February 22, Turin
Fr Ángel Fernández Artime
GREETING TO INVITEES
Your Eminence Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life
Your Eminences Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Cardinal Riccardo Ezzati, Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga
Your Excellencies, the Salesian Archbishops and Bishops,
Very dear Mother Yvonne Reungoat, Superior General of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians,
beloved leaders of the various Groups of the Salesian Family.
Highly esteemed civil authorities of the City of Turin and the Region of Piedmont,
In the name of all the members of the General Chapter I thank you for your presence and the availability with which, significantly, you have sought to accompany us on this official opening day of the 28th General Chapter of the Society of Saint Francis de Sales (Salesians of Don Bosco).
Knowing that each of you is accompanying us is both an honour for us and at the same time a reminder of the responsibility we have before the Church and before the whole Salesian Family of Don Bosco, and in particular before the Salesian Congregation. All this encourages us to begin this task with a prophetic and hopeful outlook.
At the same time, I extend an official welcome to all Salesian confreres here present, who have come from the ninety juridical circumscriptions of the Congregation: provincials and canonical superiors of vice-provinces, provincial delegates, Salesian observers and other invitees. That each of you is here is important. For in the light of the vision of faith that each of us has in the depths of our heart, we know and are aware of one fact: that it is the Lord who has brought us together here through the “mysterious” ways of his Providence.
During the First General Chapter of our Congregation, and I will refer to this in the following point, Don Bosco began by saying: “It is of extreme importance for our Congregation”... Well, we too have been called for a very special and important task on behalf of our Congregation. Today, as was the case then, what will become the fruits of our GC28 will be of extreme importance. Undoubtedly, each one’s positive attitude will be decisive for the fruits of this Chapter Assembly.
1. THE SOCIETY OF SAINT FRANCIS DE SALES’ GC28
Our father Don Bosco convened the first General Chapter on 5 September 1877 in Lanzo Torinese. There were twenty-three participants and the Chapter lasted three whole days. Other General Chapters followed, as we well know. Some here in Valdocco. Today, sixty-two years after the last General Chapter celebrated at Valdocco, the cradle of our charism, we return with great faith in the Lord and his Holy Spirit who continues to assist our Congregation and the Salesian Family. Taken by the hand of our Mother, the Help of Christians, who “continues to do everything”, Don Bosco is making an appeal to us here, in this holy Salesian place, one that resonates in a significant way and with strong emotional content.
At the opening of that First General Chapter, Don Bosco told our confreres: “Our Divine Savior tells us in the Gospel that where two or three are gathered in His name He will be there among them. Our sessions have no other purpose than God's greater glory and the salvation of souls, redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus Christ. And so we may trust that the Lord will be in our midst and will personally lead our discussions to His greater glory.”
Our desire, and one we have to do, is to tackle the important task that the entire Congregation entrusts to us in this GC28 with the same conviction and faith outlook that I sought to emphasise by putting that last expression of Don Bosco’s in italics.
In our Constitutions we read: “The General Chapter is the principal sign of the Congregation’s unity in diversity. It is the fraternal meeting in which Salesians carry out a communal reflection to keep themselves faithful to the Gospel and to their founder’s charism, and sensitive to the needs of time and place.
Through the General Chapter the entire Society, opening itself to the guidance of the Spirit of the Lord, seeks to discern God’s will at a specific moment in history for the purpose of rendering the Church better service.”
I am deeply convinced that it will be a time in which the Spirit of the Lord will guide us and make His presence felt, as only God knows how, to support us in this desire of ours to be ever more faithful to Jesus Christ along the way traced out for us by Don Bosco.
1.1. With responsibility for guiding and animating one of the Church’s charisms raised up by the Spirit, for the Church and the world.
Before referring to the General Chapter itself, allow me to point out some of the elements that could be taken for granted as being obvious, but which are undoubtedly essential and of great importance. The first of these has just been announced.
We are faced with a great responsibility: the charism of caring for young people with all the means at our disposal is not our exclusive property, does not belong to us, because it is a gift of the Holy Spirit for the Church and the world. Just the same, it demands that we Salesians of Don Bosco take the greatest care and show the greatest fidelity. Earlier, I recalled the article of our Constitutions which says that the General Chapter should prompt us to discover and recognise God’s will at this specific moment in history for the purpose of rendering the Church better service. Our work of reflection, study and discussion, in a climate of research and discernment, has no other purpose than that of attempting to discern God’s will for us today, faced with the great question of how we can be authentic consecrated individuals today, and how we can be the Salesians that Don Bosco himself would like us to be for the young people of today and those who will come tomorrow.
