From his friendship with the modernists to the uniquely effective policy of the Our Father. From his beginnings in Tortona to the visits to Latin America. Some episodes from the life of Don Luigi Orione that reveal the fascination of the man
by Stefania Falasca
No. One just can’t keep away from someone like him. And it should be said straight out: to adopt his attitudes, his unmistakable gestures, one would have to be him, Don Luigi Orione... or rather, something unique, providential and, above all, unexpected. Quite. And let’s say that straight off as well. Because perhaps never as in this man has the unexpected gone hand in hand with holiness. Indeed. It was all one.
And all one has to do is look at the unexpected that was all his boundless life, from 23 June 1872 to 12 March 1940: an open sea of unexpected episodes, circumstances and great enterprises, a continual and amazing mixture of pontiffs and ex-cons, statesmen and suckers, hermits, politicians and deadbeats, authors, orphans, saints and plaster saints. Not even the smartest of writers would be able to put it all together at the same time. He’d have to follow him up one street, and then at a certain point go back and take another, and then another again. While the subject is traveling them all at once, without worrying about where they might take him. And if with him the pen always trails behind hand and the page is too small for him, there is always without fail something that has been left out. And not just little bits. And still a life that continually overflows the lines and that sees him intent as «laborer of Providence» on opening doors, throwing them wide, responding to the promptings of reality, reading and anticipating the times with formidable intuition. Lots of people thought of straightening him out. They all had to surrender to the «fool of God». «One of the most original and outstanding individuals of the twentieth century», they said. In his celebrated biography the English writer Douglas Hyde, a convert from atheism, characterized «the bandit of God», as «genius of charity», yes, above all he did masterly things without realizing. What is certainly is that this priest with his somewhat awkward air, who «had the temper and the heart of the apostle Paul, impetuous and tenacious, tender and sensitive to the point of tears, indefatigable and courageous to the point of audacity», had the gift to illuminate men without faith. Someone remarked that he managed even to move priests and make them cry. Which seems a rather difficult thing. The preaching of Don Orione was also accompanied by that miracle. There’s nothing left except to try and trail him along the streets of the unexpected and ask that he come to meet us, and come close to us and lets us warm ourselves at the blazing fire of that charity.
Like the charm of a light wind
He had brilliantly got over the obstacle of the ninth grade at the oratory of Valdocco. And at the end of June he arrived punctually for the spiritual exercises that preceded the request for admission to the novitiate. But at the end of those days he suddenly abandoned the Salesian family. Everyone was stunned: superiors, companions. It was useless asking for explanation from the interested party. He didn’t give any. The fact is that he himself didn’t know what to say. It was something he couldn’t explain himself. He knew, however, with certainty that he had to get out. He was to confess: «I, who had never had any doubt about my vocation to the Salesians, was suddenly blinded in those days by the idea of entering the diocesan seminary». So on 16 October Luigi Orione entered the diocesan seminary of Tortona. And immediately the Church student, as obedient as he was lively, was noticed for his gifts, and for the cluster of boys at the oratory who crowded ever more thickly around him. Some of his seminary companions made fun of him, some thought him «a bit odd», «a bit crazy», and when on 16 September 1893 the bishop saw him arrive at his residence in the early morning he had the impression that he had lost the «bit» on the way and now there was only the «crazy». The seminarian told him that there were around fifteen poor boys willing to enter their own little boarding school... «Some day they could become good priests...», he proposed. The bishop listened perplexed, then patiently tried to get him to understand that it was an airy-fairy idea, certainly nothing that could be done there and then... But the determined Luigi settled that immediately: «I have faith in divine Providence». His listener now visibly began to lose patience: «So, what is it you want from me?» «Nothing, Your Excellency, only your approval and blessing», replied the other. «If that’s how it is, I give you the one and the other», retorted the bishop, in the conviction of having settled the matter for ever and having got rid of the lad. And instead Providence got busy. The tale went round the Curone, Staffora and Borbera valleys. The little boarding school opened its doors on 15 October in the ill-famed San Bernardino district of Tortona. There’s no doubt: that was the original core of the Little Work. Luigi Orione was just twenty-one. On 13 April