Council Resources

Personal plan of life - Initial Formation




The General Councillor for Formation

To Rev Fr Rectors and Members
of Formation Communities
To Rev Fr Provincials and Provincial Formation Delegates

Initial Formation

A process of identification with the salesian vocation

According to one of the practical guidelines of the new Ratio,  “each Salesianaccepts responsibility for his own formation and engages in a constant effort of conversion and renewal. He formulates his own personal plan of life, drawing on his own experience and on the vocation plan of the Salesians of Don Bosco, and he verifies it at certain key moments.” (FSDB 277). The 25th General Chapter has confirmed this task, requesting that every “confrere,  as the one primarily responsible for his own formation to give due importance to the “Personal Plan of Salesian Life”, bearing in mind the following elements:

- a continual evaluation of the human, spiritual and salesian maturing process, by means of self-assessment procedures, openness to the Word of God and acceptance of fraternal correction;
- knowledge and practice of the spirituality of the preventive system as the source of new relationships in fraternal life;
- the progressive growth in maturity in salesian charismatic identity;
- an active and wholehearted presence  at the ordinary and extraordinary meetings of the community;
- cultivation of openness to others and availability for sharing” (CG25 14).

The Formation Department offers Provincials, Provincial Delegates for Formation and Rectors of Formation communities these notes in the form of motivations, explanations, and suggestions addressed to individual young confreres in  formation in the hope that they may serve  in the animation of the Province and of initial formation.

1. Why make a personal plan of life?

The Gospel is the Christian’s life plan; for us Salesians it is expressed in the Constitutions, which are precisely the “project of life of the Salesians of Don Bosco”. Making a personal plan means submitting oneself to the process of accepting the plan that God has for you.. In this way God’s plan becomes your plan. Making a plan is not principally something you set out to do, but it is accepting your vocation, the concrete expression of the gift of yourself, assuming responsibility for your choices. Perhaps you have asked yourself the question: “Why does the ‘Ratio’ and the GC25 ask me to make a life plan?”  I can suggest to you some reasons: you can look for others yourself, based on your on experience. Before beginning to draw up the plan it is necessary to be motivated.

- - Life is always in the process of being constructed and God has the plan for it. He also says to you: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jer. 1, 5). God has a plan for your life, one that you are looking for so as to make it your own: God is calling you to be a Salesian, priest or brother. For you to be able to accept the call he gives you the grace of this period of initial formation. In whatever stage you are living - prenovitiate, novitiate, postnovitiate, practical training, specific formation – it is a time for identification with the salesian vocation. For you initial formation “is already a time for.. holiness” (FSDB 308). Your task is to discern how God wants you to live the phase of formation in which you find yourself and how you can make of it your path to holiness. The plan helps you to do this: you are looking for the path that God has traced out for you; you discover what He wants from you; you plan your life for the future precisely as you  think God wants it to be.

- This vision of your future which you accept as the fruit of discernment, gives direction to your life. Try putting together the thousand pieces of a jigsaw puzzle without having previously seen the picture of the “finished product”! When you know where you are called to go it is easier to direct all the aspects of your daily life – aspirations, efforts, values - to reach that goal. (FSDB 69). In Don Bosco the gifts of nature and grace “combined to create a closely-knit life project, the service of the young” (Con. 21). Don’t let your life become fragmented or dispersed or let yourself just drift along with the current! Holiness needs to be planned.

- By directing everything towards the one aim, your life becomes more unified. You become capable of uniting the past,  present and future  in a single meaningful whole  according to your fundamental choices. Gradually as you grew older and pass from one phase of formation to another you have experiences that need to be integrated in a new vital synthesis. For example, moving from the postnovitiate to practical training is a new experience that requires you to rethink and give a new expression  to your life following on from the phase that has gone before: you need to find the way in which,  while carrying out your new tasks, you can continue to grow in your vocation, in the life of communion, in apostolic interior life, in holiness. The personal plan is precisely such an instrument of unification.