I have no doubt that we carry in our hearts a deep desire to continue to take the necessary steps to ensure that the Salesian charism is rich in the power of the Gospel. I have no doubt that we have in our hearts the desire to be courageous and very much free to seek what leads us along the path of fidelity. I have no doubt that the prudence with which we will tackle so many things is far removed – and must continue to be so – from fears that paralyse, and constraints that have nothing to do with proclaiming the Gospel and educating young people in the faith, nor with their preparation for life and happiness. Let us not forget that fears and personal and institutional constraints kill fidelity and prevent the charism from being ever the same and ever alive, even given the passing of decades and centuries.
1.2. With responsibility for guiding communion and unity of life in our Congregation
One of the graces that the Lord has granted us abundantly over these six years has been – as we will see in the report on the state of the Congregation – a great communion and unity that goes beyond the natural difficulties characteristic of each human group, and even more so for a large Congregation like ours. We are growing in unity – not uniformity – and communion. And this is a gift and a great value that must be preserved today and always.
For this reason, the General Chapter must be witness to this full communion of spirit and mission. Differences in cultures and contexts, nationalities and languages are a wealth and an opportunity for a charism that has extended its roots today to one hundred and thirty-four nations.
It is truly enlightening to see how our Father wanted this unity to be so firm. During the First General Chapter, Don Bosco told Chapter members: “We are still a fledgling Congregation, as yet relatively few in number. To date the Oratory has been the one and the only center for all of us ... but with time, if we do not heartily exert ourselves to strengthen these ties, a diverse spirit will seep in so that there will no longer be absolute unity among us.”
Fortunately, and through the grace of God, this has not happened, and in fact the contrary has been the case. The search for unity and communion continues to grow and become stronger, since the charism, our holy Founder, our state of life, our rule of life all come down to one thing: the Constitutions and Regulations of the Salesians of Don Bosco.
1.3. To look after God’s interests
Allow me to take the expression of Fr Luigi Ricceri as Rector Major literally, in his opening address to the 20th and Special General Chapter, because it splendidly reflects the clear and profound awareness that we should have about the nature of our task. All General Chapters are important. They all help us to walk the path of fidelity over time. They all urge us onward with courage. They all open a path or consolidate the existing one. And at the same time, in all of them outlook of faith must be the most important.
This is what I am proposing and asking for in a very special way for our GC28, especially for the issues that will concern us and for the results of our decisions. I am convinced that the task entrusted to us as men of faith who love the Church and the Congregation will help us to focus on the profile of the Salesian of whom, in fidelity to the Constitutions, today's world and the young people of today continue to be in need. And I am convinced that this will be of great importance in the ongoing formation of all Salesians and in particular in the initial formation of young Salesians who today want to be like Don Bosco.
Hence we have to be very free, courageous, have an outlook of faith and a heart which is attentive to perceiving the voice of the Holy Spirit with the greatest sensitivity.
“Ours is not an assembly of shareholders of an industry, it is not a political meeting with factions with conflicting economic interests, prestige, ambitions. Here we are Church, or rather, an assembly of consecrated men gathered in the name of the Lord, totally dedicated to a supernatural ideal: we feel that we are men of faith whose concerns have their roots in faith and whose activity, including this activity, is fully enlightened, enlivened and motivated by faith. For we are here not because of any human interests, but for the interests of God, of his Kingdom, of his Church.”
When thinking about the fruits of our General Chapter, what I have just mentioned is decisive: what does not lead to an encounter with God in the person of his Son Jesus Christ does not come from God and will not serve us. What does not make us more faithful to the charism and to Don Bosco himself, our Founder, is destined to fail even if the mirages of the moment seem to be proclaiming something else. We are not a Congregation with many centuries of life; but neither are we the last to arrive, and our 160 years of history have already taught us much. It will only by letting itself be guided by the Spirit of God that the Congregation will find a way to provide the best response in the here and now. Only a free and lucid outlook in the face of strongly secularised and hedonistic mentalities allows a sure path. Sooner or later other attempts will fail, wear out and make the ideal of life that led to the fundamental decision of young Cagliero languish.: “Friar or no friar, I am staying with Don Bosco.”
2. THEME AND OBJECTIVE OF GC28
All those present, including our guests who honour us so much with their presence, are familiar with the theme of the General Chapter that we officially declare open today: “What kind of Salesians for the youth of today?”
