“It is not enough to be a priest”
These words of St. John Calabria speak so much of the saint’s desire that fueled his life to carry out the work that the Gospel demands. It was despite the poverty that had him roll along life’s greatest punches – his family was very poor, he struggled in his studies, a calamity left them homeless in 1882 and his father died while he was 12.
Indeed, St. John Calabria had gone through so much in life. But all of it were under God’s gaze. And by His grace, St. John Calabria himself became a providence to the poor. St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians said it well: “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your work in the Lord is never wasted.”
In the celebration of the 108th Anniversary of the Congregation of the Poor Servants of Divine Providence, it is good to take a glimpse to the way God’s grace moved our founder and inspired him with others to discover the real treasures on earth: the poor, the sick and the abandoned.
The Child in Rags
One of the days of November 1897 marked the incident that was the first of a long series of poor people our saint would devote himself to. It was a child wrapped in rags he stumbled over while walking back home. Upon asking what the young beggar was doing out in the cold, John recognized him as the child whom he used to see on the way to school every day. He would give him a coin every now and then which created their friendship.
Friendship. That’s how St. John Calabria treated the young beggar.
Moved by compassion, he took the child inside their house. He offered him food. He gave his own mattress so the child can sleep well for the night. He made sure this young man would feel at peace. For him that child was a VIP.
See, God used a child – in rags, in need, in severe poverty. That is a great reminder how the mission of the Congregation is about the poor. Most of them we meet every day.
We don’t know the further details of the story. We don’t know how Father John assured the child’s welfare. We don’t know what he became when he grew up. We don’t even know his name. What we know is the story of a young beggar and Father John’s little act of kindness. It’s interesting how such a small generous act could give birth to a mission across 12 countries.
‘Casa Buoni Fanciulli’ (House of the Good Children)
On the 26th day of November 1907, exactly 108 years ago, the first group of seven “good children” entered the House of the Good Children located in the street of Case Rotte. It was the first house of the future Opera.
The joy that Father John felt at this time must had been beyond telling. He always wanted to dedicate his life to the service of the poor and the sick. He practiced a lot of kinds of apostolate including his service in the military hospital of Verona. Now, finding a shelter for abandoned young boys was a dream realized.
To take care of a number of children was by no means easy. It takes a great faith and trust to God to do what Father John was starting to do. He encountered wicked remarks from others but God’s grace kept him keep going.
The heart of Father John was too big for that small house. They needed a bigger place to accommodate more of the boys. That was why the next year, November 6, 1908, they moved to San Zeno in Monte.
Father John understood that God’s work is a teamwork. Among of the first people who were with him in carrying out these works of charity, were his own mother, Angelina, Brother Francisco Perez and other people who became instruments of the Providence. In the present time, this team has a name – The Congregation of the Poor Servants of Divine Providence.
PSDP in the World
The Congregation of the Poor Servants of Divine Providence is now present in 12 countries: Brazil, Italy, Uruguay, Philippines, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, Colombia, Kenya, Angola, Romania and India, committed to the task of reviving faith and trust in God, to care for the poor, the sick and the abandoned in the world. God is our Father and everything makes sense when we see ourselves as brothers and sisters. In the poor, we proclaim that God indeed loves each of us, no exceptions.
St. John Calabria served the poor because he knew how it felt to be poor. Nothing could be more authentic than that. Today, as the Congregation celebrates its 108th foundation anniversary, may everyone who shares the same mission of service recognize our deep need for God’s mercy and strength. By that way, the poor will not just be a mere object of service but a life-changing encounter with Christ.
Years come and pass but the task of establishing God’s Kingdom among the poorest of the poor is even more crucial and challenging. The world may be changing, but the game plan stays the same: love, because as I have heard it said, we have nothing else to boast but the love of God.