Fr Carlo Nanni, sdb
1. Young people “the substance” of Don Bosco’s life
Don Bosco’s life project was very much a unified one: service to the young. He carried it out firmly and perseveringly amidst obstacles and labours and with the sensitivity of a generous heart. “He took no step, he said no word, he took up no task that was not directed to the saving of the young …Truly the only concern of his heart was for souls” (C. 21) His life was completely directed and lived through the “da mihi animas… of the young”. This led him to bear strong affection for the young: “It is enough for you to be young for me to love you very much” (Introd. to The Companion of Youth.). Salesian Constitution 20 reminds us:
“Under the guidance of Mary his teacher, Don Bosco lived with the boys of the first oratory a spiritual and educational experience which he called the "Preventive System". For him this was a spontaneous expression of love, inspired by the love of a God who provides in advance for all his creatures, is ever present at their side and freely gives his life to save them.
2. Education as a theological mystery
So we can understand Don Bosco’s educational experience well it would help us if we understood the profound meaning of education: the “mystery of education”.
The educational relationship – central focus of education – like all interpersonal, group, community relationships, finds its deepest reality in the mystery of life, of people, their “ineffable” inwardness, their freedom and deep interpersonal dynamics (The human being is a hearth for freedom, and therefore remains obscure like the centre of the flame: E. Mounier) .
Don Bosco’s educational and pastoral experience, interpreted in the light of the mystery of the Incarnation, allows us to understand the educational relationship more deeply.
It leads us to seeing and living it not only by having young people (student or students as partners; the individual, in the image and likeness of God, model of the “little ones of the Kingdom” which the Gospel speaks about), but more profoundly it invites us to see the educational relationship and then try to live it as a common way of living and growing together, teachers and students, inasmuch as we are all “sons and daughters in the Son”: in other words seeing it as a relationship of Christian fellowship made possible by Jesus Christ (despite personal differences, differences of status, role and function) and as a realisation, in time, of the mystery of life and Trinitarian relationship: Christ in us and with us, through the Spirit, in communion with God the Father (cf. Gal 4:4-7; Rom 8:14-17; 1 Jn 3:1-5; Jn 1:12) .
More specifically, it can allow us to see and consider the educational relationship and various kinds of educational communities as a communion of life and expression of the mystery of the Church, inasmuch as we are teachers and students, and all “members of the Body of Christ who is the Church” (as St Paul tells us in many of his writings) or another way of putting it, we are within it as the “sacrament of salvation of and for the world”.
[Cf. The icon of the education game = a team game, all together, those educating and those being educated “in the game” of growing up, the other, in common, each with his or her own role and function (not so much the “centrality of the child” which risks objectifying them, preventing them from playing an active part in their own growth)].
Christian-inspired education does not diminish the consistency and validity of the “good life” project (Don Bosco’s “good Christians and upright citizens”), indicated as the aim of our common educational activity, but integrates it and and lifts it to the level of a complete model for humanity as presented in history through Christ, the incarnate and risen Word (cf. Eph 4:13 and no. 22 of GS); and recomposes our historical existence as being within the history of salvation, which finds its beginnings in God’s creative plan and which, in the already, thanks to Jesus, the energy and hope of the world, reaches out towards the Kingdom of God, in which the human yearning for complete freedom, and communion with God finds satisfaction. The educational task becomes a specific way of achieving this at the level of personal formation, something we want everyone to have in its completeness.
3. The preventive system, “the golden way” of living the mystery of our filial experience
When placed within this set of ideas, Don Bosco’s preventive system becomes much more than an idea (= preventing and not repressing cf. Giuseppe Lombardo Radice) or a method ( = reason, religion, loving-kindness).
It is these things. But for us who are Don Bosco’s sons and daughters it is much more.
It is – C. 20 already quoted tells us – “a way of living and of handing on the Gospel message, and of working with and through the young for their salvation. It permeates our approach to God, our personal relationships, and our manner of living in community through the exercise of a charity that knows how to make itself loved”.
If we live this in “the mystery of our sonship” then for us too it will be possible to be like Don Bosco was, “contemplatives in action”, “living as “seeing him who is invisible” (cf. C. 12 and 21).