The theme responds to the urgent need we have of focusing our attitudes at this moment in our history, on the person of the Salesian. As a man of God, a consecrated individual and apostle, he must be able to attune himself as best as possible to the adolescents and young people of today and to their world in order to walk with them, in education and formation in the faith, help them to be good believers – also in consideration of the fact that often they profess other religions – and prepare them for life, accompanying them in their search for meaning and their encounter with God.
And we are aware that it is not only we, the Salesians of Don Bosco, who are responsible for this mission. In fact we carry it out by relying on numerous other forces, male and female educators, the many lay people involved in all our presences around the Salesian world.
The theme that will occupy us over these seven weeks is a single one that has been articulated through three core subthemes:
The world in which we live in this twenty-first century, characterised by the diversity of cultures and contexts, needs – expects, we could say – to encounter consecrated Salesian apostles who are prepared and willing to live their lives with the mind and heart of Don Bosco. Salesians capable of continuing to give their lives for the young people of today's world, with their languages, their visions and their interests. Without doubt, many of these adolescents and older youth are in Salesian houses, while many others frequent “other courtyards” or playgrounds: we are Salesians for them too.
I think that what Pope Francis told us on 21 June 2015, the year of the Bicentenary of Don Bosco's birth, in this same Salesian holy place which is Valdocco, continues to resound with great force, and it is a very timely appeal. He asked us not to disappoint the deep aspirations of the young: their need of life, openness, joy, freedom, a future; the desire to collaborate in building a more just and fraternal world, development for all peoples, protecting nature and their living environments ... The Pope asks us to help the young to experience that it is only in the life of grace, meaning friendship with Christ, that the most authentic ideals are fully implemented.
What has been put to the General Chapter as a challenge for the whole Congregation, we hope to achieve in the only possible and valid way, as I have already said and I stress once more: in the journey of fidelity to the Lord and to Don Bosco and in fidelity to the young. Many of these young people, with greater or lesser awareness, ask not to be abandoned to their destiny, an uncertain destiny, as people who are shipwrecked due to our inability to be educators, friends, brothers and fathers – as Don Bosco was for the young people of his time – capable of perceiving their needs or listening to their call.
Hence, reflection by the Chapter must focus on the following elements.
2.1. Giving absolute primacy to the Salesian mission with today’s young people, and among these giving priority to the most needy, the poorest and most abandoned. A predilection for today's adolescents and young people who, in a certain sense are undoubtedly different from those of ten years ago; as different as are the social and educational contexts in which they live and which therefore objectively affect our mission. We are well aware that when we speak of this predilection for young people we are referring to something essential and constitutive of our charismatic identity.
Quoting the text of the letter of convocation to the GC28, I remind the Chapter Assembly of this priority: “The new General Chapter will be an opportunity to courageously undertake a discernment process to see whether our houses, our works and our activities are at the service of the poorest young people; whether they find a place in our hearts and are the centre of our concerns and interests; whether we are concentrating our energy and our efforts on them.”
2.2. Giving equal priority to the profile of today’s Salesian
What is asked of us Salesians and what is expected of us Salesians will only be possible if we are able, as I said in my commentary on the Strenna that I offered to the Salesian Family, to be “like Don Bosco, with the young and for the young”. So, a decisive part of our reflection and our Chapter deliberations will have to pay particular attention to the person of the Salesian and to our formation, both initial and ongoing.
With Don Bosco as our model:
2.2.1. A profile of the Salesian that is not improvised but is formed
This is one of the major reasons that led us to see the importance of this Chapter theme. The vocation of each one of us is a response to a call; a call of love and grace that we receive with gratitude and amazement, not as a right or a merit of ours. It is a personal call at a concrete moment in the history of each individual, in the warp and weft of time and often with multiple mediations, or even just one; it is a call in a specific family, social, religious, cultural context; it is a call that comes into the world of each individual, with its own diversity and, perhaps, complexity.
And in such different contexts and conditions, each of us must follow a path that will lead us, in following the Lord Jesus, to shape our hearts and our personalities in such a way that we have in ourselves the same pastoral heart as Don Bosco, in imitation of Jesus the Good Shepherd, and with the desire to give ourselves generously to others, especially the young. Without living in a generic sort of way, which would be worrying and dangerous, but as consecrated Salesians of Don Bosco in the Church for the young.
This is why I affirm with deep conviction that the profile that the Salesian must have cannot be the result of improvisation, but must pass through the mediations of the different formative stages, with their experiences, times and people.