- While you are taking steps to give your life a sense of unity certain things can happen in your life. You begin to see yourself more clearly with your good qualities and your limitations; you see what needs to be changed if you want to achieve that identity or vision of yourself in obedience to God’s call. You become ever more convinced of the need and even the beauty of the new shape you want to give to your life; you feel yourself compelled to make every effort to be converted, to work on yourself, to make difficult decisions precisely in order to ensure the realisation of that identity that attracts you and promises you joy and satisfaction. In this way the plan becomes for you a means of conversion and of renewal (cf. FSDB 277) and leads you to a more genuine and faithful living of your vocation.

- In this way you take your life in hand and assume responsibility for your vocation and for your growth towards holiness. You know that there is a danger of going through all the phases of initial formation without ever having taken responsibility for your own development. You can be living your vocation, following the rules, carrying out you particular tasks, allowing yourself to be led by the formation personnel and by events, following  the group and other peoples’ values. It is as though you had all the necessary material available to build your house, but not having any plan you haphazardly pile one thing on top of another. On the other hand, with a personal plan, guided by the Spirit of God and by His grace, you become the “necessary and irreplaceable agent” (FSDB 216) in your formation, exercising your freedom, setting your goals, building up your identity  as a consecrated salesian apostle, priest or brother, becoming what God is calling you to be.

Therefore, as you will have noted, the plan is not a simple declaration of intent, nor wishful thinking,  nor is it a plan for becoming qualified  drawn up by yourself and about which you want to speak with the Provincial. The personal plan or project of life is the description of the goal you wish to reach and the steps you intend to take to get there, all aimed at growth in your vocation as a consecrated salesian apostle. This growth is part of the purpose of the phase through which you are passing and includes the aspects of human, spiritual, intellectual and educative and pastoral formation typical of that phase. The “Ratio”, which it would be well to have with you as you prepare the plan, will help you to keep in mind the specific nature of the formation process you are following. Following this path you are travelling towards holiness, which is “the perfect love of God and men”: by your religious profession you have begun to walk “on the path to holiness.” (Con. 25).

2. Examples from our spiritual tradition

Talk about a personal plan of life is fairly new in the Church and in the Congregation, but perhaps one can find some reference to it in our salesian tradition, and more especially in the methodology of our spiritual life. It was mainly expressed through the choice of some resolutions to be kept. Here we recall some examples.

Don Bosco
says in “Memories of the Oratory,” that when he first put on the religious habit he went before a picture of Our Blessed Lady, read his resolutions, and after saying a prayer made a formal promise to Our Lady to keep them even to the point of sacrifice. Among his resolutions were, love for temperance, to fight with all his strength against everything contrary to the virtue of chastity, and the daily practice of meditation and spiritual reading (MO 89-90) Afterwards at the end of the Retreat he made in preparation for his ordination as a priest, Don Bosco wrote some reflections, allowing us to see the idea of the priest he intended to be and his resolutions in this regard. He said: “The priest does not go to heaven, or to hell alone. If he does God’s work he will go to heaven with the souls he has saved by his good example. If he has been a cause of scandal , he will go to perdition along with the souls that were damned through his scandal. Therefore I pledge myself to keep the following resolutions.” The nine resolutions he makes then follow, as for example: to be rigorous in the use of time; to suffer, work, humble myself in all things whenever it is a question of saving souls; to be guided always by the charity and gentleness of St Francis of Sales; to set aside some time every day for meditation and spiritual reading, and during the day to pay a brief visit to the Blessed Sacrament. (BM I, 385).
Similarly the Servant of God Fr Giuseppe Quadrio. At the beginning of the second year of his practical training as assistant and teacher of philosophy in the postnovitiate at  Foglizzo, he made a detailed programme of life for himself. These are the first three resolutions: 1. “I shall be a real brother to everyone of my clerics. Openhearted, friendly, smiling, welcoming. I shall seek out those who do not approach me; I shall encourage the timid; I shall comfort those feeling low, I shall always be the first to greet those I meet; I shall not allow too much time to pass without chatting with everyone....; 2. Every day: rising, meditation, Communion, Mass, prayer, visit, always together with my clerics; I shall offer myself as a victim for them; I shall speak to Jesus about each one of them; I shall say to Jesus first whatever I need to say to any of them. Every day a special visit for my clerics... 3. I shall be prudent, shrewd and diligent in assistance, always with them; I shall watch them openly and correct them with simple fraternal kindness.”
The Salesian Brother Artemides Zatti at the end of an undated Retreat took several resolutions for the New Year, which we find recorded in the “positio” of his cause for beatification and canonisation: “Carry out the practices of piety well, both community and personal ones, especially Confession and  Communion. Conform my will as far as possible to that of God. Not to be discouraged when there is some problem or things do not go as I would wish them to. ‘Quod aeternum non est, nihil est’. Love the superiors, seeing God in them; love the confreres, making sure to avoid any criticism.”
Then in the “Biographical Memoirs” you can find the programme of life that the cleric Giuseppe Giulitto drew up for himself when he made his perpetual profession on 18 September 1874: “The construction of my sanctification needs to have: for its foundation the virtue of Humility, for the walls the virtue of Obedience, for the roof the virtue  of Prayer” (MB X, 1286).
The language of the personal plan of life may be new to you ; the way of doing it may also seem new to you, but in these four examples you can see the taking on of responsibility for vocation development on the part of the seminarian Giovanni Bosco, of the cleric in practical training Giuseppe Quadrio, of the Salesian brother Artemides Zatti and the cleric Giuseppe Giulitto. We need to take up again the methodology of the spiritual life deepening and updating it because we need to ensure a “high level” for our ordinary salesian life. The spiritual life is not built up without a method; the plan of life is a means for the journey of growth and holiness.

