gravity in February 1940. He had a relapse, in particular, from a bad attack of angina pectoris. And so his sons, with Father Sterpi at the head, convinced him to go to San Remo where the Congregation had a house for him to spend, in those most weak aura, a period of necessary convalescence.
He agreed with great reluctance.
The evening of 8 March 1940 he saluted his sons with a famous “Good Night” (the usual last thought given by the Superior before going to bed): “It is not among the palms that I wish to die – he proclaimed strongly – but among the poor that are Jesus Christ…”.
All are overcome with emotion…
At San Remo it seems that he is coming round, to the extent that the news that reaches Tortona raises hopes that in the near future he will be fully recovered and will be able to return.
He however does not rest: he writes letters, receives visitors, gives encouragement, leads the Congregation even from a distance, makes a last telephone call to recommend a needy case to one of his religious…
But at 22.45 of 12 March, after a day of intense work, he has a new violent attack of angina pectoris. He cannot breathe. He is put onto an armchair when, his face covered with sweat, he murmurs: “Jesus, Jesus! I am going…”.
And without deathly rancor he falls sleeps in the Lord.
He died like this as he desired many times.
His funeral was a triumph. The beginning of that glory that the Holy Church decreed on him through the mouth of John Paul II, 26 October 1980. Father Luigi Orione is not dead, but he lives. He lives in the different branches of his religious family.
He lives in his spirit: spirit of fervid love for God, for Jesus Christ in whom he wants to restore all things, according to the motto already chosen for the Congregation; spirit of unconditional love for the brothers and sisters, especially the poorest of the poor; spirit of most soave love for Mary, called by him Heavenly Foundress and Mother of the Little Work of Divine Providence.
And it's at the feet of Mary, in the shrine built for her from his faith, that he rests in the urn where crowds of devotees are still able to contemplate his blessed remains.
Father Orione lives.
He lives in his hundreds of institutions spread throughout the world.
He lives in the heart of those who love him and who recommend themselves to his intercession.
He lives in his eternal message: “It is charity and only charity that will save the world”.