Fr Francesco CEREDA
General Councillor for Formation
In the “Pastoral Letter of Pope Benedict XVI to the Catholics of Ireland” we find expressed some of the causes which have led to the current situation in the Church regarding the sexual abuse of minors. This is what he says: “Only by examining carefully the many elements that gave rise to the present crisis can a clear-sighted diagnosis of its causes be undertaken and effective remedies be found. Certainly, among the contributing factors we can include: inadequate procedures for determining the suitability of candidates for the priesthood and the religious life; insufficient human, moral, intellectual and spiritual formation in seminaries and novitiates… Urgent action is needed to address these factors” (n. 4). This urgency is also essential in our formation procedures.
In the “Ratio” and in “Criteria and norms for Salesian vocation discernment” we can already find some guidelines which can held to prevent the regrettable situations which the current crisis in the Church and in the Congregation has brought to light. These guidelines are aimed primarily at overcoming the problems of the sexual abuse of minors, but their implementation will help to provide a more sound formation and a more careful discernment. They refer to affective and sexual maturity, to formation to consecrated chastity, to fraternal support within the community, to the discernment regarding the suitability of the candidates. They are guidelines, which in the light of this new situation need to be applied less generically and in a more focused, concentrated and urgent manner.
In the “Ratio” at numbers 63-65 are described the motivation, the contents, the processes and the means needed in order to offer those in formation a process of affective and sexual maturation. At present in the Congregation sufficient attention is often lacking in this area of human formation. Paradoxically, in a culture which almost universally emphasises the feelings, emotions and sexuality, there is an educative and formative silence which leaves the young and confreres without terms of reference/guidance.
Above all it is necessary that those in formation acquire a good self-awareness and are ready to make themselves known to their formation directors, even in the vast field of the emotions and affections. Initial formation introduces the candidates and those in formation to a real “emotional and affective learning process.” The positive force of the emotions cannot not be known, likewise their destructìve force cannot be ignored. The affective maturity of the Salesian finds its expression especially in the family spirit, in loving kindness, in friendship but it cannot be exercised without control of the feelings of desires, of thoughts and habits.
At the same time it is necessary to consider that the affections are related to sexuality and express themselves in the language of sexuality and therefore it is important to be familiar with and to be in control of that language. In the face of a culture which is either prohibitive or permissive regarding sexuality it is necessary to respond promptly with a careful formation process. In this regard the “Ratio” offers precise guidance which needs to be implemented: “From the very first years of formation steps should be taken to offer, with the help of personal dialogue and a follow-up of the whole formation experience, an education to sexuality that is geared to each person and that helps him to understand its truly human and Christian nature and also its purpose in marriage and in consecrated2 ; such an education must lead him to esteem and love the life of consecration and ‘develop a serious and mature attitude with regard to the opposite sex.”3 (FSDB 112).
For this reason, in every Region of the Congregation, through the Regional Formation Commission and with the help of psychologists and moralists, as part of human formation a programme of affective and sexual maturation, should be prepared, and followed, starting from the aspirantate and the prenovitiate up to the period of specific formation. In this programme the objectives, processes, contents, means are decided; and in it the psychological aspect of affectivity and sexuality, including their pathological aspects should not be neglected. Certainly there are other aspects of human formation which need to be take into account and which have nothing to do with affective and sexual formation, such as, for example, formation to mental balance, to a capacity for relationships, to responsible freedom. Without a programme which includes stages, assessment and accompaniment, a maturing process is not possible.
Formation personnel are aware more and more of the weakness of our formation procedures regarding the affective and sexual maturity of those in formation. If one adds to this the moral disorientation of society and the relativism of culture, one can easily find in those in formation an extremely limited capacity for moral evaluation of affectivity and sexuality and therefore a weak formation of conscience. On this account, during the first stage of the prenovitiate, novitiate and postnovitiate it is also necessary to ensure a systematic presentation of the teaching of Christian morality, with special attention being given to sexual morality, for example based on the exhaustive treatment in the “Catechism of the Catholic Church”4 .
In order to offer to those in formation help in their maturing process, preparation is necessary, and therefore the formation of the formation guides. They are to make their contribution to the drawing up of the programme of affective and sexual maturation. They are to commit themselves to forming themselves according to the demands of such a programme, also by means of a sharing of experiences and by accompaniment as a team on the part of a supervisor. In initial formation communities this programme is to be followed and those in formation should be open to a personalised process. In this use should be made, especially in the aspirantate and prenovitiate, of the assistance of a psychologist , both for “training” of the group and for personal “counselling”.