two years later he was ordained priest and, on that same day, six of his boys put on clericals. So the adventure was begun. From that moment, meetings, houses, colleges, orphanages, farming colonies, hermitages and institutes, sprouted out of nowhere. Or let’s say the eyes of Providence were on him. Which in his case was everything: “program” and “specific purpose” of the Work. But there were also his eyes, those of an inexorable sniper of the mercy of God. «It was difficult to avoid that gaze which, once you encountered it, you never forgot. It remained within you like the fascination of a light wind...», Ignazio Silone wrote of him, and he’s only one of the many ready to confirm it. It’s enough to dip into the testimonies, into the hidden itineraries of so many who met him on the open and impervious streets of his apostolate. And of those people, some illustrious, who maybe on the point of death, wanted nothing to do with priests, and yet accepted that «strange priest». «Souls, souls... If the Lord allowed me to go to hell, I’d like to dig them out of there with a breath of love». «Souls, souls», it was this yearning that made him plead: «Set me, O Lord, set me at the mouth of hell so that out of your mercy I may close it». For on the day of his ordination he had asked a grace: «I asked Our Lady for a particular grace: that all those who had to do with me in any way would be saved...».
In the earthquake of modernism
At dawn on 28 December 1908, Messina no longer existed. An earthquake had swallowed it. The ruins of those who survived remained. Don Orione boarded a train for Messina on 4 January 1909. He threw himself into those ruins of desperation without reserve. Those who came near him at that time agreed that others who had not seen him there, moving through that desolation, cannot possible understand who Don Orione was. But surrounded by the rubble of that earthquake he was soon to find himself under the downpour of another tempest.
In 1907 the Church, with the Pascendi encyclical of Pius X and the Lamentabili decree of the Holy Office, had condemned modernism. In the March of 1909 the national “Association for the interests of the South of Italy” was set up, in the purpose of helping the victims of the disaster. A good cluster of modernists also belonged to it, in particular the people who had run the Lombardy magazine Il Rinnovamento [The Renewal], excommunicated by the ecclesiastical authorities. There was Aiace Alfieri, Antonio Fogazzaro, whose novel The Saint had been put on the Index, and other exponents of liberal Catholic thinking, such as the learned writer Tommaso Gallarati-Scotti. Don Orione, as if he’d done it on purpose, knew them all. Some closely. And right there, in Messina, he often met them, not failing to show them his respect and offer his help. And they were not the only modernists with whom he had relations. He was tied by brotherly friendship to many priests who had come up against different ecclesiastical sanctions because of their modernist ideas: Romolo Murri, Don Brizio Casciola, Father Giovanni Genocchi, Father Giovanni Semeria, Father Giovanni Minozzi, Don Ernesto Buonaiuti. Some were friends of old date. In 1904 he wrote Romolo Murri asking him for an article for his magazine Our Lady: «You must write something fine for me, all full of your faith and your soul: I would like it to be something like “Our lady and democracy”, or along those lines; you see that it’s a vast field, and all light and still unexplored. It will also be your homage to Our Lady for this year!» In February 1905, while he was conceiving of a charity for teenagers released from prison, he wrote Don Brizio Casciola: «You will help me a lot; Semeria, Murri, you must all help me a lot...».
But one has to imagine the witch-hunting atmosphere that had settled in after the Pascendi, and especially after the introduction of the anti-modernist oath for priests and the institution of the diocesan committees of vigilance on doctrinal orthodoxy. In that moment even a whiff of suspicion was the same as condemnation. The so-called «zouaves in cassocks», as the keenest inquisitors of the modernists were known, weren’t interested in finesse and handled their pens like swords, dipping them often and gladly in poison. It was the same for Don Orione. A fine letter of accusation was dispatched by Monsignor D’Arrigo, archbishop of Messina, that landed straightaway in the hands of Cardinal De Lai, Prefect of the Holy Office. The accusatory letter, in which the priest from Tortona is described as «a man with only half a conscience who knows how to make himself pleasing to everybody», was passed on to Pius X, and Don Orione was invited to present himself. When Pius X found the «strange priest» at his feet, he was, instead, even moved. And his only response was to put the seal on his extreme trust by appointing him as nothing less than Vicar General of the diocese of Messina, something that left poor Don Orione dumbstruck, for the appointment was then to mean three years of hell in the fiery furnace of clerical envy. Not only, that: the author of the Pascendi gave him complete freedom of action in relations with the modernists.
