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from issue no. 04 - 2004

SAINTS. Annibale Maria Di Francia and Luigi Orione

«Don Orione was always for the Church and the Pope»

His childlike fidelity to the successor of Peter and his vast charity stunned the popes who met him. Some even before mounting the throne of Peter. The Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints looks at the relationship between Don Orione and the 20th century popes

by Cardinal José Saraiva Martins

Don Orione with the orphans of the Piccolo Cottolengo of Claypole in Buenos Aires in Argentina, in 1935

Don Orione with the orphans of the Piccolo Cottolengo of Claypole in Buenos Aires in Argentina, in 1935

Don Orione wrote the essential words of the epitaph that he would have liked for himself on a scrap of paper. Here they are: «Here rests in the peace of Christ the priest Luigi Orione, of the Sons of Divine Providence, who was wholly and always for the Church and for the Pope. Pray for him» (Summarium, p. 978). Those who know even a little about the man whom John Paul II described as «a brilliant expression of Christian charity», know that filial love for the pope constituted the dominant and characteristic feature of the saintly priest of Tortona. «My faith is the faith of the Pope, it is the faith of Peter» (Scritti, 49, p. 116). It was his life’s lesson, meant not only for the Orione Fathers to whom he said: «This is the legacy that I leave you: that no one ever surpass us in love and obedience, the most ample, the most filial, the meekest, to the Pope and to the Bishops» (Scritti, 20, p. 300). But his candid and profound fidelity to the magisterium of the pope, always openly lived, professed and proclaimed, especially in the face of events and opinions that threatened it is the opposite of a sign of bigoted fanaticism, it is the condition of an embrace of universal charity, the essential note of an open, boundless spirituality. A loyalty-unity that was for Don Orione no drag on the way ahead, «ahead of the times», as he put it, but a guarantee, a point of reference, «certainty of walking in the ways of Providence» (Scritti, 61, p. 215) with pioneering courage and farsightedness, on a still unexplored frontier of action, with connections that seemed impossible or even forbidden, such as those with various proponents of modernism and with men of culture and in public life who had adopted ways of thinking and acting very different from those of the Church.
In fact, with this profound devotion toward the successor of Peter, he was «alongside the popes», all of five popes. Who called upon him in diverse circumstances, entrusting him with thorny and delicate questions, and for whom Don Orione performed even very personal, difficult and, sometimes, heroic tasks with intelligence. Thus when touching on the subject of the filial closeness of Don Orione to the popes, we enter into the heart of the spirituality and history of this humble, singular and saintly priest. And reading his biographies it is not difficult to come across information of his efforts alongside the popes who followed one another in the See of Peter during the twentieth century.
Don Orione was born in the 1872, two years after the taking of Rome, at the time of the burning Roman Question and of the pontificate of blessed Pius IX. He never personally met that particular pope, but was aware, in the years of his training, of the atmosphere of conflict that surrounded him, as he was of the strong “papal pietas” widespread through vast strata of Italian Catholicism.
Luigi Orione, as seminarian, in a photo from 1892