2.2.2. With the help of quality formation teams and with personalised processes
We are well aware that this path cannot be taken without the help of mediations. Frequently these mediations are many and varied. I imagine that, bearing in mind the profile of today's Salesian, our Chapter reflection will become aware of the way in which it becomes more important than ever to count on authentic discernment and accompaniment. And for this reason, the role of the community or the local Salesian communities, the role of lay people, of the pastoral and educative communities and that of the confreres of the Province will be of fundamental importance.
Reflection and understanding of our formative reality in today's world will lead us, during the work of our Chapter, to ask ourselves what formative renewal we need, since the young Salesians of today are all “digital natives”, coming from cultural contexts perhaps very different from our own, and certainly very different from the formative context in which those who are speaking to us live. We profess the same Salesian Constitutions but in very different nations, cultures, languages and contexts. All this should lead us to think about personalised formation processes which, perhaps, are the only guarantee of a good vocational journey with a perspective for the future.
Clearly linked to this is the need to continue having the best formation teams; consolidated, stable teams, not makeshift ones, teams made up of people who have been prepared for this specific service.
2.3. Together with lay people in mission and formation
We are all aware of the theme of GC24: “Salesians and lay people. Communion and sharing in the spirit and mission of Don Bosco” in 1996. After many years of this journey in the shared mission in pastoral and educative communities, as a Congregation we feel the need to carry out a verification of the road taken, the results and the resistances we have encountered.
We certainly believe that the mission shared with lay people is a path to the discovery of our charismatic identity, clarified in a particular way by GC24, and that today it manifests itself as the only possible way to carry out the Salesian mission in the complexity of our world, in the diversity and complexity of so many national and cultural situations, and in the multiplicity of contexts.
My understanding is that on this very important part of the reflection that awaits us, and which goes hand in hand with reflection on the profile of the Salesian that is needed today and that the young people expect – together with the lay people who share the mission with us – the Chapter will perhaps consider some of these points on which to impel our discernment:
3. THE "HOUR" OF THE 28TH GENERAL CHAPTER
My dear Chapter confreres, over these months I have not hidden the hope with which I await the celebration of this General Chapter of ours, since I believe it will be very significant and of great importance. All the previous ones have been. I think it will be the same for GC28. As I also stated in the letter of convocation: “we will be called to discern with realism, courage. and determination the direction of the path to be followed in this 21st century, at a very special time of renewal and purification in the life of the Church.”
I conclude the presentation of these challenges which will occupy us, with a final reference to Don Bosco and our Mother Help of Christians.
Our Founder, aware of the fact that not everything would end with him, but that surely it would be just the beginning of a long road yet to hoe, told Fr Giulio Barberis, one of his close associates, one day in 1875: “You will complete the work that I begin; I will sketch it, you will colour it ... I am now sketching a rough copy of the Congregation. I shall leave it to those who come after me to perfect it.”
I believe that with GC28 that we are beginning today, we will clean up other parts of the sketch that Don Bosco left us, because the Holy Spirit continues to enlighten us even today to be faithful to the Lord Jesus in fidelity to the charism of our origins, with the faces and music and colours of today.
We are not alone in this mission, and we know and feel that Mary, the Mother Help of Christians, the “Help of Don Bosco”, is guiding us. On the day of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception in 1887, two months before he died, looking back in contemplation of the long and not easy journey of his life, he told the Salesians around him, who were very much moved: “Until now we have walked on a sure path. We cannot go wrong; it is Mary who leads us.”
She is the Mother of us all, the Mother of the young and their families (if they have one). She is the one who is most sensitive to the poor and needy. It is she who tells us, including in this “hour” of GC28: “Do whatever he tells you” as happened at Cana in Galilee.
May our Mother, the Help of Christians, enlighten us and guide us as she did with Don Bosco, so that we may be be faithful to the Lord and never disappoint the young, especially the neediest of them.
Fr Ángel Fernández Artime
 BM XIII, 183 (English [New Rochelle] edition).
 BM XIII, 183.
 C. 146.
 MB XIII, 286.
 SGC20, Address of the Rector Major at the opening of the Special General Chapter, Rome 1971, 554.
 Cf. Francis, Come Don Bosco con i giovani e per i giovani. Lettera di Papa Francesco al Rettor Maggiore dei Salesiani, LEV, Citta del Vaticano, 2015, 9.
 AGC 427 (2018), 11.
 ACG 427 (2018), 31.
 BM XI, 289 (English edition).
 BM XVIII, 373 (English edition).
 Jn 2:5.