Finally, the programmes for affective and sexual maturation should provide a section reserved for ongoing formation, which, in addition to throwing light on the great variety of current situations, should strengthen the capacity for discernment, lead the way to a profound experience of sharing among the confreres helping them to overcome affective ties, dependences and immature attitudes which are sometimes present also in adulthood, encourage a more uptodate educative and pastoral approach to the young. The affective and sexual maturation of the confrere is not completed in initial formation. The challenges arising from educative and pastoral work impinge on every stage of life and need to be prepared for; for this reason we should not be afraid to present this subject to the confreres including the more complicated situations which regard pedophilia, ephebophilia and the sexual abuse of minors.
Affective and sexual maturation which is part of human formation is the indispensible premise for formation to consecrated chastity, which essentially belongs to the spiritual dimension. The chastity of the consecrated person causes him to live affective and sexual maturity in a particular way. Without a good affective and sexual maturation, one cannot live a joyful and fruitful chaste life. With regard to formation to chastity the “Ratio” dedicates to this subject numbers 96-97, which also deserve to be known and put into practice.
In particular, the “Ratio” provides a practical guideline regarding formation to consecrated chastity: “Let the confreres be duly helped to willingly embrace the self-discipline that consecrated chastity entails5 . In particular: let them examine whether their attitudes and behaviour towards others, men and women, and towards the young are consistent with their option for Salesian religious life and the witness proper to it6 ; let them accept eventual fraternal corrections7 ; let them know how to make a balanced use of free time, of the means of social communication and of reading matter8 ; and let them be prudent in making visits and frequenting amusements9 (FSDB 113).
Chastity gives a particular imprint to our capacity to love and is a sign of the power of grace in our frailty. For this reason, formation to chastity requires a vital love for God and an intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus. Therefore the whole of formation needs to be centred on love for the Lord Jesus, on following him, imitating him and friendship with him. Without prayer one cannot be chaste, since the fundamental relationship of love for God and for Jesus would be missing. Our capacity to love requires profundity and intimacy; for the consecrated person such profundity and intimacy are expressed in the relationship with the Lord Jesus and particularly in prayer.
In the light of these considerations the process/programme of affective and sexual maturation proposed above should be integrated with aspects regarding chastity; so one can speak about a formation programme for affectivity and chastity. At the centre of formation to chastity is the experience of love: to love God with all one’s strength, educating oneself to a generous love for others, integrating the need to love and to be loved, being aware of one’s own frailty, invoking the help of God, practising custody of the heart. The presentation of the beauty of chastity is in contrast with a cultural climate at time obsessive, is a corrective to a one-sided view of love and fosters a positive view of it.
In ongoing formation presentations which propose the beauty of the consecrated life and the enchantment in the following of Jesus should not be lacking; let them propose chastity with those features which particularly belong to our Salesian spiritual and ascetical tradition; let them remember vigilance and custody of the heart; let them reawaken the awareness that “we have a treasure in vessels of clay” (Cf. GC26 22).
The “Ratio” in the practical guideline number 113 adds a special element which deserves some specific comment. This is what it says: “To promote the gift of Salesian chastity, let the community foster a brotherly atmosphere and family spirit among the confreres and in their relationships with the young.”10
The Rector Major often says that “a confrere lives where he is loved”; he may be physically living in a community, but only where he finds meaningful and understanding relationships where he is surrounded by esteem and affection, where he finds friendship and collaboration: it is there that he feels well. Sometimes relationships in community are cold and detached, or else functional and only centred on the work; at other times there is no real communication; or again, in community we experience solitude and abandonment; often there is individualism; each one organises his own free time, and when there is no work to do, flees the community. Then, when the community is too small and the number and quality of its members is not assured, when he has to undertake work not proportionate to his strengths, when he cannot find occasions to share with his brothers, then it is more easy to be overcome by stress and suffer ‘burn out.’
It is thus a question of building fraternal communities which go beyond formality in relationships and in which each one feels accepted; it would be difficult then for someone to want to opt out. The community becomes one’s family and helps the confrere to bring his self-donation to maturity. Even in free time people are happy to stay in the community; praying together is not a burden; there is a sense of being close in joys and in difficulties. The community is the first place where affections come to maturity and chastity is lived to the full, loving God and giving oneself to one’s brothers. This also helps with custody of the heart. We are nor afraid to spend tine building fraternity; it is from this that the joy of life and effective witnessing among the young and lay people will come.
