Home > Archives > 04 - 2004 > «I noticed that his eyes were shiny with tears»
from issue no. 04 - 2004

SAINTS. Annibale Maria Di Francia and Luigi Orione

«I noticed that his eyes were shiny with tears»

«... I had never come across an adult who opened himself so sincerely and simply to a boy». The transcript of the testimony of Ignazio Silone at the process of beatification of Don Orione

by Ignazio Silone

Ignazio Silone

Ignazio Silone

I met him in 1916. I saw him fleetingly after the Marsica [Abruzzo] earthquake, in 1915. I remember, because I was there, that Don Orione had picked up a group of children who had survived the disaster and had lost their families. Don Orione was waiting to take them to Rome, but the railway line was blocked and to get to the first station there were still about forty kilometers to go. The king was already there with the authorities in his retinue and their cars were idle. Don Orione began to load the children into the cars, so as to go to the station. The police guard objected, but Don Orione seemed to pay no attention and continued the loading operation. In the meantime the king arrived back with his retinue to get into the cars. Don Orione introduced himself respectfully and explained why he was putting the little orphans into the cars. The king agreed to Don Orione’s request and gave his permission to transport the little orphans. Don Orione boarded the first train with them and took them to Rome to the House of Sant’Anna dei Palafrenieri.
Only in 1916, as I have said, did I get to know Don Orione. In that year, I’d been sent to a college run by zealous religious to finish middle school. A little before Christmas, without any plausible reason, I ran away from the college. I went without realizing what I was doing and without any destination in mind, simply because, at a certain moment, I saw the gate of the courtyard wide open. I had little money in my pocket and, naturally, no luggage. I took a bed in the attic of a small hotel, near the station. I stayed there three days and I passed the time watching the trains arriving and departing. Meanwhile my absence from the college had been notified to the police and on the third day I was picked up by a police officer and taken back to college, there to await a response from my grandmother, whose responsibility it was, as my guardian, to decide on my future. My grandmother’s reply wasn’t long in coming and informed that a certain Don Orione was willing to take me into his college. The meeting had been arranged, through my headmaster, at the central station in Rome, where, on the day and at the point fixed, I found an unknown priest, not the one seen the year before among the ruins of my home town and I thought that Don Orione had been prevented from coming. He picked up my cases and bundles and we caught the train. Since we had to travel all night, at a certain point, he asked me whether I had brought anything to read or if I wanted a newspaper, and which one. L’Avanti, I answered. It was difficult to imagine a more impertinent request coming from a college boy. But, without turning a hair, the priest got off the train and reappeared a little later and handed me the newspaper. «But why», I ask him «didn’t Don Orione come?» «I am Don Orione !» he told me. «Excuse me if I didn’t introduce myself». I felt very bad at that unexpected revelation. I hid the newspaper immediately and stammered some excuse for my cockiness earlier and for having let him carry the cases. He smiled and confided his pleasure at sometimes being allowed to carry cases. He used an image that I liked enormously and that even moved me: «Carrying cases like a donkey» and confessed to me: «My vocation – it’s a secret I’d like to tell you – would be to be able to live like a true donkey of God, like a true donkey of Divine Providence».
That was the beginning of a conversation between us which, except for some brief pauses, lasted all night. Don Orione, though before then we had never met, spoke with a simplicity, a naturalness, with an intimacy, the like of which I had never come across. Only in the evening, when just one lamp was left alight, did Don Orione’s features regain a likeness to what I had seen the year before in my home town. I told him about it, I reminded him of the business of the royal cars. He told me about his gruelling wanderings in those days; he told me he had spent twenty-seven days covering the entire devastated area, during which he’d never gone to bed and hadn’t known a full night’s rest, only an hour or so on improvised kips, without taking the shoes off his feet for fear of frostbite. As soon as he’d collected a certain number of orphans or abandoned children he took them to Rome and then returned immediately to the disaster area to seek out others. He told me of his miserable and poverty-stricken origins: his father had a humble job, that of roadman and as a boy he had often helped him in the wretched work. Even when, later, he had been accepted into the diocesan seminar, he’d had to work as sacristan in the cathedral to get free lodgings. He told me various moving episodes from his youth. He recalled, among other things, his first trip to Rome to see the Pope, armed simply with a homemade loaf and five liras.
Don Orione with Monsignor Bagnoli, Bishop of Avezzano, and some of the orphans who survived the Marsica earthquake, in Rome in 1915

Don Orione with Monsignor Bagnoli, Bishop of Avezzano, and some of the orphans who survived the Marsica earthquake, in Rome in 1915

I felt infinite pleasure in hearing him talk in that way: I felt a peace and a new calm. What has remained imprinted was the steady tenderness of his look. The light in his eyes had the goodness of those who have suffered patiently every kind of tribulation and therefore know the most secret sufferings. At certain moments I had the impression that he saw more clearly into me than I did, that he also saw my future. «I want to tell you something you should not forget», he confided to me at a certain moment. «Remember this: God is not only in church. In the future you won’t lack moments of blank despair. Even if you think you’re alone and abandoned, you won’t be. Remember that!» I noticed that his eyes were shiny with tears. I had never come across an adult who opened himself as sincerely and simply to a boy.
We reached Sanremo toward midday. That evening, at the moment Don Orione had to leave again, I heard him telling somebody to look for me, because he wanted to say goodbye, but I hid. I didn’t want him to see me crying. A few days later, on Christmas morning, I received his first letter, a long, affectionate, extraordinary letter of twelve pages. Don Orione told me, on one of the trips we made together, of having arrived in Avezzano the evening of 19 September, one or two years after the earthquake, and the morning of the next day he went out to say mass. After mass, a messenger arrived who summoned him immediately to the bishop. The bishop asked him whether it was he who had brought the flag, hoisted on the charitable institution. Don Orione assured him he hadn’t brought it. But the bishop immediately enjoined him never again to enter the diocese of Marsi again while he lived. Don Orione spoke of it serenely, but with sadness.
I was about twenty and working as a reporter for a much contested periodical and so I was living in poverty, unknown to anybody. On Christmas day I went into a little restaurant, trying to keep the bill down, but in the end it came to more than I had. The owner demanded my threadbare raincoat as hostage for the rest of the sum. It was raining. Outside, I remembered that a few days earlier I had seen Don Orione pass in a carriage. I decided to go to Sant’Anna to look for him, hoping to find him there. The porter, though assuring me he was there, didn’t want to let me in. I insisted and while I was arguing with the doorkeeper, Don Orione came down and after greeting me he put his hand his pocket and handed over a sum slightly larger than what I had to pay. An odd thing that gesture of Don Orione’s, up to that day I’d never asked money of him. On a journey from Cuneo to Reggio Calabria, on which I was his companion, Don Orione decided to stop off in Rome, because he lacked the funds to go on. But in Rome station a man approached and handed him an envelope. After thanking him Don Orione exclaimed: «Now we can go on». His way of believing in God, more present to him than the things of the world, was startling and the charity that enabled contact with the people he met, of whom, in some cases, he foresaw the future.
Having said this, and before being questioned on the articles, the witness declared: «I have told everything I know about Don Orione and I have nothing further to add».

Ignazio Silone
Rome, 10 November 1964

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português