Luigi Orione, as seminarian, in a photo from 1892

In 1892, as a twenty-year-old cleric, he wrote The martyr of Italy, in which he aimed to demonstrate the worth of the Supreme Pontiff and uncover the very ideological and political misrepresentations of his character and doings. «Pius IX», wrote Don Orione, «was the greatest figure of our century, the strenuous vanquisher of the revolution misrepresented in all its forms, the friend and the benefactor of the people, the unconquered champion for truth and justice: his deeds will live for ever, and his long pontificate, all of 32 years, will be one of the most luminous epochs in the history of the Church and of Italy » (Messaggi di Don Orione, no.102, p. 31).
In 1904 Don Orione was perhaps the first to plead with the newly elected Pope Pius X to open the cause of canonization of his predecessor: «My Most Holy Father, prostrate at your blessed feet I humbly beg you to deign to help to the Cause of the Holy Father Pius IX and I encourage you in wanting to glorify him» (ibid). In fact, the cause was opened and, for some time, Don Orione was vice-postulator of it.
Leo XIII was the first Pope Don Orione met personally. The drive and vision of Pope Pecci towards a less defensive and more enterprising presence of Catholics in social life kindled lofty idealism and saintly plans in the young Orione during his seminary training and the first launching of his new Congregation. Undoubtedly the imprint in Don Orione of a spirituality and of pastoral action markedly embodied in social life derives from the magisterium and directives of Leo XIII, with whom he was strongly in tune. There are indelible traces in the first constitutions of his Congregation, worked out during the pontificate of Leo XIII and presented to him at a memorable personal audience on 11 January 1902. «I presented the Rule to him», Don Orione reported of that audience; «he blessed it, touched it, he set his hand on my head several times, patting me, encouraging me; he told me so many things; even to put working for the union of the Churches of the East into the Rules: “That”, he said, “is one of my greatest counsels”» (G. Papasogli, Vita di Don Orione, p. 138).
This ecumenic commitment, exceptional and prophetic at the start of the twentieth century, is a characteristic result of the fact that Don Orione was in effect “alongside” the Pope, that is in tune, devoted, ready to make pontifical indications concrete. We know that Leo XIII was very sensitive and active in the matter of relations with the Oriental Churches. It is from Leo XIII onwards that one can speak of a “Catholic ecumenism”. Well, Don Orione, already on fire for the unity of the Church, did not hesitate to take up that ecumenic indication from Leo XIII in his constitutions and, after that famous audience, he declared himself «delighted and most heartened with not having made a mistake in the criteria constitutive of the Rule» (ibid).
Don Orione with Don Guanella (on his left) at the end of an audience given by Pius X  in 1914

Don Orione with Don Guanella (on his left) at the end of an audience given by Pius X in 1914

Saint Pius X was undoubtedly the pope most decisive in the life of Don Orione. Of him he stated: «The Holy Father Pius X will always be our Supreme Benefactor, our Pope!» (Scritti, 82, p. 98). When he was elected to the pontifical office in 1903, Patriarch Giuseppe Sarto chose as his motto “Instaurare omnia in Christo”, which Don Orione had chosen for his Congregation already ten years before. The chance coincidence was a sign of a spiritual affinity of those two great souls that was to take on substance in the later history of their relations.
Their first meeting was like the answer to a prayer. Patriarch Giuseppe Sarto had called to Venice the young musician Don Lorenzo Perosi, a contemporary of Don Orione from his home town. He honored him with his friendship, had him as guest at table and sometimes as opponent in a game of cards. Lorenzo’s father, fearing that the cardinal might spoil his son, confided his fears to Don Orione. Without thinking twice, the latter wrote a letter to the patriarch, begging him not to set the promising young “maestro” on the wrong path. Having sent the letter, he hoped that his “little sermon”, deferential but bold, would soon be forgotten. But... the written word endures! When, a decade later, he was received for the first time in audience by the former patriarch of Venice, the newly elected pope, he felt faint when he saw him take the celebrated letter out of his breviary. The Holy Pontiff had not taken it wrong; indeed, he assured him he had benefited from it: «A lesson in humility is good even for the Pope», he remarked (E. Pucci, Don Orione, p. 71).
It would take too long to list the services performed by Don Orione for Pius X and the demonstrations of trust and affection from him to Don Orione after that audience. A relationship of unbreakable trust became established between the Holy Father and the young priest from Tortona. Don Orione took on the tasks, often delicate and difficult, entrusted him by Pius X without the least hesitation. One such was that of plenipotentiary vicar general of the diocese of Messina in the four turbulent years that followed the earthquake of 1908, and another that of continuing the pope’s work against the Modernists, often severe on behalf of truth, but always imbued with brotherly charity.
Because of the upright, loyal and discrete understanding between the two saints, Don Orione found himself in personal situations hedged with difficulties and misunderstandings. «He’s a martyr!» Pius X said of Don Orione at the end of his time in Messina (Summarium, p. 524). There was another episode that might seem theatrical, but was real and dramatic. At a certain point, Don Orione’s acquaintance with modernists who had incurred ecclesiastical censure, stirred suspicions about his full orthodoxy. Pius X decided to deal with the matter in person. He summoned him to an audience without apparent reason and scrutinized his words and face. At a certain point he asked him to kneel and recite the Creed. «They were there face to face, the Supreme Pastor of the Church, fearful for his responsibility”, the writer Tommaso Gallarati Scotti related – «and the innocent Don Orione, with the simple faith of his first communion, but who bore our tribulations and guilts». When the recital of the Creed, so devout and so inwardly felt, was over, the Holy Father’s face cleared. And he sent off Don Orione with the words: «Away you go, away you go, my son… what they say about you isn’t true!» (Papasogli, p. 227).
Don Orione with colored orphans in South America on his first trip in 1921-1922

