Ez 34:11-12.15-16.23-24.30-31; Phil 4:4-9; Mt 18:1-6.10
We are gathered here at The Becchi in Don Bosco's sanctuary, to set in motion the second year of the three year preparation for the bicentenary of Don Bosco's birth. Having spent the last year getting to know him more deeply, loving him more intensely and imitating him more faithfully in his absolute giving of himself to God and his total dedication to the young, we are invited this year to contemplate him as the educator and then to improve our understanding of his Preventive System and update it and inculturate it. After having discovered how Don Bosco felt that he was sent by God to the young who were his raison d'etre, his mission, his most precious legacy, we should now discover what he offered them: The Gospel of joy, through a pedagogy of kindness. This was his plan of education and his pedagogical method!
But in order to present it, I will speak in his name, indeed, directly on his behalf as the true Successor of Don Bosco.
“I am known throughout the world as a saint who sowed joy aplenty Indeed, as someone who knew me personally wrote, I made an “eleventh commandment” out of Christian joy. This experience convinced me that a work of education is not possible without this wonderful incentive, this stupendous further step called joy. I am speaking of real joy, the joy that springs from the heart of someone who allows him or herself to be led by the Lord. Riotous laughter and noise are but momentary; the joy I am talking about comes from within and remains, because it comes from Jesus when he is accepted unreservedly. I was in the habit of saying: “Be cheerful, but let your cheerfulness be that of a conscience free of sin”. And because my boys were deeply persuaded of this I added: “If you want your life to be happy and peaceful, you should try to stay in God's grace, since the heart of a youngster in a state of sinfulness is like the whipped-up waters of the sea”. This is why I always reminded people that “joy comes from peace of heart”. I used insist: “I only want my boys to be good and to always be happy”. I know someone has said: “If St Francis of Assisi sanctified nature and poverty, Don Bosco sanctified work and joy. He is the saint of a hard-working and happy Christian existence”. I like this description for two reasons: Because it places me beside a saint who was so good and relevant like that wonderful young man from Assisi, and because whoever wrote or said that about me understood the secret of my holiness: Work and joy.
You know: I lived in difficult times full of lots of upsets. I used to say: “Are ours difficult times? They have always been difficult, but God was never lacking in his help”. The certainty of God's Providence explained my indestructible optimism. It was one of the many lessons of life I learned from my mother.
“Don Bosco had kindness as his weapon”: This is what an enthusiastic and wise Salesian wrote of me, one I had known when he was still a boy and whose confession I heard occasionally. Joy is my nicest and most practical visiting card, my flag. One of many.
On Sunday morning at Valdocco I waited for my boys; that was a feast day for me! When the chimneys weeps, apprentice bricklayers, the young hands from a thousand jobs swarmed in they came, we have to say, for games, a slice of bread and salami, to spend a different kind of day with us, but I know that they came because there was a priest who loved them and would spend hours and hours with them to make them happy.
I would like to reveal a secret to you: I never considered myself to be a teacher who was also a priest; I was a priest (a goal I had achieved after years of suffering, privation and passion!) who practised, lived and witnessed to his priesthood through teaching. Or better still, I became a teacher of the young because I was a priest for them.
I know: Sometimes people present me as the eternal acrobat from the Becchi and think they are doing me a great favour. But it is a very reductionist picture of my ideal. The games, outings, the band, theatre, feasts were a means, not an end. I had in mind what I wrote openly to my boys: “I have but one desire: To see you happy now and in eternity”.
At this point you will understand why I pointed out to that wonderful young lad Dominic Savio that cheerfulness was the road to authentic holiness. And he understood it, when he explained to a friend who had come to Valdocco and who still felt completely confused: “Know that here we make holiness consist in being very cheerful. We just try to avoid sin as the great enemy which robs us of God's grace and peace of heart, and we carry out all our duties as exactly as we can”. This wonderful teenager, full of grace and kindness, did nothing else but offer his new friend, Camillo Gavio the very same raid to holiness I had offered him a few months earlier.
