The fascination of “res gesta”
Don Bosco’s life can be easily summed up by declining the verb ‘to do’ in detail.
From his dream at nine years of age right up to his worn-through cassock on 31 January 1888, the Saint’s life was an ongoing succession of things to do, fields to plough, freedoms to be brought into play, behaviours to pass on, teachings to give, to the extent that the easiest and most common way of discovering who he was, was to simply let the stories, anecdotes speak for themselves, and write up, as his first disciples did, the daily warp and woof of his life.
His days were like a river in spate, like a good farmer’s day, never idle, always caught up in a thousand things to do, and forever looking to what still needed to be done.
Don Bosco was a man of action. When he described himself and his work, or when he tried to translate that into teachings for his sons, his Salesians, he was only able to tell a story. But an idea, an intuition, a spirituality was both veiled and unveiled in those facts and lay behind them.
Maybe here too was where the fascination, the sway he had over his boys also lay: a Saint who was never still, just like kids are never still, who preached not so much viva voce but by what he was doing, and he caught them up in a story which little by little became their story, as it now becomes our story.
Don Bosco is a man who brought freedom into play, not just his own but his boys’. His educational approach meant setting up an environment where freedom could be exercised and in this way could grow into holiness. He was a preacher of life that had to be lived and played, where the rules for getting to heaven became so easy to follow, but they also shaped a young person’s freedom so that he or she could take on the life of the good Christian and upright citizen which can barely be fully described in words but needs to be seen and experienced.
He knew as few others have known, how to express the fundamental truth that Christ taught us, that truth is in the first place our freedom exercised for the Father; that is, it is not an idea we have to think about but a relationship, and an obedience to everything: freedom like Christ himself in person as the contour and example of all other kinds of freedom/persons in the world.
There he was at nine years of age, somewhat fearful, given the dream which was probably the most important in his lifetime, seeing himself being given a field to plough as a symbol of his future work as an educator. He was not given a book to read, no sermon to learn off by heart, or ideas to put into practice, not even simple commandments, but a “trade”, a craft, in the noble sense of a “vocation/mission” to be accomplished by the sweat of his brow and with the tenacity and humility that would mark him out for the remainder of his life as he abandoned himself to Providence.
Again, this “doing” was even part of the way he saw God, felt him in his life, and was the way he experienced and lived his faith in the provident omnipresence of the Father who is precisely God’s ‘being there’ like the God of Moses in the burning bush; this being there of a freedom exercised for for me, a fatherly ‘doing’ of God’s in my regard, a divine love not made up of empty words, because when God speaks he creates, and his presence is both effective and affective. God can in turn be love, forgiveness, reproof, call, presence, task, …
Don Bosco’s sons too, were all caught up in this doing, which is not just activity without meaning or blind, enervating activism, but the noble acts of someone with true purpose, a truth to be spoken and to act on because it has its roots in the Providence which Don Bosco trusted in so much.
Like them, we too as a Salesian Family are caught up in this story. It is possible at times that we have given too much emphasis to anecdote, losing the true meaning of the simple deeds recounted, and deceiving ourselves by thinking that to tell the story of our founding father it might be enough to simply talk about what he did, lining things up one after the other, building up a triumphalistic pile of part truths and anecdotes.
The verb ‘to do’ is a dazzling and distracting one: it says everything but at the same time reflects a human freedom which is not fully transparent. Divine truth does not shine through, due to our sinfulness; our doing hides what lies behind it and can almost fool us into thinking it is “enough to be doing something”and that in such an exercise of freedom, this time without real meaning, there is everything.
The three years of preparation for the bicentenary we have been moving through have taught us instead that there is another way to go. We began with ‘doing’: Don Bosco’s life and passion for education, two different levels of activity which, if not well considered, always seem to be about external doing, what appears on the outside, his praxis for us to follow. But now by the third year we discover there is something much more than this, a spirituality. If we do not turn over the soil of Don Bosco’s life more thoroughly with our plough, going beyond first appearances, we will miss the best clods and pickings. We will stop at an empty moralism that will not bring holiness.
Pastoral charity: beyond doing
I have offered this rather long introduction because I believe we need somehow to recall the deeper roots of what I now want to say.
There is by now no doubt that pastoral charity is at the heart of the Salesian charism and of Don Bosco himself. It is what we now use to sum up everything he did, that particular kind of holiness he invented in the Church as he became the good shepherd for the young people he came across. It is also the core and fulcrum of what he left to us, his sons and daughters, and what we need to imitate if we want to realise the founder’s holiness today in this his bicentenary. The bicentenary is not a work of archaeology but an injection of life and holiness in our Family.