If it is true that “the Christian of the future will either be a mystic or will not even be a Christian” (K. Rahner, Nuovi saggi, Roma 1968, p. 24), then it is clear that for us Salesian men and women there is no escape: if we want to be Christians in this century in which we are living, there is no other “mystical way” for us: education, lived as part of the mystery of sonship and Trinitarian life in time and history, in acting on behalf of humankind (= the young person) and for the salvation of the world: we today, like Don Bosco in his time. This is the personal and Salesian community style of the “grace of unity”.
4. A renewed way of thinking, living and being formed in the “Salesian spirit”
The Christian ethic is an ethic of sonship, of feeling that we are and acting as if we are “adopted” children: it is not an ethic of duty for duty’s sake, of the “politically correct”, of keeping to our agreement, but of living and acting as “children in the Son”, in love and mercy.
Christian sonship allows us to better understand, practise with some sense of satisfaction, and be formed joyfully in the kinds of things that are the cornerstone of the Salesian spirit, those attitudes and virtuous ways which are the substance of Salesian being and action.
Here too I come back to the Salesian Constitutions (Chapter 2, “The Salesian spirit” nos.10-21). After pointing out that the Christ of the Gospel is the source of our spirit, it indicates at the same time what these “virtuous” ways and behaviours are:
But before all this there is what C. 39 says: “The practice of the Preventive System demands a fundamental disposition on our part: an empathy with the young and a willingness to be with them: “Here in your midst I feel completely at home; for me, living means being here with you.” This is the basis for the “virtuous skills” listed earlier and is the prime strategy for Salesian educational activity.
An elderly Salesian, Fr Pietro Gianola, used say that we need “voler bene, volere il bene, volerlo bene, facendolo bene!” which is difficult to translate while retaining the play on words, but essentially means “love, love doing good, love it a lot, by doing it well.”
But this is also because the ultimate purpose is:
“Do you want to do something good? Educate the young.
“Do you want to do something holy? Educate the young.
“Do you want to do something very holy? Educate the young.
“Do you want to do something divine? Educate the young.
Amongst divine things this is the most divine of all!” (Don Bosco, MB, XIII, 629).
And the real and final end of all is “so that they may have life and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10)
Sam: “It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something”.
Frodo: “What are we holding onto, Sam?”.
Sam: “That there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo... and it's worth fighting for!”
(From the film "The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers").
And I believe it: "That there’s some good in the world"and this is why I try to "fight the good fight" every day! I believe it and I’m telling you through a few sketches based on real life: young people who have helped me to grow (and are still helping me) as a human being and as a Salesian Cooperator, young people you can stake your life on. If spirituality is a way of living the Gospel and the Gospel is the Good News of how we encounter Jesus, for me his face is to be seen in so many youngsters who, to use the "Little Prince’s" words, have "domesticated" me.
I think of Stefania who died of leukemia when she was 20, but who, some days earlier, wanted to greet all those who had been with her. On her bed in her room, wasted physically by the disease, she never ceased to smile, told me not to be too tough on my pupils, and asked me some of the most difficult questions I had ever heard: “Prof, will I still suffer in Heaven?”.
Or I think of Giada who like on every Monday was helping me with volunteer work with migrants or the homeless, and was given 5 euro by a poor old man who was so happy that he had been offered some support, almost as if she were a grandchild. From then on that note was framed and hung up in her room to remind her what we should live by.
Or I think of Gianmaria who I discovered smoking in the toilets each day. I would have torn up at least 50 of her cigarettes; but then she never fails to ring me on any festive occasion to wish me all the best.
I think of Milena who after a difficult day at school in one class, came up to me in the corridor, thumped me on the shoulders and said with a big smile: “It’s OK, prof!”.
I think too of Gianni who one morning while the oratory were at camp, and seeing me worried because it was raining, said: “Marco, what are you worried about? What’s important is that the sun is shining inside us”.
I think of Mohamed, whom I got to know one night under a portico, and he had just arrived in a boat: seeing he wasn’t doing too well we offered him some extra hot pasta but after taking the first lot he wouldn’t accept the second, saying: “No thanks. God will still be around tomorrow!”
I think of Gaetano who was living in a rough part of town and was taking part in our oratory activities: after games were over I met up with his mother who would normally not come in. Her son had a bit of a reputation for being wild and she had little good to say about him. But when she came up to me I heard her say: “So what’s he been up to today the little ratbag?”. I answered calmly, smiling: “Well done! Your son has been excellent. We are really happy with him”. His mother couldn’t believe her ears, then began to cry and emrbaced Gaetano. I asked her why she was crying and she replied: “I am crying because it is the first time in 12 years that someone has said my son is a good boy and they are happy with him”.