Since I was a boy, games and cheerfulness were a kind of serious apostolate for me, one I was fully convinced of. Joy for me was inseparable from study, work, piety. I suggested to Francis Besucco, another find young lad whose life I also wrote up: “If you want to be good, do three things and everything will go well: Here they are: Cheerfulness, Study, Piety”. When I started out at Valdocco I had a dream in my heart: To create a family atmosphere for the many youngsters who were far from home because of work or who perhaps had never even experienced gestures of affection. Joy helped create this atmosphere. It helped overcome the many restrictions of poverty and gave serenity back to many hearts. I know that a boy in those early years (he subsequently became an excellent priest in the Turin Archdiocese, one of the thousands of priests who came from this first Salesian house!) recalling these 'heroic' years wrote: “Thinking about how we ate and slept, we now wonder how it was we enjoyed ourselves without feeling too much hunger and without complaint. But we were happy, we experienced affection”. Experiencing and passing on joy was a way of life a conscious practical pedagogical choice. For me, a boy was always a boy, his deep need being to be happy, free, to play. I found it natural that as a priest for the young I should pass on to them the good and happy news of the Gospel. Whoever possesses Jesus lives in joy. And I could not have done this with forbidding looks and brusque and stand-offish tactics. The young needed to understand that for me cheerfulness was a very serious thing indeed! (They needed to understand that) the playground was my library, my teacher's podium where I was both teacher and pupil. (They needed to understand that) joy is the basic law of youthfulness. You now understand the importance I gave to celebrating feasts, be they sacred or profane: They had enormous pedagogical import and spoke to the heart. I saw the benefits of theatre, music, song. I used to organise the Autumn walks down to the very last detail. I still recall today how it was: We set out into the countryside with the band up front, were welcomed by parish priests, the important citizens of the place who gave us lodging and fed us daily. These were busy days: Visits to important persons, morning and evening celebrations, musical exhibitions, theatrical improvisations on hastily erected stages in the main square. An endless laughter. Laughter that also left a memory of serene joy. I showed the boys, and through them the good townsfolk, that “serving God goes well together with honest cheerfulness”.
In 1847 I printed a book on Christian upbringing, The Companion of Youth. I lost many hours of sleep putting it together. The first words my boys read were these: “The first and principle trick which the devil usually uses to separate the young from virtue is to have them think that serving the Lord consists in a melancholic life far from every pleasure and enjoyment. It is not so, my dear boys. I would like to teach you a way of Christian living that can make you happy and content at the same time, pointing out to you what are the real enjoyments and pleasures... This is the purpose of this little book, serving the Lord and keeping cheerful”.
As you see, joy took on a deep religious significance for me. In my educational approach there was a balanced mixture of the sacred and the profane, nature and grace. It did not take long for the results to show so much so that in certain autobiographical notes that I felt almost obliged to write, I could say: “Drawn in by this mixture of devotions, games, outings, each one became so affectionate that not only were they absolutely obedient to my commands but were anxious for me to give them something that they had to do”.
The experience convinced me that “a sad saint is an unattractive, unconvincing saint”. I spoke about joy, not about being reckless or superficial. For me joy headed directly for optimism, loving, childlike trust in a provident God; it was a concrete response to the love with which God surrounds and embraces us; it was also the result of courageous acceptance of life's touch demands. And I used say this with an image: “To pick roses, you know, you have to deal with thorns; but there is always a rose with the thorns”.
I wasn't content with the boys just being cheerful. I wanted them to spread this atmosphere of festivity, enthusiasm, love of life; I wanted them to be builders of hope and joy, Missionaries to other young people through an apostolate of cheerfulness. A contagious apostolate.
I would insist: “A bit of Paradise fixes up everything”. And with this simple expression, something I often heard from my mother's lips, I pointed out an attitude that went beyond the fragility of human contingencies; I opened up a path to the future, to eternity, teaching them that “life's thorns will become flowers in eternity”.
So my dear brothers and sisters, how much I have wanted to share with you today, to encourage your commitment and dedication to contemplating Don Bosco as the educator and offering the young the Gospel of joy through a pedagogy of kindness.
Fr Pascual Chávez V., SDB
Colle Don Bosco – 16 August 2012