Soft Whispers

Fr Alfred Pitrè SJ

Soft Whispers - Fr Alfred Pitrè S.J.

When asked to be interviewed about his vocation, Fr Alfred Pitrè, by now a gaunt nonagenarian, arched his eyebrows rather blankly, half-closed his eyes and his mouth took a slight twist of laughter. "There was absolutely nothing remarkable in my vocation," he blurted, "and now that I am gone over my ninety-fourth year, I feel that what I did and what happened to me in my life lies buried in a blurry and misty past.

"No it isn't!" I retorted, "It is all written in the Book of Life and we would like to have a glimpse at how your vocation sprouted and grew, not out of curiosity but that we might learn from it."

"At ninety-four I am now doing my overtime," the Father resumed with a broad smile on his face, "and the Lord can call me any time He likes, I am ready, provided He pays me heftily for this overtime of mine."

"He will, I'm sure!" said I, and continued, "Father, could you give me an idea of your family background?"

Fr Pitrè was reluctant to start, but then with more twists of his eyebrow and twitching of his mouth, he began: "My father Giuseppe was an Italian from Messina employed at the Italian consulate in Malta, and it was here that he met my mother Concetta, a young lady from Valletta. They were both very religious persons, who strove hard to give a thorough Catholic education to their six children, three boys and three girls. Eventually, my eldest sister became a nun and was sent to the missions in South America; the second sister got married, and the third remained single, a sodalist of Our Lady and dedicated her life to social and missionary work. I, the youngest of the siblings was born on 5th January 1917 and baptised at the parish church of B'kara.  Being the youngest in the family, and having three sisters so intent on looking after me, I couldn't help being the "darling baby" up to the point of being spoilt with their meticulous care and attention."

"It was in the family, I suppose," I interrupted, "that your vocation was first implanted and began to germinate!"

"No doubt, it was!" replied the Father. "Mine was a happy family and fully imbued with a religious spirit. At an early age I started ‘playing the priest' with the toy-altar at home, and my mother and sisters quite enjoyed seeing me ‘functioning'. But, of course, there were other factors as well which continued to cultivate my vocation, such as the school.  

"I had my elementary schooling at the B'Kara Government Primary school, and was keen on my studies. I cherished my schoolmates, but unfortunately owing to my weak leg due to a polio attack I had when I was still a young boy of two, I limped and could not join them at any physical sports or play. It must have been in these first grades of schooling that I was gripped by the fascination for books. Reading became my hobby, and it continued to be so all through my life. Again, the school was pervaded by a religious atmosphere, with many an occasion for religious practices and prayer."

"Excuse me, Father!" I barged in. "I am sure, your interest in religious matters continued to prosper at Secondary school level."

"I was coming to that!" he responded. "For my secondary schooling I was sent as a day-boarder to St Aloysius' College, and it was there that I had the first contacts with the Jesuits. Indeed, at the age of thirteen and fourteen I frequently called at the Teresian Fathers, whose church and convent were very close to our house at b'Kara. My regular and frequent contact with these Fathers gave rise to the suspicion at home and at the convent that one day I would become a Teresian. But this was not to be.

Fr Alfred Pitrè SJ at his computer

At College I became great friends with my Jesuit teachers and prefects, particularly with the Italian ones, since I felt very much at ease speaking that language (my father, remember, was Italian). I recall the friendly and enjoyable conversations I used to have with Fr Ciaceri, Fr Ragazzi and others."

"I suppose they did all they could to hook you up with their Order; after all, the Jesuits are said to be well known for that kind of "fishing"!

"Not at all! I do not remember ever having been pushed in any way to come to a decision to join the Jesuits, although, I must admit, I was attracted by their way of life, their prayer, their learning, their friendliness and above all their ideal of serving Christ. Indeed, I do not remember ever having made an explicit decision to become a Jesuit, but things seemed to have floated along, and I probably drifted along with the current. Luckily it was going the right direction.

"I can mention an incident that could have exploded all my ideal and aspirations. One day, two Jesuits whom I knew and admired had an argument between them and their voice was raised in anger. I thought that was shocking, and could not believe my eyes and ears. Still, I was not deterred from my vocation, and it was the Jesuit scholastic Joseph Delia who took me aside to his room and soothed my bewilderment.