Because of the nomination, the priest well known for his orthodoxy and fidelity to the pope, was now in danger of appearing a zealot in the eyes of some modernists, somebody trying to convert them, a busybody... And instead no. They recognized him as genuine, fair-minded. And not only that, they sought fraternal relations with him, not hesitating to toss their difficulties into his hands, they even sent others to him. He wrote to Murri after the latter’s suspension a divinis: «I kiss your feet and your holy and blessed hands... We won’t meet again soon, but I will open the way for you; and I will be with you, and I will always be with you before God». And there he was, ready to help, with discretion, to patch things up, to act as bridge. A point of reference, beloved and sought out, by many borderline priests, priests on the razor’s edge, suspended a divinis, excommunicated and excommunicated again. It’s enough to go into the dense network of correspondence between these figures to see the respect and persevering closeness, and the shades of delicacy Don Orione achieved towards them, and vice versa. Gallarati-Scotti declared: «I must say that perhaps the only person who was generous and empathic with those who might have moments of doubt and torment, about certain critical problems, in that moment, was Don Orione.... He felt this need to reconcile, but not to reconcile in confusion, as others would have wanted, but in a loving distinction, in a warmth of genuine love and fervent conscience that is, when all is said and done, everything that is really good and everything that is a reflection of God, even if apparently, at times, it is far from God. There is something in the human soul that responds to the touch of the saint, because it is so deep and so hidden, but it throbs when it hears the voice of this charity that speaks. That was first great experience I had of him and that I shall never forget».
Ernesto Buonaiuti never forgot him either. «My beloved friend,» he wrote Don Orione, «the memory of the words you said to me, in unforgettable hours, is always alive and fertile in my heart... I am always parched by memory of you. Pray for me, my dear friend». Buonaiuti lived out to the end his condition of excommunicate vitandus. A witness remembers: «Buonaiuti used to say that Don Orione always wished him well, had declared he believed in his good faith and was sure that he would die in such a way as to be saved. Those assurances, in that lacerated soul, were the greatest comfort of his life». Don Orione was always close to him. When he got news that he had been declared excommunicate vitandus, accelerated by the intervention of the Father Agostino Gemelli, he commented on the extreme decision in a letter to Senator Schiapparelli: «Father Gemelli was not perhaps the best person to deal with him… And then it’s not learning that gets hold and opens the mind: it wanted a man of feeling, and one who united humility of spirit, sincerity and knowledge of Jesus Christ with leaning and feeling… It isn’t the syllogism that does it, but the charity of Jesus Christ and above all the grace of the Lord». And he did everything to defend him, to make for his reinstatement to the priesthood, involving in the help he gave a great friend of his: the Jesuit Father Felice Cappello, the “confessor of Rome”.