3. How to draw up the personal plan of life?

New we come to point out the way to draw up the personal plan of life. I suggest a three stage process.

- Since the personal plan of life is a process of discernment, it is clear that you need a period of silence and recollection to do it, for example during the Day of Recollection at the beginning of the year or during the Retreat. In a moment of prayer, place yourself in the presence of God and speak to Him in the words of Samuel: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” Ask Him what He wants from you “here and now”.

In the first stage it is a question of identifying God’s call. You already know what God wants from you through the Constitutions, which provide an outline of the identity of the consecrated Salesian; the “Ratio” then helps you to discover the purpose, the formation experience and the conditions of the phase in which you find yourself; you can also find something in the Provincial Plan of Formation that describes the process of the development of the salesian identity in the context of your Province; finally the Community Project provides you with a more precise picture of what God expects from you and those others in formation living with you.

God speaks to your heart through the Spirit. If you are open to his voice you will recognise within your own life those things in which you feel you need to grow more. I suggest that you look at the four dimensions or aspects of formation and find the goals that God is setting you for the year that is beginning. God also makes use of people, such as your spiritual director, confessor or a friend who can help you to hear His voice and to discern your position. Open your heart to your spiritual director; speak about your relationships, your fears, your discoveries; discuss your plan of life with him, now while you are preparing it and later when it is a matter of verifying it.

You are now thinking not of the things you intend to do but of the goals that God is inspiring in you and you want to achieve, that promise you a sense of joy and represent a step forward along the path of your fidelity to your vocation. You are creating for yourself a vision of what God is calling you to be. It is important that this vision for the future is not described as something intellectual or cold, but as something you are enthusiastic about, that is attractive and encouraging, that corresponds with your desires and expectations, that shows the possibilities that can result from the efforts you make. The more the goal attracts you and fills you with enthusiasm the more determined you will be to take the necessary steps to reach it.

- Having identified what it is that God is calling you to, now is the time to consider the point at which you find yourself, that is your present  situation: what are the strengths and weaknesses, capacities and possibilities, limitations and negative factors. For example this might be my situation: “Normally I am faithful to my duties, to my studies, I try to be on good terms with everyone. However, I recognise that in the community meetings while I follow everything with interest, I don’t share with the others my ideas and my experiences, being afraid of what they might think or say about me.”
Generally there is a tendency to talk immediately about weaknesses or negative aspects; it would seem a better idea, on the other hand, to consider first the “successes” with regard to the future one hopes to achieve. Then we can move on to identify the difficulties or weaknesses, aspects that need to be improved in order to reach the goals set. This way of proceeding creates a positive  atmosphere for the whole process and serves as an encouragement in that we see what we have already achieved or are capable of achieving even though it is then necessary to look at what still needs to be done.