When I was considering my possible vocation I was frightened because of my weak leg and limp, for it seemed to me that that would present a serious objection for the priesthood. I consulted Dr P.P.Debono who certified that though I would remain limping all my life, still, there should be no objection to my becoming a priest.

"When one fine morning the scholastic Delia took me to the Jesuit Provincial Fr Japhet Jollain, a Neapolitan of sturdy build who at the time was in Malta, this Father, after a pleasant conversation, swept myself and Delia with a soft glance, gallantly waved out the objection with his right hand, and uttered words that ‘sounded music' to my ears: ‘Of course, we welcome you in the Society of Jesus".

"And so you left Malta," I concluded, "to start the novitiate at Bagheria in Sicily!"

"Not quite! Yes indeed, I did leave Malta for Sicily, but did not start the novitiate immediately. I was asked to go for a year to the Scuola Apostolica in Palermo to finish my secondary schooling. And there I went."

"Did you experience during that year any out of the ordinary event that strengthened you in your resolve to become a Jesuit, or that, on the other hand, put obstacles in your way?"

Father Pitrè resumed, "I cannot say that there was anything out of the ordinary during that year. Rather what could have disturbed me, but, thank God, did not, were the unbelievable accounts of the contact some members of the Sicilian Mafia had with the Jesuits. For in that locality the Jesuits were constantly being booed and insulted by many anti-clericals, and for some mysterious reason the Mafia, without being asked, wanted to defend us!! Don Tommaso, a head Mafioso, considered himself a "protector" of the Society for he had a relative who had become a Jesuit. Once, Don Tommaso called at the novitiate at mid-day when the novices were having their actus caritatis, that is, that some of them would kneel down in the middle of the refectory, confess some faults of theirs and ask pardon for them, then stoop down to kiss the floor. Don Tommaso, amazed at such an act, insisted on joining these ‘penitents' to confess his faults and kiss the floor. As he stooped down with his face touching the floor, two or three pistols peeped out from under his jacket. The other members of the community were shocked at the sight. With raised eyebrows they stole frightful glances at one another with deep consternation. When on another occasion in the course of a conversation, the Superior happened to hint remotely to Don Tommaso that some local bandits were pilfering their poultry, the Mafioso screwed up his eyes and after moments of moody silence, craned his head forward and burst out saying gruffly, ‘Shall we slash their head off?'. ‘No-o-o-o!!" exploded the Superior in reply, ‘Good heavens, no! no!' and Don Tommaso went away appeased.

"It was rather difficult, and perhaps dangerous too at the time, to clamp down on all contacts with such foul company as the Mafia, particularly when it forces itself on you, and you are sure that the police won't dare give you any protection or succour. In this respect the Jesuits were absolutely helpless. On the other hand, I got to know too that the Jesuits were all the time striving hard to bring the Mafia to their senses and make them return to uprightness and honesty and exchange their violence for gentleness, giving them an idea what God and religion were all about.

"These fact did not in any way swerve me from my vocation, and I started my novitiate proper on 13th September 1933 at the age of sixteen."

Interview conducted and written by Anton Azzopardi S.J.

Fr Pitre turns 95!


On the 5th of January, the community of Jesuits at Loyola House celebrated the 95th Birthday of Fr Alfred Pitre SJ!

Born in B’Kara in 1917, Fr Pitre studied at St Aloysius College and joined the Society of Jesus at the age of 16. He was ordained in Rome by Cardinal Traglia in 1944 and that day he, and three other newly ordained priests (Fr Yvo Laferla, Gratio Magro and Joseph Orr) gave their first priestly blessing to their family in  Malta over the Vatican Radio.

Fr Pitre has offered a life of service to the people of Malta and Gozo, offering spiritual accompaniment to innumerable religious and laity alike. Fr Pitre contributed to a column in Lehen is-Sewwa about Ignatian retreat in daily life and later published in 3 books.

Fr Alfred Pitre with Fr Adolfo Nicolas SJ, Jesuit Superior General

Best wishes, Fr Alfred!





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