Don Bosco and the gift of the other

The culture of  the internet and social media are the soil where human beings are exposed to self-development, self-perception and a sense of the other.

Interestingly, in 2007 Time Magazine chose ‘You!’ as the person of the year. According to the magazine’s editor, the reason for this choice was the explosive growth and influence of user-generated Internet content such as blogs, the video-file sharing site YouTube and social network MySpace (December 25, 2006/January 1, 2007).

What does it reveal about our sense of who we are and our sense of the other? How can we live so that we show concern for the person and for others?

You! Me! It is about the individual.

We may  say that  there is, in general,  a natural human tendency to live with a focus on self. When this tendency is radicalised, either by personal motivation or by the social and media context of individualism, then what we call self-referentiality occurs, where the person (i.e. I, me or in some cases, us) becomes the centre of everything. 

Evidently, we have to always remember the  necessary psychology of personalisation, the value of individuality in the process of a person’s growth in identity.  Therefore, ‘You!’ as the person of the year, reveals the two sides of the coin that we need carefully consider in our digital society.

In different social and cultural contexts, the human person experiences this cycle between focusing too much on self and ignoring others.  Sometimes, the very context of consumerism and self-centeredness makes the person and the society in which we live establish an environment where the self is the centre of everything. 

This attitude generates indifference to others, a diminishing of interpersonal relationships, indifference to others’ needs, alienation of social problems like poverty, violence, ecology, migration, etc.  What is the pattern of this behaviour? The belief that the individual is free to do whatever they want to satisfy their own satisfactions and achievements independently of others.  Individualism is a temptation in all societies!

Recently, Pope Francis, who is highly critical of self-referentiality, individualism, came up with a concept that is a kind of antidote to individualism. He gave his encyclical Fratelli Tutti the subtitle “on fraternity and social friendship”.  What does the Pope mean by this term? 

He says that “The parable [the Good Samaritan] shows us how a community can be rebuilt by men and women who identify with the vulnerability of others, who reject the creation of a society of exclusion, and act instead as neighbours, lifting up and rehabilitating the fallen for the sake of the common good” (Fratelli   Tutti Chapter 2).

Think of oneself and think of others!  Nobody can be happy alone. Born in the heart of a family (a small community), human beings are naturally persons in relationships and intrinsically related to others, to the social and cultural environment.  In all societies, the sense of others matters!  This is the reason why education plays a very important role by teaching the value of human uniqueness and individuality enriched and shaped by relationship and care for others.  In this process of being with and for others, human beings experience a sense of belonging and love.

How did Don Bosco live this experience in his life as a person and educator?

A complete re-reading of Don Bosco's life reveals that from childhood he was a person who had great and profound experiences of human and spiritual relationships.

From the moment of the loss of his father very early on, in which he describes times of deep anguish, the profound friendship that he established with Fr Calosso, the unbreakable friendship with Jonah, the human sensation of establishing rapport with friends, priests, young people, Salesians – these are all moments of considerable manitude. Don Bosco loves and is loved. 

He makes his mother, Fr Calosso and Fr Cafasso points of affective reference. And from his greatness of heart and soul, he becomes an affective reference for hundreds of people. Don Bosco is a man of affective richness of high quality and depth.

Stella (1969) expresses in a clear and simple way how Don Bosco loved: “Don Bosco's heart never stopped loving, until the end. Don Bosco's pedagogy is identified with all his action and all his action with his personality; Don Bosco's inner being is ultimately focused on his heart. It is the heart as he understands it, 'not only as an organ of love, but as a central part of our being', on the level of nature and grace: the heart wants, the heart desires, understands and unites, it listens to what is said to it, it is inflamed with love, it reflects, moves.”

The majority of studies on Don Bosco's spirituality and educational system show that he had an enormous capacity to establish human relationships (Stella, 1969; Braido, 2004; Afonso, 2002), captivate people, to have an educational influence on young people, provide motivation, form leaders, promote people, discover great personalities and to establish a fascination for them, from the simplest to the authorities of the time, from the poorest to the richest.

Don Bosco's life offers us many moments in which he expresses his affectivity, his openness to human relationships and his captivating way of communicating with people. 

Don Bosco, through faith and love, intertwined personal and social friendship. Individuals are enriched personally when they reach out to others. By reaching out to others they give and receive, creating a environment where all grow together by the gift of building up communities.

His educational practice was founded on and experienced in the practice of love and care for others. Don Bosco captivates young people and marks the Salesians with his way of loving and expressing love: “love and make yourself loved” was one of his mottos.

Don Bosco's affective expressiveness demonstrates that despite his reserved Piedmontese style and the conservative religious culture of the time, he was a complete person in his inner dynamic of freely developing all his gifts and putting them into practice in his daily life, be it in his creative power, in his way of relating, in his inner vitality to love and work, in his capacity for enterprise.

During a period when individualism was also strong, Don Bosco knew, from his personal experience, how to develop profoundly as an open and happy person, at the service of others. 

He placed young people at the centre of his Preventive System as the ones responsible for their life and history, based on their freedom before God and themself, in order to grow as a human person together with others and at the service of others and society as a whole.  

With this broad, open and ever-relevant vision of the education of the human person, Don Bosco placed religion as a fundamental pillar in the education of the person so that individuals may develop with great responsible freedom before a God who loves them and gives meaning to their life. 

For this reason Don Bosco always believed that the Lord has put us in the world for others.

Fr. Gildasio Mendes, General Councilor for Social Communication