Don Orione with colored orphans in South America on his first trip in 1921-1922

Don Orione had much personal contact with Benedict XV also. He gave special support to the “Pope of peace”’s program for a more decided universalism in missionary work. The bold missionary thrust of the Little Charity of Divine Providence towards Latin America, the Arab Middle East and from Christian Poland towards Russia dates from those years. He himself was in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in 1921 and 1922. Knowing of the Pope’s wishes on the Roman Question, he wrote a bold Appeal to the men of State asking that they «courageously take a step forward» and arrive at a solution (Scritti, 90, 352). On Don Orione’s silver anniversary as a priest Benedict XV sent him a chalice and a long letter in his own hand, in which he recognized his merit in having «spent all these years not on yourself, but on the common good, to the lasting advantage of Holy Church» (Papasogli, p. 367).
Don Orione’s relationship with Pius XI was even closer, with audiences, colloquies and reports on confidential and delicate missions, further intensified by the equal trust that linked him to Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, Secretary of State. For example, only recently the decisive and discreet role of the saint from Tortona in making clear the tangled facts concerning Saint Pio of Pietrelcina has emerged from the files. At the end of Don Orione’s mediation to avoid action that might harm the reputation of the Holy See, Pius XI had no hesitation in remarking in an audience: «Don Orione has worked like a horse, but he has given comfor­t to the Pope» (Summarium, p. 894).
What binds together so many episodes and actions in which Don Orione stood alongside Pius XI was the wish to foster the prestige and centrality of the papacy, the condition for establishing a genuine ecclesial catholicity, the force of coherence of a universalism which was the only thing that could have valorized the genius of peoples, so saving them from the increasing temptation to nationalism.
The significant and effective work of Don Orione to unblock the negotiations that led to the Concordat between State and Church in Italy in 1929 should also be seen in this framework. In a letter he wrote to Mussolini in 1923, he made clear that the real conciliation to be sought was between the “Roman essence” and the “universality” of the papacy that presupposed an autonomy and freedom that was also political (cf. Messaggi di Don Orione 107, pp.27-45). This vision of the spiritual and civic mission of the papacy was expressed, in those years of insistent and dangerous nationalisms, in a farsighted prophecy: «I see people coming to Rome from the four corners of the world», wrote Don Orione. «I see the East and the West reuniting in the truth and shaping the finest days of the Church. It will be a marvellous rebuilding, perhaps the greatest of the epochs, the pax Christi in regno Christi » (Scritti 86, p. 102).
Don Orione and Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli as papal legate to the celebration of the International Eucharistic Congress aboard the liner Conte Grande 
in September 1934

Don Orione and Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli as papal legate to the celebration of the International Eucharistic Congress aboard the liner Conte Grande in September 1934

Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli met Don Orione in 1934 during the sea voyage from Italy to Buenos Aires, and in his subsequent stay in the Argentine capital for the celebration of the International Eucharistic Congress. He was elected pope, taking the name Pius XII, on 12 March 1939, exactly a year before Don Orione’s death. There was only time for a greeting, burdened with apprehension because of the blast of war that was already blowing. It was almost an icon-testament: Don Orione to the side and “kneeling” at the feet of the Pope. It was 28 October 1939. The Pope’s car stopped on the Appian Way – the “Roman Patagonia” entrusted by Pius X to the Orione Fathers – as he returned from Castel Gandolfo. Don Orione approached and knelt to the side, surrounded by his fellow brethren and 1,200 students of the San Fillipo Institute. The Pope stooped. Don Orione took his hand, kissed it and set it on his bent head in a gesture of humility, acknowledgement, belief. Pius XII let him do so and blessed him lovingly (Papasogli, p. 494). When a few months later Don Orione died on 12 March 1940, Pius XII described him as «father of the poor and outstanding benefactor of suffering and abandoned mankind» (Summarium, p. 86).
One can say that Don Orione has also been alongside the recent popes who have followed one another on the throne of Saint Peter, not only because of the spiritual communion that binds the Church together, but also because of the memory that the popes have had of him.
On various occasions John XXIII told of his first meeting with Don Orione when, at the start of his service at the Holy See in the ’twenties, he was invited to seek his advice. He went out by Porta San Giovanni to the San Fillipo Institute, and the caretaker told him he’d find Don Orione in the yard. In a corner, a group of boys were playing pitch-and-toss with an elderly priest. The latter looked round, left his friends for an instant and asked: «Monsignor, are you looking for someone?» «Yes, I want to speak to Don Orione», Monsignor Roncalli answered. «I’m Don Orione. Be patient a minute: I’ll finish the game, wash my hands and I’m with you». These words, said with great politeness and a smiling look greatly struck the then young prelate, shortly arrived in Rome from his native Bergamo, who wrote in his diary that evening: «28 March 1921. Easter Monday. In the afternoon with Monsignor Guerinoni I visited the church and the parish works of Ognissanti, outside Porta San Giovanni; and spoke at length with Don Orione, of whom one can well say: contemptibilia mundi eligit Deus ut confundat fortia. What is foolish to the world, God has chosen that it may confound the strong (1Cor 1, 27)» (Messaggi di Don Orione, 102, pp. 46-48). That respect and friendship never diminished. To Douglas Hyde, an English journalist who asked what was the quality that emerged from Don Orione, the then patriarch Roncalli replied: «Don Orione was the most charitable man I’ve ever known. His charity went beyond the normal limits. He was convinced that the world could be conquered by love» (ibid, p. 49).
7 March 1965. 
Paul VI visiting the Roman parish of Ognissanti

7 March 1965. Paul VI visiting the Roman parish of Ognissanti

Paul VI was also touched by the friendship and collaboration of Don Orione. He confided some of his memories during a papal audience. «We were extraordinarily heartened by meeting him on a visit to Genoa», Paul VI recalled: «He spoke with such simple, unaffected candor, but so sincere, so affectionate, so spiritual that he touched my heart also, and I was amazed by the spiritual transparency that that very simple and humble man gave out» (Audience of 8 February 1978). That first acquaintance emboldened the young Monsignor Montini, in the ’thirties, to work out a discrete and efficacious collaboration with Don Orione on a very delicate and worthwhile matter: help for priests in difficulty - lapsi, as they were called then – to support them and direct them to good (Messaggi di Don Orione, 105, pp. 65-71). Montini’s personal respect and devotion towards Don Orione stretched to his Congregation, which he supported generously during his time as bishop in Milan.
John Paul I and John Paul II didn’t know Don Orione personally. The first described him as «the strategist of charity», while the present Pontiff was able to beatify him just at the start of his pontificate and two days after the beatification, at a particular audience for Orione priests, nuns and devotees, he surprised everybody when he confided: «I think this Pope from Poland has a new patron saint to intercede for him in heaven and that – in the light of the Kingdom to which we belong and towards which we strive – he supports his ministry, his initiatives and his human weakness in this place to which it has pleased Divine Providence to put him, to call him. I wish to proclaim my great faith in the intercession of Blessed Don Orione in front of all you who are spiritual sons and daughters, in front of you all who are my fellow countrymen» (Audience of October 28 1980).
These historic memories of the exceptional devotion of Don Orione alongside the popes help us renew our love, our devotion and our fidelity to the pope. Don Orione’s heartfelt message re-echoes today: «We must throb and make throb thousands and thousands of hearts around the heart of the Pope. We must especially bring to him the little people and the much-besieged classes of humble workers, bring to the Pope the poor, the afflicted, the outcasts, who are dearest to Christ and the real treasures of the Church of Jesus Christ. From the lips of the Pope people will listen, not to words that stir class-hatred, destruction and extermination, but the words of eternal life, the words of truth, of justice, of charity: words of peace, of goodness, of concord, that invite us to love one another, and to join hands to walk together, toward a better, more Christian and more civic future» (Lettere, II, p. 490).

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