Father Cappello, yes, a saint. And he wasn’t the first one comes across in the strange unwinding of Don Orione’s days. And here open another set of unforeseeable and unforeseen paths: that of the saintly friendships of Don Orione. Another dense weave of stories. Another extensive network of relationships and mutual help that documents the way in which, though many of them were then unknowns, they nevertheless all knew each other, sought each other out, wished each other well. Precisely in the hellhole of Messina he had had at his side Annibale Maria Di France. Don Umberto Terenzi, the founder of the Sons of the Divine Love, was also bound to him by close ties of friendship, as were also Don Giovanni Calabria, Don Luigi Guanella, Cardinal Ildefonso Schuster, not to speak of Pius X, of Don Bosco and many others since canonized or candidates for the honors of the altars. Padre Pio was also part of the network. And that indeed is a friendship that leaves one stunned, because these two souls, who nevertheless knew each other deeply and intimately, not only never met, but never even exchanged a few lines. The incredible affair, that took place in the ten years 1923-33, the years of the storm that came down on the head of the saint of Pietrelcina, was minutely documented by Don Flavio Peloso, postulator of the cause for canonization of the priest from Tortona. And it once again saw Don Orione throwing light into the moral gloom of the churchmen implicated in that controversial question, and acting as bridge to rescue Padre Pio from the accusations. We read again in Gallarati-Scotti: «Understanding, understanding and intelligence. He had an extraordinary intelligence. He was able to penetrate into the heart and mind of others and understood everything: he understood the impure things as the pure can understand them who have never been touched by impurity; he understood the torments of the spirit and the mind, as they can whose faith is absolutely pure, foursquare against doubts, vacillations, steadfast in the lived truth. And it was that sureness, I would say, in knowing where to set his foot that made of Don Orione intermediary for many errant spirits of his time, and not only of his time».
The right priest, one would say, for difficult circumstances. The priest for storms, given that capacity of his to act with extraordinary sensitivity and open-mindedness and, above all, with delicacy on the threshold of the house of Peter, given that bold as well as prudent and discreet work of communion inside the Church itself. So one is surprised but not amazed that in the confidential documents of the various Vatican congregations one finds at the bottom of pages on burning issues, the manuscript notes of Pius XI: «Consult Don Orione on this… For this, I stress, send Don Orione». His intelligence, it can’t be denied, was also intuitive, capable of reading events against the light, able to make sense of the times. From within. To give one example out of the many: the Roman question. Perhaps not many people know that Don Orione was personally involved in the complex negotiation between the Italian state and the Holy See that led to the Lateran Pact.
The farsightedness of “his own” policy
In the general archive of the Orione Congregation an exceptional document has come to light. It is the letter that Don Orione signed in his own hand and sent to Mussolini on 22 September 1926. It goes: «I believe that Your Excellency, if he wants, can, with divine help, conclude the bitter and baneful disagreement existing between the Church and the State. And I humbly beg you, both as priest and as Italian. Find a reasonable basis, and propose a solution. It is the task of the Italian Government to nobly hold out a hand to the Vanquished».
This letter is an important piece of the mosaic, helping to understand the part he played in the preliminaries and in the launching of the negotiations themselves. And it is also documented that Don Orione was the first to intuit, in 1923, that the new political climate in Italy might put an end to the quarrel between State and Church, and it is also documented that he took part in the first preparatory meeting, together with Father Genocchi, that took place at home of the Counts Santarelli in Rome. It has been judged that the letter expresses the view of the Holy See itself which had decided to get a trusted priest, and one of moral worth recognized by public opinion, to pass a clear message to the Italian government without thereby compromising its own authority.
In fact, is not known whether post hoc or propter hoc, a few days after the letter from Don Orione the negotiations were declared official and the real work began in earnest. The rest is history. On 11 February 1929, the date of the historic signing of the Lateran Pact, L’Osservatore Romano, which had been published with a black border since 1870, was finally printed without the sign of mourning. Two days later Pius XI noted: «It is with deep content that we believe we have with the Concordat given God back to Italy and Italy to God». This page of history seems to finish in glory, to the satisfaction of all. Yet Don Orione, who had the solution of the question so much as heart, hardly rejoiced at the time. When he learned of the signing of the Pact, he kissed the photo of Pius XI printed in the newspaper reporting the story and exclaimed: «Poor Pope! How much trouble you’ll get from this!» «The Conciliation had to be made,» he explained, «but not in this way. It doesn’t look to me like a piece of soldering that’ll hold. I hope I’m wrong, but you’re going to see some ugly times». As Don Orione saw it there were some weak points relating to various issues. In particular he was afraid that Mussolini would take advantage of his new-found prestige to put through more unfair legislation to the harm of the Church in Italy. And that very day, at a meeting of the Congregation, he told his priests: «When the Fascist come into the Institutes to take away our young people, may the Lord inspire us in what to do». He had understood immediately. And it was what punctually came about. Hardly had the cheering for the Concordat died down than Mussolini returned to his policy of oppressing Catholic organizations.
