It was summer time of 1959. The harvest had not been exceptionally good but had enabled my family to settle the remaining part of the huge debt that it had incurred several years earlier. I was then 20 years old, going to 21. It was during that summer that I decided the time had come for me to keep the secret promise I had made to the Lord in May 1954 when my father died.
Yes! I had a deal with Him; a deal that I sealed with the Sacred Heart in front of whose little statue I used to pray every day. No one, not even my mother, knew about the secret promise. The deal was that, if the Lord enabled my family to pay its debt, I would take steps to follow my missionary vocation as soon as that obligation had been met.
I had been cultivating in my heart, the dream to become a missionary for so many years. I cannot pinpoint exactly when and how it started, but I remember it was very early in my life. However, when my father got seriously sick and eventually succumbed to leukemia I had to keep that aspiration in abeyance. At that stage, I had a more immediate and urgent mission to accomplish, and a very challenging one at that!
Being the eldest of four children in a family of very modest income, though not yet sixteen years of age, I had to take the place of my father as head of the family and in cultivating the fields and the vineyards. It was not just a matter of working to satisfy the immediate needs of my mother and my three brothers. We had to earn enough to pay in installments the big debt we had made for the various hospitalizations, operation and medications needed by my father, and for which we had mortgaged our house. We needed badly to redeem our house. So much was at stake!
It was a rather challenging situation, due also to the fact that I knew nothing of farming, since I had been attending high school up to the time my Dad got seriously sick. Amazingly, with God's very special assistance, we were able to pay the installments due every summer time. I knew that my "deal" with the Lord had a lot to do with those good harvests, in spite of my initial inexperience in farming and my very young age.
By summer 1959, as I said earlier, the Lord had clearly fulfilled His part of the deal. It was now my turn to keep mine. That was not easy, and for a number of reasons. The first was to get my mother's consent, and the second was to find a seminary that would accept me for free, for my family could not afford to pay a single Lira for my board, lodging and tuition fees.
The first obstacle was overcome rather easily, thanks to the great faith and generosity of my mother, Mariangela. Resisting very strong pressures from almost all relatives to deny me that permission, she firmly gave her consent though only God knew how much that "Yes" must have cost her.
The second obstacle proved to be more challenging, finding a seminary that would accept me for free. Not one of those in Sardinia seemed to be prepared to grant my request, especially because many seminarians who had been accepted for free had "lost their vocation" as soon as they had completed their studies. They suggested that I should find local sponsors, at least to cover half of the expenses.
I knocked at the doors of many potential benefactors, and was able to get several commitments, but my mother cautioned me. "Now they promise the sea and the mountains," she said, "but what if, as the time passes, they change their mind or become really unable to give what they are promising now? Your superiors will send you back home. And what a shame that will be for you and all of us." I saw wisdom in her position.
"Why not try the Missionaries of St. Francis Xavier in Verona or the Salesians in Torino (two cities in Northern Italy)?" suggested Auntie Tina, a sister of my mother. I accepted the suggestion and wrote a letter to each of the two institutions including therein the same request.
But before mailing the letters I felt the need to have a chat with my "mentor", the Sacred Heart. "Please do something about this problem," said I. "Here are the two letters. Endorse at least one of them, so that I may receive a positive answer." Then I spent some time in prayer, placing the two letters at the feet of the statue of the Sacred Heart and putting my right hand on His shoulders before planting a kiss on His Heart as I used to do.
I mailed the letters and three long weeks passed. No answer was forthcoming. Finally the reply frfom Verona arrived. The answer was polite but clear, they would accept me only if I could pay Lira 4,000 a month, something that I obviously could not afford. "Perhaps this is a sign from heaven that it is not yet time for you to leave," insinuated some relatives who were probably secretly happy about the negative answer. "Let us wait for the answer from the Salesians," I rebutted with a firm and challenging smile.
A week later, a letter from Torino arrived. The Rector of that Institute just informed me that his school was not a seminary and that he forwarded my application to the Salesian Missionary Institute "Cardinal Cagliero" in Ivrea, a beautiful town north of Torino, which was renowned for its being home to the headquarters of the famous "Olivetti" typewriters company. My hope was being tested, but I refused to give up.
Another week passed and finally a letter from the Cardinal Cagliero Institute arrived. "This is my last chance!" I said to myself as I slit the letter open with my visible excitement, right in front of the statue of the Sacred Heart. It was a handwritten letter from the Rector. My eyes glided avidly over the usual polite greeting until they got pegged in the sentence, "Do not worry if you cannot pay for your board and lodging and the tuition fee. DIVINE PROVIDENCE will take care of this. Just bring yourself and some clothes. I look forward to welcome you." I gave a shout of joy that must have been heard in the whole neighborhood. Instinctively, I covered the statue of the Sacred Heart with kisses of gratitude then I dashed to who the letter to my mother and other relatives.
A big commotion ensued. As the news spread, the entire village closed ranks behind me in offering whatever they could in terms of clothing, books and even money to pay for my sea voyage and train. Others offered to help my brother, now 18 years old, carry on the work in the fields after my departure.
This is how I was able to keep my promise and entered the Cardinal Cagliero Missionary Seminary in which I spent three fantastic years before I was sent to Lebanon for my novitiate and philosophical studies.
Perhaps a "footnote" is worth adding here by way of conclusion to this biographical note that I put into writing for the first time. A few days after my arrival at the Institute, we climbed in procession a little hill within our property, at the top of which was the "Tempietto" (little temple), a small shrine in honor of guess whom? the Sacred Heart of Jesus! I looked in wonder at the splendid three-meter high marble statue. The image of the one I had left behind at home flashed in my mind as I smiled like what I do when I meet an old friend. It seemed to me that He had been waiting for me for a long time.
At that moment I got confirmed in my conviction that the Sacred Heart of Jesus had been very much not just behind but ahead of me in my quest for the realization of my missionary vocation. Not by chance, this has taken place in the Congregation founded by St. John Bosco, a man who had a tremendous devotion to the Sacred Heart.
FATHER SAL PUTZU, SDB