Council Resources

Matters of Religious Discipline (AGC 293)


Don Gaetano SCRIVO
Vicar of the Rettor Maggiore

Following on the Rector Major's request to give some practical indications of what seem to be the more essential demands made by religious discipline at the present day, I think it opportune to emphasize the more significant points which give to our religious discipline that positive solidity which Don Bosco rated so highly.


1. Fidelity to the Church. As salesians we see in the Church, the People of God, the linking together of all those forces which work for salvation; she is their centre of unity and of animation. In particular we must have a special veneration for and adherence to Peter's successor, and a sincere love and obedience for the Bishops... We are concerned about working together to promote the Body of Christ. We acknowledge the Sovereign Pontiff as our highest superior; we are docile to his magisterium, and we help the young and the faithful in general to accept his teaching (cf. Const. 44, 128).

These two articles of the Constitutions indicate in no ambiguous terms a first point in our religious discipline. In his intervention at the end of the discussion on the second document of the GC21, the Rector Major illustrated it with authority and verve: "I feel there is need of a discovery of a vital assumption and global intention of what may be called salesian bermeneutics that precedes and directs the critical capacity and reflexive analysis; it is an attitude of virtue, a natural inclination of our own particular spirit. It was something so strongly lived by Don Bosco and we have seen it preached so often that faith in Peter's ministry is one of the columns of the salesian spiritual triad: the centrality of the Eucharist, the Marian aspect of our apostolic spirituality, and the ecclesial reality of a conscious and active adherence to the Pope" (AGC21, 228).

I will refer only to a few areas in which our duty of fidelity to the Church is today especially meaningful, as can be deduced Irom recent documents of the Magisterium.

In his first encyclical "Redemptor Hominis" John Paul II, after recalling that "it is an essential truth, not only of doctrine but also of life, that the Eucharist builds the Church, building it as the authentic community of the People of God", goes on to add: "And although it is true that the Eucharist always was and must continue to be the most profound revelation of the human brotherhood of Christ's disciples and confessors, it cannot be treated merely as an occasion for manifesting this brotherhood. When celebrating the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord, the full magnitude of the divine mystery must be respected... This is the source of the duty to carry out rigorously the liturgical rules and everything that is a manifestation of community worship offered to God himself, all the more so because in this sacramental sign he entrusts himself to us with limitless trust, as if not taking into consideration our human weakness, our unworthiness, the form of habit, routine, or even the possibility of insult" (RH, 20).

The invitation made to us by the GC21 to renew our prayer life by an openness and well balanced spontaneity and creativity in prayer both at a personal and community level, to meet the desire for greater authenticity and avoid the danger of routine (AGC21, 45), can obviously not justify improvisations, dreariness or lack of thought, but must be carried out in accordance with our duty to observe in full the liturgical norms of which the Pope reminds us.

The same encyclical also recalls another fundamental aspect of christian ascetics: "In the Church the need for penance must be keenly felt... The Christ who calls to the Eucharistic banquet is always the same Christ who exhorts us to penance and repeats his 'Repent'... In these last years much has been done to highlight in the Church's practice - in conformity with the most ancient tradition of the Church - the community aspect of penance and especially of the sacrament of Penance. We cannot however forget that conversion is a particuIar1y profound inward act in which the individual cannot be replaced by others and cannot make the community be a substitute for him... In faithfully observing the centuries-old practice of the Sacrament of Penance - the practice of individual confession with a personal act of sorrow and the intention to amend and make satisfaction - the Church is therefore defending the human soul's individual right: man's right to a more personal encounter with the crucified forgiving Christ, with Christ saying, through the minister of the sacrament of Reconciliation: "Y our sins are forgiven"; "Go, and do not sin again". As is evident, this is also a right on Christ's part with regard to every human being redeemed by him: his right to meet each one of us in that key moment in the soul's life constituted by the moment of conversion and forgiveness. By guarding the sacrament of Penance, the Church expressly affirms her faith in the mystery of the Redemption as a living and life-giving reality that fits in with man's inward truth, with human guilt and also with the desires of the human conscience. 'Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied'. The sacrament of Penance is the means to satisfy man with the righteousness that comes from the Redeemer himself... It is certain that the Church of the... new Advent, the Church that is continually preparing for the new coming of the Lord must be the Church of the Eucharist and of Penance. Only when viewed in this spiritual aspect of her life and activity is she seen to be the Church of the divine mission, the Church in statu missionis, as the Second Vatican Council has shown her to be" (RH, 20).

These words of the Pope provide us with exceptionally compelling reasons for following the practical directive of the Ge21: “Every salesian should renew his effort to be faithful to personal prayer, to the sacrament of reconciliation...”. (AGC21, 60), the better to appreciate the educative value of the sacrament of Penance so characteristically taught by Don Bosco, which ensures “the continuity of style between involving the boy more closely in the educational process and in leading him to the sacraments” (AGC21, 93).