Lucidity, long-sightedness, certainly. Gifts for which, one should make clear, he was listened to by politicians as well as popes. In Rome, on the door in Via delle Sette Sale, Gaetano Salvemini came to knock, as did Senator Zanotti Bianchi, and that «piece of string» of Achille Malcovati, a big figure in industry and the grey eminence of many politicians in the public eye. Just to mention some. They came to see him who, he said it in capitals, nothing understood about political programs and had no intention of getting involved in them, determined as he was to follow “his own” policy: «That of the Our Father». The only effective one. The only one that is unconfined and «is fully feasible», he insisted. The only one for which he was even willing to cross the ocean. After the earthquake in Sicily and the one in Marsica in 1915, burying his arms and heart in the rubble of human misery, he had not hidden his desire to sail as missionary for the Americas. One day he had confided his desire to Pius X himself and in response was immediately packed off to the “Roman Patagonia”, the abandoned outskirts east of Rome. But the day came when he did depart.
Things out of this world
He sailed for Latin America on 24 September 1934.
To tell the truth he’d already set foot there in 1921. And not even there had this uncataloguable, enterprising priest gone unremarked, with his sometimes explosive outbursts, and the uncompromising terms with which he denounced abuses and social injustice and his preaching that the real revolution takes place on one’s knee in front of the tabernacle.
In Brazil he had left the local clergy stunned with his “pastoral care for negroes”. Once again he had only anticipated the times. It had been one of his spiritual daughters who had insisted on his going: Mother Teresa Michel, as “mad” as himself. A formidable rival in the matter of faith in Providence, and a person to whom Don Orione was grateful for advice and comfort in difficult circumstances.
This time, on the desk of the “Conte Grande” taking him to Argentina, there was also the future Pius XII, heading there for the International Eucharistic Congress. During the crossing Cardinal Pacelli found occasion to make known his respect. Don Orione knew his brother Francesco well, a lawyer, who had taken part in the official negotiations for the Concordat. But “the confessor of the Conte Grande”, as they nicknamed him aboard ship, was wary of praise, and on his arrival in Buenos Aires stared wide-eyed at a vast landscape of poverty. As Don Dutto recalled: «He began again to scour through the hovels, alleyways, ill-famed neighborhood, to find cripples, the infirm, the incurables, the drunks, the insane: he elected them his masters, washed their sores with his own hands, served them». In Via Carlos Pellegrini in Buenos Aires, in the house given him by a noblewoman, that he shared with a former priest, a deaf and dumb child escorted by her sick sister and widowed mother, an ever thicker and varied crowd – does one need to say? - came knocking on his door: down-and-outs, rich landowners, professional men, religious, officials. In 1936 he lodged Jacques Maritain there, kept in touch with Archbishop Copello, with the nuncio, even with the head of state. His novitiates, his houses, opened one after another, like that, just as his charities always bloomed behind him: a concrete gesture, an immediate response, an insight, a chance meeting, a novelistic combination of circumstance, and they were funded with money that seemed to flow directly from the beard of Saint Joseph and the pockets of the wealthy who, in all trust, had no hesitation in banking their money in his pockets full of holes. And it looked as if he had set down roots in that land of wide spaces and vast horizons, and the invitations from Italy to return home, that after a while became ever more insistent, got nowhere. He continued undaunted to open doors. He asks for more staff. The good Don Sterpi, on the other side of the ocean, left to direct the Congregation, no longer knew how to go on, and begged him, implored him to come back. Above everything else, the winds of war were blowing, and there were problems with the bishop of Tortona. In the end, having exhausted every sort of argument, he wrote: «Though your letters are most dear to me, I beg you not to write again, because by telling me of ever more new houses, you are killing me». In three years he covered a distance ten times greater than that between Italy and Argentina, «begging the Lord to multiply His works», in a continual immersion in reality that knew no bars: «Would I had a hundred, thousand arms and might get where no one wants to go», and give life and life again to that fire that blazed untameably within him. Argentina was never to forget him.