You might be able to express your situation better in prayer, drawing inspiration from the threefold confession of praise, of sin and of faith, that the Rector Major also made use of in his letter on holiness (AGC 379, 35-37). The confession of praise helps you to recognise as God’s gift all the positive things you find in  your life now; the confession of sin makes you aware of hesitations, reservations, resistance and faults on your journey; the  confession of faith helps you to have confidence in God and in His Spirit in order to make progress in your development.

In this context it is good to remember that an interminable list of detailed points positive and negative does not serve. A good planning process presupposes the ability to identify those two or three points that are decisive and which practically determine all the rest; it is a matter of focusing on the main points that need attention. Be convinced that the success of your planning process lies not so much in the application of techniques as in the readiness to face up to yourself honestly and in depth, and to open yourself to the Spirit with trust and patience.

- Finally you have reached the third stage, in which you try to hear the message coming to you from God in reply to your question: “Lord, what do you want me to do?” In the light of your knowledge about yourself, reached in the second stage, you decide on the lines of action that you intend to follow in the course of the year in order to arrive at the goals you set your self in the first stage. Decide where you ought to be going and what the Spirit is saying to you. It is to be hoped that your lines of action are reasonable and capable of being achieved during the year; they should be few and essential; they should apply to important aspects of the formation process that you are following. According to the “Ratio” it is important to choose tasks that regard the four aspects or dimensions of formation.

It would also help if the plan of action were made up of progressive steps to be realised month by month, week by week. Implementing these steps one after the other creates a certain self confidence and you become more courageous and optimistic, seeing the progress you are making. If you like, these steps can take into account motivations, attitudes and behaviour; they can be made concrete with objectives, procedures and interventions. While remaining on a practical level, this stage too can be expressed in the form of prayer.

4. Point of reference for the personal journey

Now that you have drawn up your personal plan, you have to ensure that it is not just on paper, but becomes an effective means for your growth. For this to happen there is no need for anything extraordinary, just the means that the methodology of the spiritual life and our salesian traditions have always recommended. There is no growth without a serious method to follow; the plan of life is a new resource for the spiritual life, which employs traditional elements and means, giving them a new function and organised structure.

- It is especially necessary to make an assessment of the progress you are making. The plan ought to have indicated the timing and the practical method of this exercise. You need to give sufficient time for the evaluation, as  for example during the days of recollection and retreats. The purpose of the assessment is to see to what extent you have been faithful to all that you proposed in the plan: whether you have carried out the activities you decided on and how you have done them. If you haven’t done them, you need to see why. You also need to check whether the goals set have been reached and to what extent. In the event of poor results, an examination of the reasons could perhaps show that you have not been regular in the tasks undertaken and that you have not followed up the initial enthusiasm effectively; or perhaps you have not analysed the problems sufficiently and have been superficial in dealing with them; or you have not given sufficient attention  to the different aspects of the problems; or perhaps your course of action was too generic. Whatever the reason, through your assessment you can see whether or not you are on  the right track, and you can draw  useful lessons for the improvement of your plan. The assessment process, however, invites you to make use of the days of recollection and retreats in such a way that there is more time for prayer and for personal reflection.

- Having drawn up your plan with the help of your spiritual director – as I suggested above - accompaniment becomes an important means for continuing your journey; therefore you discuss   the plan, you examine it and assess it with your director.. In fact the  “Ratio” says that “From time to time, in dialogue with his Rector, he assesses the progress he has made in attaining his objective.” (FSDB 216). You can speak about the difficulties you may be experiencing and ask for advice. The greatest contribution he makes will be to help you to see the situation more clearly before God and to deepen your motivations; at the same time he will give you confidence and courage for the journey. In this relationship you will see your vocation better: through discernment   you will become ever more confirmed in it or you will be able to face up to the questions that might arise.