But when we start to speak of pastoral charity, legitimately asking ourselves what it is and how we should practise it today, thinking of it as facets that Don Bosco threw light on and how these today are still life and holiness for the Church of the third millennium, the discussion seems to slide almost too quickly into “what we have to do” — towards moral tendencies of pastoral charity which, if not kept in check, soon become unrealistic and a simple outward imitation of gestures and things which have little to do with the heart of the problem.
Pastoral charity isn’t a heap of things to do or activities, is not a list of tasks to be completed or pastoral strategies or educational techniques; above all it is a person, the very person of Christ. Pastoral charity is a kind of freedom, the faith of the Good Shepherd which also took the shape of the faith and freedom of St John Bosco.
Fr Ceria has pointed out this difference clearly in his chapter “Man of faith” in what is probably his best-known book: “Don Bosco with God”.
Every Christian is so by faith, and baptism is the door to faith. Faith is the basis of the supernatural life and what binds the soul to God; this faith is integrated by hope and charity. But it is one thing to be a believer, something else to be a man of faith. The believer practises his faith, more or less, while the man of faith lives by faith and lives it with the intention of achieving a deep and constant union with God. Don Bosco was such a man.
To be honest, everything we have seen up to now and much of what we have yet to see is fhis aith in practice: thoughts, emotions, undertakings, intrepid activity, sorrows, sacrifices, pious practices, his spirit of prayer were all flames springing from his faith which burned within; it seems then that we either have to repeat what we have already said or retract the idea that he is a leader in faith. Nevertheless in this extensive field there is still something to glean. Does not a life so constantly and intensely animated by the breath of faith offer reason for spending some time on the first theological virtue? There will be no lack of characteristic items worthy of highlighting.
Amongst all the items called in for the [beatification] process, we could say that those who had lived close to Don Bosco the longest were competing to highlight his faith. Their testimonies could all be focused in the following formula: our Saint was keen to know the truths of our faith, firmly believed them, was fervent in professing them, zealous in inculcating them, strong in defending them. Worthy of special note is the testimony with which Don Rua began his deposition. He put it this way: “He was a man of faith. Instructed as a child by his wonderful mother in the principle truths of our holy religion he was hungry for that faith” (Ceria, Don Bosco with God, Chapter 14).
“Thoughts, emotions, undertakings, intrepid acts, sorrows, sacrifices, pious practices, his spirit of prayer were all little flames of fire springing from the faith” that Don Bosco was “hungry” for.
In these short paragraphs Fr Ceria focuses precisely on the problem we are now facing. After dedicating earlier chapters to describing what Don Bosco did during his life, he now comes to the core of it and this is not just one more thing to do, but a faith to be lived: pastoral charity.
The problem is not so much one of identifying what are the things to do in order to somehow imitate the pastoral charity of Christ and Don Bosco, but what is the innermost shape, the most intimate form, let us say, of the freedom of the Saint and of the Son of God, so that it could then be expressed in such a way that charity is what we effectively see from the outside. A charity that becomes loving-kindness, which can easily be spoken of and imitated in episodes, rules, nice little tales which are simple enough to be seen, simple to do, easy to imitate yet so profound as to be indicators of the faith and spirituality that Don Bosco has somehow hidden therein, so intimately were they bound up with God.
The heart of pastoral charity, then, lies precisely in communion with God and the one who could teach him this was Mary most holy, as we see in the dream at nine years of age. It was not a case of copying her actions, which would be largely impossible to do anyway, but of learning that absolute intimacy with her Son which characterised her entire life.
Pastoral charity: the freedom of the new law
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd is one who lays down his life for his sheep. The hired man, since he is not the shepherd and the sheep do not belong to him, abandons the sheep and runs away as soon as he sees a wolf coming, and then the wolf attacks and scatters the sheep; this is because he is only a hired man and has no concern for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for my sheep. And there are other sheep I have that are not of this fold, and these I have to lead as well. They too will listen to my voice, and there will be only one flock and one shepherd. The father lovesme because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it form me; I lay it down of my own free will, and as it is in my power to lay it down, so it is in my power to take it up again; and this is the command I have been given by my Father. (Jn 10:11-18)
The way in which Christ describes his own pastoral charity in Chapter 10 of John’s Gospel is exactly what inspires us to say that charity is not an assembly of deeds, but a way of life and faith.
This is a long way from giving his disciples a Rule on what it means to look after the sheep, but this does not mean that Christ’s charity was any the less concrete. Jesus is far from the Ten Commandments here, far from listing laws to be executed — as far as the Old Testament Law is from the new law of the Risen Son. Imitating him does not mean practising a range of things, but taking on a kind of life, one of self-giving, which is the same life as the Father’s in heaven.
This life can be declined in a thousand different ways, and this becomes even more evident than a list of things to do. The “imagination” in the gift of self is as enormous, as endless as is the Father’s imagination, but the core of it is a particular way of involving the freedom of the individual in relationship with God: doing it in such a way that my freedom is exercised like the freedom of the Father and the Son crucified and risen for his brothers and sisters, for his sheep.