In connection with this matter of our fidelity to the Church, particular attention needs also' to be given to the document “Mutuae Relationes”, issued joint1y by the Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes and by the Sacred Congregation for Bishops. After a brief doctrinal synthesis, practical directives and norms are given. These can be neither ignored nor set aside, since our Constitutions assert: “Our mission is fulfilled within and at the service of the local church. We bring our own special contribution to the joint pastoral action for which the bishop is responsible and whose wider organization depends on the directives of the Conference of Bishops. Our work is largely governed by this principle, collaboration with the various organs of the apostolate and of education” (Const. 33 ).

I quote from "Mutuae Relationes" two norms which seem more relevant in the context of our present theme: "In order that the relations between bishops and superiors may produce increasingly more fruitful results, they must be developed in cordial respect for persons and institutes, in the conviction that religious must give witness of docility towards the Magisterium and of obedience to their superiors, and with the mutual understanding to act in such a way that neither transgress the limits of competency of the other” (MR, 45).

“As to religious who engage in apostolic activities beyond the works of their own institute, their participation in the life of the community and their fidelity to their rule and the constitutions must be safeguarded - 'bishops should not fail for their part to insist on this obligation' (CD 35,2). No apostolic commitment should be an occasion to deviate from one's vocation" (MR, 46).


2. The Constitutions. Rejecting the unjustified accusation about "law for law's sake", and overcoming a widespread allergy to anything that appears in any way 'normative', we must be convinced that our future existence as religious is linked to the Constitutions, not as an easy expedient but as a way which leads to Love. We shall acquire the living and authentic sense of the Constitutions only to the extent that we see them from a threefold point of view, which will ensable us to discern their indispensable role.

From an evangelical point or view, the Constitutions enshrine a 'salesian reading of the Gospel' which leads to a sure and certain way of living the Gospel in salesian fashion: "Open to the Holy Spirit and alive to the events by which he guides us, we accept the Gospel as our supreme rule of life, the Constitutions as our sure path" (Const. 91). They provide a specific means by which we can correctly interpret God's will through the many signs by which it is made known, signs which are not always clear and easy to decipher (cf. ASGC, 630).

From a charismatic point of view the Constitutions derive from a gift of the Holy Spirit who willed to enrich the Church with the charism of the Founder Don Bosco. They provide therefore a touchstone of our identity in so far as they indicate the true and authoritative features of our vocation.

In his closing discourse to the GC21, the Rector Major said: "(The Constitutions) precede and qualify our manifestations of pluriformity; they are the platform of unity that define our common spirit and our common objectives and set limits to both the service of authority and the initiatives of creativity. Only the Holy See, the General Chapter and the Rector Major with his Council can authentically interpret these Constitutions (cf. Const. 199); thus a pluralism would not be lawful if it put itself above them or tried to manipulate them in any way according to the mentality in fashion at a particular time » (AGC21, 581).

From an ecclesial point of view the Constitutions both indicate and vindicate the essential components of our mission in the Church. Don Bosco's apostolic project was the product of divine initiative: "By approving the Constitutions and by canonizing the Founder, the Church bears witness to the hand of God" (Const. 1). The local churches in which we work expect us to insert ourselves into them in a vital fashion to provide the kind of witness proper to the sons of Don Bosco: “to be in true salesian fashion the signs and bearers of the love of God for young people, especially those who are poorest” (Const. 2).

Any manner of insertion which lost sight of this target would only deform our identity and would at the same time be an impoverishment for a local church.

In this triple perspective the GC21 states: "Living the Constitutions therefore is for every salesian an act of faith in Jesus Christ and in his Gospel, a pledge of fidelity to a vocation received as a gift in the Church ... " (AGC21, 378).

On the occasion of the Centenary of the approval of the Constitutions, Fr Ricceri wrote a letter which is today more relevant than ever. I refer you to that letter for a synthesis of the thought of Don Bosco and his successor concerning our Rule (ASC 279, April-June 1974).

And I end this section with Don Bosco's words: "If you have loved me in the past, continue to love me in the future by the exact observance of our Constitutions" (MB 17, 258).


3. The General Regulations. It is evident that the Constitutions cannot foresee every circumstance and problem that life, in the dynamic unfolding of its history, will never cease to pose for a religious and a community. The purpose of the General Regulations is to meet this situation as far as is realistically possible. That they come within the ambit of religious discipline can be clear1y deduced from AGC21, 381: "The general Regulations represent the collection of prescriptions which apply the general principles of the "Rule of Life" in a manner adapted to changeable situations. Thus they contain the concrete, practical applications of the Constitutions to matters of universal import and are consequently valid throughout the Congregation... Juridically the Regulations form with the Constitutions a single body of binding norms. They both have legal value, even though their binding force may differ because of their specific content or because of the explicit dispositions of the legislator" (AGC21, 381).