I can think of so many past pupils who are amazed and can’t say thanks enough when I phone them to wish them happy birthday. I think of Rosario, known as Saro, who all the leaders had to tell off at the oratory, but nobody for months on end had ever asked him what is real name was. I think of night time hours spent chatting on social media with Chiara who felt that nobody liked her and kept bringing up everything she ate.
And I think of Giuseppe, a young past pupil who’s dad had died, but has a degree today and has published an anthology of poems, thus realising his own little dream.
So every life is a great story and one that really counts and in order to survive we have to have something or Someone to hang on to. This despite everything, there is always something good that it is worth getting involved with! Don Bosco chose to focus on the good he found in every boy, starting from those who were the least and encountering them with the face of the Risen Lord, a face that showed kindness and joy. Do we just look on and admire what others are doing? Certainly in some cases it is the Institutions that need to take care of things, but is it not also true that the first "institution" is the human being, and that it won’t be Institutions that go to heaven or some other place below? If we are not present there will be others ready to rob peace from young hearts, offering them something cheap and nasty.
In each of the "Education territories" we are called to be there with a ‘Risen’ look, the joy of someone who has met Jesus Christ, because – if we are sad – it would mean we have met someone else! Would Jesus have ever been a sad man? Would he have ever followed up a young man with a long face? Would he have never spent some time with him?
And me? Am I one of those who when someone asks "how are you?" answers "could be better" or do I say "Good! Thank the Lord for everything"? I am sure that good is more contagious than evil; I believe that a whole forest growing can make more noise than one tree falling; I believe that someone born round can die square despite all the laws of geometry; and I try to see that every dream becomes a project of life.
Allow me, finally, to speak of Heaven because our true mission is heaven starting from this earth! I think we all want to go to Heaven, though maybe not immediately. Me too! We will not go to Heaven because Pope Francis is a witness, lives poorly and is concerned about the poor, and it is not enough to say to St Peter: “We are friends of Pope Francis”. Maybe it will work a bit like in certain discos or places where we can only enter if accompanied, where women get in for free! We will get to Heaven only if accompanied by young people whom we have liked and helped save; they will be our pass, our entry ticket.
Best wishes for this new year and the rest of your life and keep your feet on the ground, your gaze on heaven, sleeves rolled up for work; our mission is to be happy but not to be happy alone!
Sr. Piera Ruffinatto
The topic I was asked to speak briefly about might initially sound a little strange. It would appear to upend the logic we are usually asked to consider when thinking of contemplation/action; consecration/mission.
But actually our perception of reality, conditioned as it is by linear and temporal logic, does not help our understanding. It is dominated by complexity and what is happening around us. The better approach seems to be a systematic one, interpreting reality by observing the relationship between the things that make it up and the transformations happening when one thing influences the other, and vice versa.
If we filter Don Bosco’s spirituality and mission through this new way of looking at things it can help us see new links which we can offer the men and women of our time who are looking for a unifying principle for an often fragmented and disordered life.
It is also useful to clear the ground of preconceptions tied to the two terms spirituality and mission, almost as if they were opposed to one another. In reality, when we talk of spirituality from a Christian point of view we refer to a life style, a way of thinking of ourselves in relation to God, others and the world. Spirituality is a way of understanding our life within a framework that is bigger than us and goes beyond us. It is “being” (=spirituality) that is not opposed to “doing” (=mission); on the contrary it contains it and justifies it. This, it seems to me, can be the context in which Don Bosco’s educative spirituality best fits.
This brief talk does not allow me to do more than provide some brief hints, a simple rough outline whose boundaries are even difficult for the experts to determine. Scholars of the saint note how exploring Don Bosco’s spirituality is anything but a simple operation. He could be compared to the ocean deeps, easy to navigate on the surface but whose depth is hidden to anyone approaching from the outside. We are left dazzled by its awe-inspiring works or results, and do not make the real effort to penetrate the solid and profound spirituality behind them which justified their origins and style.
It is only by beginning with the relationship between Don Bosco and God that he can be understood, since he belongs to that rare category of men and women whose activity in the church and the world depends totally on their being anchored in eternity, in communion with God, which gives stability and consistency to their life.
Peter Stella, tells us that God is the noonday sun that shines on Don Bosco’s life, dominates his mind, justifies his activity. Whatever his state of mind, he senses and contemplates God as Creator and Lord, the beginning of and reason for everything. It is God whom he first presents to young people in his Companion of Youth and to adults in the Key of Paradise.
