Canonised: 16-05- 2004
Liturgical celebration: 16 May
Luigi Orione (named after St Aloysius Gonzaga but commonly known as Luigi) was born in Pontecurone (Province of Alessandria and diocese of Tortona) on 23 June 1872. His father was a road digger; his mother was a woman of deep faith and well-educated. Even though he felt a calling to the priesthood, for three years (1882-1885) helped his father as a digger’s roustabout. On 14 September 1885, just 13 years old, he was taken in at the Franciscan house at Voghera (Pavia), but contracted pneumonia there, and with his life at risk he had to return home in June 1886. From October 1886 to August 1889 he was a pupil at the Oratory at Valdocco in Turin. St John Bosco saw his qualities and had him on his list of special ones, assuring him: “We shall always be friends.” In Turin he also came to know the charitable works of St Joseph Benedict Cottolengo, close to the Salesian oratory.
On 16 October 1889 he began his philosophy at the seminary in Tortona. While still a young cleric he was sensitive to the the problems both society and church were beset with at the time. He dedicated himself to solidarity with his neighbour through the San Marziano Mutual Aid Society and the St Vincent de Paul Conference. At twenty years of age he wrote: “There is a supreme need and a supreme remedy for healing the wounds of this poor country that is so beautiful but so unfortunate! Take hold of the hearts and affections of the people and enlighten the youth: pour into everyone the great idea of Catholic redemption with and for the Pope. Souls! Souls!” Moved by this apostolic vision, on 3 July 1892 he opened the first oratory to look after the Christian upbringing of young people. The following year, on 15 October 1893, Luigi Orione, a twenty-one-year-old cleric, opened a boarding school in the San Bernardino district for poor boys. On 13 April 1895 he was ordained a priest and at the same ceremony the bishop gave the clerical habit to six students from the college. He continued to develop his apostolate among the young by opening new houses in Mornico Losana (Pavia), Noto in Sicily, San Remo, and Rome.
Clerics and priests grew around the young founder and became the first nucleus of the Little Work of Divine Providence. In 1899 he began the branch known as the Hermits of Divine Providence who took their inspiration from the benedictine motto “ora et labora”, especially in agricultural schools that at the time responded to the need to uplift social and Christian society in the rural areas. The bishop of Tortona, Bishop Igino Bandi, by decree on 21 March 1903 gave canonical recognition to the male religious congregation of the Little work of Divine Providence, the Sons of Divine Providence (priests, brothers and hermits), and recognised the charism expressed in apostolic terms as “collaborating to bring the little ones, the poor and the people to the Church and the Pope through works of charity.” They took a fourth vow of “fidelity to the Pope”. Comforted by the personal advice of Leo XIII, Fr Orione included among the aims of the new Congregation, in the first Constitutions in 1904, the aim of working to “bring about unity among separated Churches”. Driven by a great love for the Church and its Pastors and passion for winning over souls, the Congregation was actively involved in the emerging problems of the time such as the Church’s freedom and unity, the Roman question, modernism, socialism, the de-christianisation of the working masses.
After the December 1908 earthquake that left 90,000 dead among the ruins, Fr Orione went to Reggio Calabria and Messina to come to the aid especially of orphaned children and became a promoter of civil and religious works of reconstruction. At the express wish of Pius X he was appointed Vicar General of Messina diocese. Three years later he left Sicily and was again able to dedicate himself to the formation and development of the Congregation. In December 1913 he sent the first expedition of missionaries to Brazil. He again carried out heroic activity aiding those affected by the earthquake on 13 January 1915 that shook Marsica and left almost 30,000 victims. These were the early years of the First world War. Fr Orione travelled the length and breadth of Italy many times to support various charitable activities, to give spiritual and material to people at all levels of society, and to support and nurture priestly and religious vocations.
Twenty years after founding the Sons of Divine Providence, as a “single tree with many branches”, on 29 June 1915 he started the Congregation of the Little Missionary Sisters of Charity, inspired by the same charism and vowed to seeing that those most in need would experience God’s Providence and the Church’s motherliness through love for the poor and the sick and services of all kinds in educational institutes, kindergartens and various kinds of pastoral work. In 1927 he also began a contemplative branch, the Blind Sacramentine Adoration Sisters, then also adding the Contemplatives of the Crucified Jesus. He also urged lay people to adopt charitable approaches and civil involvement by starting associations such as the Women of Divine Providence, the Past Pupils and Friends. Later, with intuitive foresight, within the Little Work of Divine Providence, he would also set up the Orionian Secular Institute and the Orionian Lay Movement.
After the First World War (1914-1918) the number of schools, boarding establishments, agricultural schools, charitable and social works grew in number. In particular, Fr Orione saw that Little Cottolengos were built on the outskirts of major cities: this was the case in Genoa and Milan; Buenos Aires, Sao Paolo in Brazil and Santiago in Chile. These institutes, intended to take in the most needy of his brothers and sisters, he understood to be “new pulpits” for speaking about Christ and the Church, as “lighthouses of faith and civilisation”. Fr Orione’s missionary zeal, already expressed in 1913 when he sent his first religious to Brazil, was then extended to Argentina and Uruguay (1921), Palestine (1921), Poland (1923), Rodi (1925) in the United States (1934), England (1935), Albania (1936). He himself in 1921-1922 and 1934-1937, undertook two missionary journeys to Latin America, including Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and finally Chile.
He enjoyed the personal esteem of Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, Pius XII and authorities at the Holy See who entrusted him with many delicate tasks for resolving problems and healing wounds both within the Church and in its relationship with civil society. He worked with prudence and charity on issues of modernism, promotion of Conciliation between Church and State in Italy, taking in and rehabilitating “lapsed” priests in the Italian Church. He was a preacher, confessor and tireless organiser of pilgrimages, missions, processions, ‘live’ Christmas nativity scenes and other popular manifestations of faith. A great devotee of Our Lady, he fostered devotion to her through every means. Using the manual work of his own clerics he built the shrine to the Madonna della Guardia in Tortona (1931) the Madonna di Caravaggio in Fumo (1938).
In the winter of 1940, already suffering from angina pectoris and after two heart attacks made worse by respiratory problems, Fr Orione was convinced by his confreres and doctors to spend some time in the house of the Little Work at Sanremo even though, as he said, “it is not among the palms that I want to live and die, but among the poor who are Jesus Christ”. Just three days later, surrounded by the affection and care of his confreres, Fr Orione died on 12 March 1940, whispering: “Jesus! Jesus! I am going.” His body, surrounded by so many of his devotees, was given solemn honour in Sanremo, Genoa, Milan, finishing its journey in Tortona, where he was buried in the crypt at the shrine of the Madonna della Guardia. When it was re-exhumed in 1965 his body was found still intact, and was given a place of honour in the shrine.
He embodied the charism of love for the poor, seeing the face of Jesus in them and serving them in holy joy. Forever on the move, he led a penitent and very poor life. He was convinced that the greatest good was to live in the presence of God and to believe in his Divine Providence. This was Fr Orione’s refrain: “More faith, more faith, brothers, we need more faith!... Our Faith, made powerful against every battle, has become the greatest and most divine comfort of human life, it is the highest inspiration of every value, of every holy heroism, of every beautiful art that does not die, of every true moral, religious and civil greatness.”