4. Decisions of Superiors in their respective fields of competence. This is the final matter coming under the heading of religious discipline to which I want to refer. Don Bosco wanted a Congregation in which each one would be "ready to make great sacrifices... not of health or by undergoing privations, penances or extraordinary fasts, but by making sacrifices of the will" (MB 7,47; BM 7,35: Don Bosco to his first collaborators).

On the other hand Fr Caviglia writes: "I can affirm that although Don Bosco demanded the kind of loving discipline proper to a christian and religious, in all other respects he left ample scope to each ones individuality in ideas and desires" ('Don Bosco', pp. 25, 169).

 The SGC (i~ Document 12) spelled out the lines of today's salesian renewaI following the indications of the Council, the thought and practice of Don Bosco, and in response to the signs of the times. But nevertheless there have been some tendentious interpretations and arbitrary deductions, some uncertainties about various points in that document and associated articles of the Constitutions, and other defects of a practical nature.

When it was dealing with obedience in its work of verification, the GC21 went back to the Report of the Rector Major, Fr Luigi Ricceri: "Among the confreres there is a great sense of availability. The vas t majority of salesians, even in cases of obedience which verge sometimes on the heroic, show a selfless detachment based on love and faith which is most edifying. In fact I take this opportunity of expressing to these generous confreres the Congregation's great gratitude. As long as there are such men in our ranks we can look to the future with hope and confidence" (RRM 122).

Yet the Chapter recognizes that "there are also some deficiencies - failings and crooked lines, more in practice than in theory. There is some evidence, in fact, of an insensibility to cooperation and solidarity; a growing tendency for individuals to work on their own and independently; the feeling that working within and together with the community is a restraint and an impediment. We have to note a lack of understanding in some cases of the gospel meaning of authority and its relationship to fraternal union. To make our witness credible, our life of faith must be seem as obedience to God and a personal participation in the death and life of Christ. And we must recognize our urgent need of mediation to reach him, the mediation of the Church, of men, of brother1y 'union. Finally, this must take place in the spirit and in the renewed ways of common life and obedience, in dialogue, in cooresponsibility and in mutual collaboration on all levels" (AGC21, 41).

With all this in mind, the GC21 thought it well to reaffirm and clarify what the SGC had already said about religious obedience at the present day. It did so at two different points. The first is in the fundamental document "Salesians, Evangelizers of the Young", when it spells out the role of the Rector in the animation of the community for the work of evangelization, and establishes an order of priority among his various functions. Re is the preserver of unity and the custodian of our salesian identity; he is the pastoral guide of the salesian mission, with the threefold function of teacher of the Word, sanctifier through the ministry of the sacraments, and coordinator of apostolic activity; he 'directs the work of human development required of his community in the scholastic and pedagogical fields, and in cultural, social and cooperative projects; and he bears the principal responsibility in the overall operation of the work (finance, organization, discipline, public relations, buildings) (AGC21, 52). To carry out these tasks "he undoubted1y possesses true religious authority in respect of all the confreres" (AGC21, 54).

“On their part the confreres c1early demonstrate their determination to be a part of the community by their cooperation, each according to his proper role, in the initiatives undertaken by the community, avoiding any plea to be excused and inclination to passivity. Only by the active participation and by sharing of responsibility by all the members, in fact, can the community be assured of the lasting and effective inspiration needed for the accomplishment of the Rule of Life that all have professed. In those cases in which, after an open and patient dialogue, there remains opposition between personal points of view and the .decisions of the superior, the individual confrere should accept the outcome with obedience, with the maturity of an adult in the faith remembering the example of the obedience of Christ for the sake of the Kingdom of God” (AGC21, 57).

These directives led the Chapter at another point to revise Art. 94 of the Constitutions (AGC21, 392), so as to make clearer both the importance of shared responsibility and the service of authority. In his concluding intervention the Rector Major observed: "This will help us to remember that we ma de the vow of obedience not to the community but to the Superior, to whom we submit ourselves in a spirit of faith" (AGC21, 580).

And I think it is clear that what has been said of the Rector can be applied analogically to the Provincial in respect of the Provincial Community.

Finally, at the level of the entire Congregation it is sufficient to quote two fundamental thoughts of Don Bosco. In his spiritual testament we read: "Your Rector is dead. But there will be another elected, who will have care of you and of your eternal salvation. Listen to him, love him, obey him, pray for him as you have done for me." And in an important conference to the Rectors after presenting the first text of the Constitutions he said: "Let everyone give the Rector Major a helping hand; let them uphold him and help him in every way. Let everyone be united around him", and he went on immediately: "The Rector Major has the Rules; let him not deviate from them, otherwise there will no longer be one centre but two, i.e. that of the Rules and that of his own will. Rather must the Rector Major be the embodiment of the Rules: let the Rules and the Rector Major be as one and the same thing" (MB 12, 81).

In this way Don Bosco reveals what we might call a real 'passion' for unity: between his own charism of Founder, the Rector Major, and the Constitutions he establishes an identity which ensures a living centre of unity for the entire Salesian Family.