Don Bosco’s God is a Father, rich in prevenient and provident mercy, who never abandons his children. Don Bosco is absolutely certain of being loved and guided by the divine action, and therefore the instrument of the Lord for a mission that is not his but comes from on high.
It is here that we find the link between spirituality and mission, almost a fusion inasmuch as mission – being the instrument of God for the salvation of the young – is a source of joy and trepidation for him, just as it was for the biblical prophets who could not avoid the divine will, not only out of reverential fear, but also because they were convinced of God’s goodness towards all his children.
The mission understood thus becomes the unifying principle in life because it brings together emotional, intellectual and volitional energies, along with physical strength, directing them to an ideal, the fulfilment of the revealed project. This is the strategic meaning of the vocational dream at nine years of age, and which Don Bosco repeated at important moments in his life and which seals his life at the end when, in the Sacred Heart Basilica in Rome, he “understands” the deep meaning of all the events in his life as a pastor and educator of the young.
Fr Michael Rua knew the deepest movements of Don Bosco’s heart and contemplated its beauty, transparency, summing it up wonderfully in these words: “Don Bosco took no step, said no word, he took up no task that was not directed to the saving of the young. He let others store up treasures, seek pleasures or chase after honours. Truly the only concern of his heart was for souls, and he pronounced the da mihi animas by deeds, not just in words.”
The da mihi animas, then, is Don Bosco’s breath of life, the fixed melody in his continuous prayer. It reveals his style of relationship with God, his filial and familiar relationship with Him, meaning it was possible and indeed essential for him not only to speak of God but with God about things closest to his heart and with which He (God) was most bound up with, being the Creator: humankind, or the most special portion of humankind which is youth.
Don Bosco’s religious spirit is pervaded by faith and trust in God, who is full of mercy. His seeking souls expresses his desire to deal with young people, not only to give them to God, because in reality God already possesses them, but rather to make them aware of their deepest identity as children of God, revealing to each of them the immense love of predilection with which God loves them. More than handing them over to God, he wants them to give themselves to God in mutual love.
This explains why, as Don Bosco often said, without religion the Salesian mission cannot be realised according to God’s will. Before being something of human initiative, education is the work of God’s grace which, through the sacraments, regenerates the young person, conforms him to his entire truth as someone called to live this way, but in the expectation of a future life. The expression “saving souls” can only be understood in this spiritual context where salvific action is always and only God’s action, and all human activity is in service of that.
The choice of “the only concern of his heart” leads Don Bosco to “pronounce the da mihi animas in deeds” and not only with words, that is, to embody his faith in life, his spirituality in mission. Thoughts, words, gestures, works are all oriented to the salvation of the young and a unifying and harmonising activity involving all dimensions of his being, thus expressing the mystical aspect of the mission from which it springs, without interruption: let others accumulate treasure, seek pleasures, chase after honours.
Rooted in the fullness of God’s being, Don Bosco goes beyond having, power, knowledge and appearances. They have an attraction for those who allow themselves to be dominated by the ‘old’ man. He shows how his being is the dwelling place of God. He learned from Cafasso, his guide and teacher, that an apostolic person, before speaking about God or doing things for God, must live for God. His being is for God, a total gift of himself into the hands of the One whom he trusts unconditionally.
Trust in God is the spiritual logic permeating the Memoirs of the Oratory, one of Don Bosco’s most valuable autobiographical documents, through which he wants to instruct his sons on the relationship that people who consecrate themselves to the good of the young in a mission that is a genuine spiritual ministry, have with God.
For Don Bosco the true Salesian cultivates this profound connection with God through prayer and expresses it outwardly in kindness, permeating all activity with one great purpose: the glory of God and the salvation of souls. It is by virtue of this that all the rest is reshaped, becomes “worthless” by comparison with winning young souls for Christ.
Those who have best understood Don Bosco are those who have been able to penetrate the mystery of this vocational unity, the basis of Salesian spirituality. Fr Philip Rinaldi, for example, notes how Don Bosco had “identified perfectly identified his external, tireless, absorbing, vast activity, so full of responsibility with his inner life that began with a sense of God’s presence and which gradually became so actual, persistent and alive that it was perfect union with God. In this way he realised in himself the most perfect of states which is practical contemplation, ecstasy of action, consuming him to the very last, in ecstatic serenity, for the salvation of souls”.
