“Really, Father, did Don Orione say that he was the donkey of Divine Providence?” my Tagalog teacher asked me in amazement, when she read something that I had written about Don Orione for homework. I remember that she could not understand how Don Orione, who was a saint, our founder, a man of God, and a missionary, etc; had said that his vocation was to be the donkey of Divine Providence, so, I told her some stories about the Founder and explained to her very simply what it meant to him to be the donkey of Divine Providence.
A year later, I became curious to investigate Don Orione’s statement a little more deeply, and to discover exactly what he had meant by being the donkey of Divine Providence and the implications of this in his life and ministry.
Encounter with a Strange Priest
The Italian writer Ignazio Silone first met Don Orione when he was a child, and this encounter remained etched on his memory, for it was then that he heard the definition of the Founder’s vocation from his own mouth “to live like one of God's little donkeys.”
Two contrasting feelings dominated this meeting: at first Silone was rebellious and rude because he was angry that Don Orione had not gone to pick him up at the institute where he was living, but later, when he realized that the priest before him was Don Orione, his mood changed completely to one of respect, affection and friendship. He recalls:
“I was rather taken aback by that unexpected revelation and felt thoroughly ashamed of myself. I hid the paper and blurted out some apologies for my recent impertinence and for letting him carry my baggage. He smiled, and confided that he liked to carry baggage sometimes. He went on to say something which I found enormously attractive and touching ‘about bearing burdens like a little donkey’, and then confessed: ‘My vocation in life – and now I'm letting you into a great secret! – is to learn how to live like one of God's little donkeys, a real little donkey of Divine Providence!’”
Donkeys in Place of Horses
In several letters about the very beginning of the mission in Sáenz Peña (Chaco, Argentina), Don Orione used the expression: “if there were no horses, donkeys would take their place”, saying that he had agreed to go there, because others had refused to.
In a letter to Abbot Caronti, then Apostolic Visitor of the Congregation, the Founder expressed his desire “to be poor and to exist for the poor” and to be “the donkeys of Providence.”These words clearly show us Don Orione’s priestly heart.
“Fr. Sterpi will have told you that we have gone into the centre of the Chaco, at the insistence of the two Bishops and the Nunciature, for the needs of the souls there. I agreed with some reserve, and only when everyone else had refused. Even the Inspector of the Salesians told me that he had refused. I prayed a little, perhaps too little... I think the others did not agree to go because of the unbearable heat and the great poverty there; but we want to be poor and to exist for the poor. I thought that, if Your Lordship had been here, you would have given me your blessing, and I thought of all those souls and of Jesus Christ. I remembered that my mother used to tell me that if there were no horses, donkeys would take their place. Well, we are the donkeys of Providence, or at least that is our desire.
If I knew that I would be staying over here I would ask you of I could go into the Chaco to die there, there to spend my entire self and to live as a true missionary (...)
Here, the Chaco is considered worse than Patagonia. There is so much to be done and so much to be suffered; it involves a total sacrifice of oneself for the Lord, for souls and for Holy Church (...)
And now I will end. Please excuse my long-windedness, My Lord, but permit me to beg you to leave me here as long as you can. Then, if God should inspire you to leave me here forever, if that would be for my own good as well as that of the Little Work, please just leave me here permanently, or imprison me and cast me wherever you think best in the Lord. I will always be most happy in the Lord.
I have one wish, and that is to love the Lord and to love Holy Church, souls, the poor, the poor children, the forsaken, the humble classes, the workers, the communists. I would like to die for these people. They are my brothers and sisters. I would like to be forgotten by everyone, to live and die forgotten by everyone, beneath the feet of everyone, just loving Jesus, the Holy Church and everyone, lost in the Lord. I am so unworthy, so sinful. I have been so wicked towards the Lord and Our Lady, not appreciating the gifts of the Lord.” (Buenos Aires, 17th March 1937)
Jesus Preferred Donkeys
In another letter about Sáenz Peña, he pursued the same idea, but with the additional point that Jesus had a preference for donkeys, because he chose to enter Jerusalem riding one.
For Don Orione, his and his sons’ happiness is to be “the donkeys of Jesus, the Pope, bishops and souls!”
“It is very hot in Chaco and nobody wanted to go there, so in the absence of horses, donkeys can trot! Oh, yes! Our desire is to be the little donkeys of Divine Providence.
Jesus preferred donkeys, didn’t he? – After all, he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, didn’t he? Yes, yes, how blessed we will be if we can be the donkeys of Jesus, the Pope, bishops and souls! Pray, do please pray, Countess, that we may always remain poor, small, humble, like donkeys, and heart and soul for Jesus and Holy Church; small and humble at the feet of Mother Church. And now I'll end. If it pleases God, I will return in July. Then, if they let me come back, I will gladly do so to lose myself in Jesus and souls in South America”. (Letter to Contess Dolores Cobo de Marchi di Cellere. Rio de Janeiro, 10th April 1937).
His idea is rooted in the biblical tradition of the meek and humble Messiah, who enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey, a mere pack animal. “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: say to the daughter of Zion: Look, your king is approaching, humble and riding on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” (Matthew 21: 4-5).
Something about His Sense of Humour
Don Orione would also laugh and joke at his own expense, comparing himself to a donkey.
On a photo of him mounted on a donkey, taken when he was on the way down from Monte Soratte after visiting his hermits, we can see these words….“The donkey and me...two of a kind!” (Lui ed io siamo… due!” in Italian) in his own handwriting at the bottom.
Being a “donkey of the Divine Providence” was not a mere figure of speech for Don Orione, it was the deep conviction by which he lived. The Founder’s desire was to be small, humble and poor for the poor, because this was the desire of Jesus.
He also wanted this for his sons, who should also be little donkeys of Providence, signifying poor, small and humble, as he himself was. As Don Orione saw it, we may not be the best, but we have to go and be where “the best ones” do not want to be; we have “to be poor and to exist for the poor.” Don Orione believed this to be our place.
Nor should this make us resentful or conceited, but it should help us to be humbler and to discover, or rather rediscover, that we were born for the poor, for those who nobody else wants to care for or to look after; we have to go to the very poorest among the poorest, exactly as Don Orione desired.
Fr. Facundo Mela fdp
Cf. The Bridge (Autumn 2011), 8-10.