Just a priest
He set foot back in the port of Naples in August 1937.
On his return from America he was invited to give speeches. And he had no intention, for that matter, of hiding the workings of Providence. Allergic to honors, he hid, in so far as it depended on him, the person he was. On one occasion, in the aula magna of the Catholic University of Milan, he was forced to listen to the public orator reciting his praises. The people near him saw him cover his face with his hands, wriggle on his chair, almost as if being tortured. And, without the least show, but with all the vehemence of his impetuous character, he suddenly burst out: «But what Don Orione, what Don Orione farmer’s boy from Pontecurone! Don’t believe him! Don’t believe him!» Another time, at the opening of the San Fillipo institute in Rome, he had to go through the same torture. Hunched down in third row, frowning, listening to Senator Cavazzoni expand in his praise. He searched around for a way out. Nothing doing. The room was overflowing with people, the president of the Senate was there, Cardinal Salotti next to him and public authorities all around. At the end, he was called onto the platform. His voice betrayed a genuine shyness and the effort to swallow words that would have been out of place. He began: «I don’t know how to speak. I only know how to make a mess... and I’m sure that out of all the priests here there’s not one that’s more of a sinner than myself». And then turning to the speaker: «My dear Senator, who can have told you all rubbish about me?». And then raising his voice so as to be heard: «The truth is this, and I want it to be sharp and clear to you all, I’m not the founder of anything! I’ve had nothing to do with it!» And since he’d just come back from Argentina, he turned to the Spanish of Saint John of the Cross: «Nada! Nada!... If I’ve had to cross half the world, as far South America, it’s because that’s what a monkey does or any old parrot». Whereas he wasn’t like that when he was accused of any deficiency, then he was ready to step forward, acknowledging his faults openly. He clarified the issue: «If there’s anything in the Little Congregation it’s all the work and goodness of divine Providence. If there’s anything lacking and twisted it’s all my doing, my wretched doing, and maybe also some of yours, my dear sons». If praise hurt him, so did insults, but those he took as a good. Don De Paoli reports: «On abandoning the Congregation one of his sons covered him with insults and abuse. I was there. Don Orione gave him some money, embraced him with tenderness, kissed him with affection on the forehead, wished him all good things and told us to pray for him as for a benefactor».
On a photo that immortalizes him on an ass during the climb up to Monte Soratte, where he was going to visit his hermits, he wrote: «Him and me both». Just to remind himself, with his sharp irony, that he was of no account. In Tortona, meanwhile, stormy winds were blowing again. The bishop was complaining. Slander, gossip, accusations, denigration. Again hostility and trials. He sent a note to a friend in Rome: «I forgive everybody and am very glad to be away from the intrigues and hellhole of Tortona. My priests pray, keep silent and wait with me, fidentes in Domino... My enemies can even put my eyes out; just let them leave me heart to love them...» One of his religious, to whom he had entrusted certain tasks, wrote him an «ugly and lying» letter. He was hurt. Don Cribellati appealed to him to adopt counter-measure. Don Orione answered: «Nothing... For these people: a) one prays God; b) one forgives; c) one loves».
«Our charity is a most sweet and crazy love of God and of men that is not of this earth», he had written on his way to Argentina. A few years later his heart began to play tricks. In 1939 he had a serious attack of angina, in February 1940, another. On 8 March, in Tortona, in the mother House, he asked for the last sacraments and gave everyone a last “good night”. The following day he left for Sanremo, knowing he would not be coming back, going to meet death as if he were opening another door: «Jesus, Jesus.... I’m going». And this at bottom is the richest joke his heart has played on us: to speak about him we have to open up to an Other. Marvellous is God in his saints. As for him, the epigraph carved on his tomb says: Aloysius Orione Sacerdos. Te Christus in Pace. Nothing else. Sacerdos. There, the one thing that he might perhaps have agreed to hear said about him, what he simply is, and was: a priest, and that’s it. May Saint Luigi Orione forgive us.