Ecstasy of action – a happy expression then taken up again by Egidio Viganò – expresses this successful unity between spiritual and apostolic life which is holiness and which becomes the purpose, content and method of the Preventive System. Don Bosco revealed God to the young because he was in God and those who approached him underwent the beneficial influence of his own being all caught up in God and at the same time he was present to them through his kind and loving attentiveness.
This “being with God” of someone who experiences ecstasy of action is no flight from reality and its problems. On the contrary it means living habitually in God and discovering the same reality in Him but at a higher, more profound level, where it can be held and transfigured.
This, in my opinion, is one of the meanings of the expression with which the liturgy celebrates Don Bosco’s holiness; a pastor with a heart “as large as the sands on the seashore”. His heart, habitually fixed on God, was continually open to the young, like a welcoming home in which they could find a father’s embrace, a friendly look, a brother’s word.
This heart we could say, was the true ‘workshop’ of the Preventive System, the secret of the Salesian e-ducere meaning that any contact with his goodness and holiness sparked a desire in young people’s hearts to be better, while through his pedagogical love he reawakened in them an awareness of their dignity as children of God created for communion and love, and set up the preconditions for personalities to grow that would be capable of engaging with the world responsibly and in solidarity.
We could go on with this kind of reflection because Don Bosco’s heart is truly an unfathomable ocean of inexhaustible riches. But we have the certainty that the Father and Founder of our Family continues to live the da mihi animas for us and with us the so that in this prayer which then becomes life, lies the guarantee of evangelical authenticity of the Salesian charism for the Church, the inexhaustible source of identity and fruitfulness for Salesian men and women today.
The da mihi animas is an appeal to us to live our life authentically by unifying it around the ideal of the salvation of the young. It is not simply giving something of ourselves, some of our time, know-how and talents through professional education. It is not so much “giving what is ours”, as it is offering ourselves to God for Him to use us as He wishes and, through Mary, to lead us to the field of our mission.
The da mihi animas lived in what we do, embodied in our life, protects us from the risk of becoming educational bureaucrats dominated by functionalism and efficiency, and confers on the Salesian mission the transforming effectiveness of authentic relationships so that today, as before, it may enlighten those who are zealous.
The da mihi animas is also the principle of ongoing conversion, the hidden spring that pushes us to leave it to others to accumulate wealth, seek pleasure, run after honours, and urges us to abandon compromise and mediocrity to be freer each day to live the Salesian mission in simplicity and temperance.
The da mihi animas finally, by becoming the unifying principle of our life, preserves us from getting lost in little things and confers solidity and depth on our spirituality, helping us to channel our efforts towards the ideal. The salvation of the young becomes our life’s purpose, the source welling up in our tranquil way of doing things, pervaded by the kind of peace and serenity which shone joyfully from Don Bosco’s face. The da mihi animas, while helping us rediscover the meaning of what we are doing, also shows us how to do it. It is a ‘doing’ that comes from ‘being’. It is being present to ourselves, so that focused on the God who dwells in us we can at the same time be present to others – especially the young – with loving and respectful attentiveness, a profound listening ear and sincere benevolence; present to history so that we can contemplate in it the fulfilment of God’s providential activity.
In a world dominated by communication which is as fast as it is superficial, where we are dispossessed by our capacity for attention to the present moment, always tending as we do to a near or remote future dictated by our calendars, the da mihi animas helps us to dwell in the fleeting moment but knowing how to give priority to whatever deserves it. If the young find this kind of person in us they will be less inclined to take refuge in virtual worlds in order to experience the warmth lacking in their empty homes, because they will have finally found a home, a new Valdocco inhabited by fathers and mothers, friends, brothers and sisters who live where they live, who go looking for them in their “boundary lives”, experience the same crosses as they do, and bring them the Gospel of salvation, kindness and joy.
It is this, after all, that the Church, through our Holy Father Francis, asks of all Christians and consecrated people. It is this that Don Bosco, our Father and Founder, wants as we approach the bicentenary of his birth: that is, that he can bring about a rebirth in the hearts of his sons and daughters and, through their lives completely given to God for the salvation of the young, can shine out and set the world on fire.
 Cf ivi 24-26.
 Letter of Fr Michael Rua to Salesians, 24 August 1894, as quoted in SDB Constitutions C. 21.
 Rinaldi Filippo, Conferenze e scritti, Leumann (Torino), Elledici 1990, 144.