In all of this the Rector plays a fundamental role. Attention needs to be given to the selection and the preparation of the Rectors. They should be people who are able to create fraternity, build relationships, foster an intense spiritual life. Their first concern should be the care of the confreres and the building up of the community. In their dealings with the confreres they should show themselves to be close, to be capable of listening, to be interested. They should know how to speak to the confreres about affectivity, sexuality and chastity with openness and in a positive way as Don Bosco did; they should present to them their role as educators of the young in chastity and put them on their guard against dangers, such as pornography for example; they should suggest the practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The Rectors should be seen as fathers, brothers and friends; they act as spiritual guides; they encourage the confreres to make use of the friendly chat; they are able to provide personal accompaniment.
A necessary condition for formation which easily fosters the building of fraternity in community needs to be considered; this is giving attention from the beginning of the formation process to the confreres’ capacity for relationships. The “Ratio” presents this aspect of human formation in number 66-67 and also offers the following guideline (n.73): “Let every Salesian develop his capacity for communication and dialogue,11 and trust in his confreres and be ready to accept differences and overcome prejudices; let him take an active part in community meetings, carry out faithfully the tasks entrusted to him, and learn to act in joint responsibility with others so as to arrive at a consensus in his brotherly relations and in his work”.12
To foster an affective and sexual maturation directed towards a life of chastity, it is necessary to discern beforehand whether in the candidates there is the suitability to love consecrated chastity. For this it is necessary to know better and to put into practice more consistently the “Criteria and norms for Salesian vocational discernment”, especially the second chapter in which are presented the criteria for the suitability of candidates for Salesian consecrated life. We have a lot more to do in this area.
Suitability is a requirement to be verified as a prior condition at the beginning of the formation process and not an objective to be reached during the formation process itself. Formation cannot be expected to make a candidate who aspires to Salesian consecrated life suitable; rather, formation has to assess whether the subjective aspiration corresponds to a real objective ability to live consecrated life. In particular, there are positive requirements and absolute or relative counter-indications (CN 38-41), as they are excellently described in “Criteria and norms” with regard to affective and sexual maturity and to chastity (CN 65-79). Often these criteria are not known by the candidates and not even at times by the person who together with the candidate has the responsibility or carrying out the discernment; then again, sometimes they are applied with superficiality or neglected.
Discernment regarding suitability should be undertaken in the aspirantate and prenovitiate, at the very least in the novitiate before profession. It seems to me that if this first stage is carried out carefully and with trained formation personnel, there is sufficient time to assess suitability. It is true that in some cases certain situations are not known about or understood immediately but only later; these cases ought to constitute the exception and therefore need to be resolved before perpetual profession.
Certainly it is easier, with the help of psychology experts to recognise sexuality problems, the sexual orientation of the candidates, relational disorders… ; while it is not a simple matter to make a diagnosis regarding pedophilia (CN 75). “Even today it remains very difficult to identify precisely a potential future pedophile: there are too many uncertain aspects which require further study and research. Often it only comes to light after a case of abuse has happened and been recognised”.13 This is also due to a culture which is confused regarding pedophilia, “which often has not been able to find how to examine and deal with it appropriately, since it was considered an expression of sexual freedom, to be defended against possible ‘repressions’ and ‘discriminations.’”14 Psychology, therefore, is not yet fully in a position to undertake this evaluation, but it certainly needs to operate better in carrying out the “screening” of candidates, and also speaking openly about the problem.15
Nowadays it is necessary to pay attention, in particular, to the past experiences of the candidates (CN 75) and to the family background (CN 55-58). Some situations of candidates of whom the experience of having been abused, especially within the family, was known, have been helped and healed; others, on the other hand, are so deep-rooted as to be incurable. More generally, past experiences and family circumstances can, in some cases, leave deep wounds, some of which can be cured, while others remain irreversible; only by dealing with them can some situations be overcome, or otherwise a judgement may be reached concerning their non-suitability for Salesian consecrated life.
We should not allow ourselves to be discouraged by the situations which have been created in our Provinces, and which in some cases are complex and difficult. Instead let us undertake urgently and far-sightedly formation procedures which are both propositive and preventative. Even in our difficulties God offers us a great opportunity for conversion and renewal. This is a time of grace.16