- It will also be helpful to make use of the methodology that you have always used from the very beginning of initial formation, that practical method of meditating by writing, take notes, write down your experiences and the reflections that the Spirit suggests to you. You will be able to refer back to what you have written at any time, to check on it or to add to it. Writing is a means to avoid being superficial, to help with reflection and prayer to reach the depths of your life. Make use of this method in other situations and not only in drawing  up your plan.

- It is obvious that you need to be vigilant in everyday situations. Without a vigilant conscience, without being attentive and keeping on your guard there is no progress; instead there is laziness, weakness superficiality. Among the usual means, the daily examination of conscience is to be not  merely routine and hasty, but serious and in depth. Daily meditation too is an opportunity to “make some good resolution and consider how to put it into practice,” re-enforcing the steps being taken. But above all, the frequent celebration of the sacrament of Reconciliation is a moment of grace, which in addition to the evaluation of your life, to the sorrow it evokes, to God’s pardon    that reconciles you with Him, offers you sacramental grace for healing and renewal.

- Finally, it is necessary to harmonize your personal plan with the community’s(cf. GC25 74). In fact there is an interdependent relationship between the two: they re-enforce and help each other. On the one hand, when you draw up your personal plan you take into consideration the commitments of the community plan, since it is a discernment carried out by you and the other confreres into God’s designs for your community; it therefore includes those expressions of God’s will that also concern you. On the other hand the community plan is enriched when each member of the community, having drawn up his own personal plan, has reached a mature understanding of what he is proposing. While respecting the right to privacy you can share with other confreres those aspects of your own plan that you wish to; in this way people get to know each other better in the community, stronger links are forged in the sense of belonging and you help the community to reach a deeper level in its own planning process.

In conclusion, with the personal plan of life you have in your hands an instrument that helps you to grow in progressively identifying yourself with your salesian vocation. I invite you to value it and to accept it joyfully. The path that the plan points out for you is not the result of a mere act of will, but of your free choice and the constant action of the  grace of God, who has called you to this life. Accept the invitation to live the plan as an opportunity to walk the way of holiness!

Fr Francesco Cereda
Rome, 5 July 2003


Scheme for drawing it up

GOD’S CALL What does God want from me in the circumstances in which I find myself?

1. Find a time for being quiet and recollected, for example during the monthly day of recollection or the annual retreat, and open your heart to the Lord asking for light and strength. .
2. In the presence of the Lord ask yourself what He wants of you. In the context in which you are living, what is the profile of the Salesian priest or brother that you feel you are called to be? It is taken for granted that in this projection of your future, progress towards holiness is explicitly  present.
3. In order to identify yourself with the profile indicated, you need to pass through various phases of formation and you need to commit yourself to your human, spiritual, intellectual and educative and pastoral formation. With regard to these four aspects ordimensions of formation in what areas do you feel particularly challenged by the Lord this year and in this phase? Identify the two or three important things for each of the four aspects, that you believe the Lord is asking of you this year. These are your goals.
4. What sort of relationship is there between your goals   and the image of the Salesian priest or brother that you have before you? For example, in what way do your goals as a novice or postnovice …, take you closer to the profile you have identified?

YOUR ACTUAL SITUATION Where are you in relation to God’s call?

1. Taking your goals in reference to each of the aspects or dimensions, identify the significant points of “success” or the positive elements present in your life.
2. In a similar way, for each of the dimensions, identify significant points that need to be improved or changed in your life.
3. For each of the formation dimensions, use can be made of the confession of praise, of sin and of faith. It is a way of describing your situation in a prayerful way.

YOUR LINES OF ACTION What steps do you intend to take? In what direction, by what ways, with what means?

1. In the light of what has emerged in the previous stages select the lines for action most appropriate to reach your goals, with the necessary objectives, procedures and activities Here too the lines of action refer to the four aspects or dimensions of formation.
2. Determine when and how you intend to assess the progress made or lack of it in carrying out the lines of action and in the achievement of your goals.