In Salesian terms: while there might have been literally dozens of rules Don Bosco put together during his lifetime to instruct his sons so they also could be good shepherds for so many youngsters, they can never exhaust the wide range of possibilities of love, the consecration of Don Bosco’s freedom to Providence and that nobly dressed Man in the dream when he was nine. Pastoral charity was the everything that marked out his life, not made up of smoke and empty words but gestures and deeds. The possibilities for imitating Don Bosco’s loving-kindness are as broad as Providence wants the Salesian Family to be, but the core of these possibilities is for everyone and always the gift of self for young people and the ever new imitation of the Good Shepherd as he imitated him.
Pastoral charity, then, is the shape of God’s life, of Christ’s faith in the Father, of the freedom of the Son who gives himself to his own to lead them to God and save them from sin, because this was the way the Father always gave himself to Him, inspired by the Spirit. It is Don Bosco’s way of acting for his sons, the root of his apostolic imagination and the liveliness of his days, but especially the heart of his being and living: his complete conformity to the Good Shepherd.
Don Bosco’s pastoral charity then, which thanks to the gift of the Spirit is still part of the life and holiness of the Church today, has not yet exhausted the forms in which it can be embodied and in which it can give itself on the cross for its sheep. It is responsibility, a profound, intimate and spiritual response and therefore something outwardly evident, filled with activity and cheerfulness. It is also his intimate communion with the Father and the Son to whom his heavenly Mother, like the good teacher she was, led him throughout his life, to the complete giving of himself: “A French medical celebrity in the 1880s, visiting him while he was ill at Marseilles, said that Don Bosco’s body was a worn-out piece of clothing, worn day and night, no longer able to be patched up and fixed to preserve it as was once the case.” (Ceria, Don Bosco with God, Chapter 8).
Pastoral charity: an exercise of consecrated charity
We need to thank Don Bosco: it would be impossible to list all the things we would need to do to become like him.
Whoever seeks to define his way of exercising pastoral charity by deeds alone will always be accused of leaving something out. Too numerous were the trades he learned, the activities he founded, the records he established, the letters he wrote. Too strong his physique, his moral intelligence, his occasions for prayer; too many are the volumes of the Biographical Memoirs for all this to be repeated in the life of just one person who follows after him.
Thank you, Don Bosco, for discouraging us from imitating you in doing, but encouraging us instead to imitate you in charity, which has so much to do before it consumes an entire life.
“In time you will understand everything”: just as only Christ on the cross could do the Father’s will and breathe the Spirit; just as only the Risen Lord could give peace, and the Gospels could only be written after Easter. In time: only after pastoral charity has been practised, meaning at the end of a life spent and given to the image of Christ crucified, would he understand that the field he ploughed was the right one, that the results truly came, that after the pergola came the garden without thorns and that the Family could now extend from Santiago to Peking.
Can we today, in our various forms of consecrated life, also be the Good Shepherd for the young people entrusted to us?
“Certainly”, Don Bosco would say, and indeed he never tired of retelling the lives of people close to him in whom he had glimpsed Christ’s concrete charity made part of their daily lives.
And yet Don Bosco always knew there was a core in all this variety of possibilities.
It is possible for everyone in the Church to imitate Christ and therefore for everyone in the Salesian Family it is possible to imitate pastoral charity in the style of Don Bosco’s charism, but here too there has to be people who, in the real circumstances of living out of their daily existence, imitate and follow the life of Christ the Good Shepherd as closely as possible in concrete form and for its final end.
This is why, as the central nucleus of the Salesian Family, not for its own merits but in shared responsibility for the plurality of vocations, there is consecrated life, so that we never lose the reference at the heart of everything which is the unique person of Christ in the concrete form in which he himself lived his way of life.
If Don Bosco’s pastoral charity was in imitation of the Son’s gift of himself in obedience to the Father and in the Salesian youthful style of our charism, it was evident for Don Bosco himself that this could be extended in a multiplicity of ways only to the extent that it was rooted in the unique form of the person of Christ. This is why he offered the same formula of holiness to all his boys but to some he offered it in the shape of consecrated life, so that the core would not be lost in the many, and the many would not forget that it was the unique result of Christ’s unique charity.
On the evening of 26 January 1854 we gathered in Don Bosco’s room: Don Bosco himself, Rocchietti, Artiglia, Cagliero and Rua; and he proposed with the help of the Lord and St Francis de Sales that we engage, with the help of God and of St Francis de Sales, in an experiment in the practical exercise of charity toward neighbour, in order eventually to make a promise and later, if possible and appropriate, a vow of it to the Lord. [...] From that evening the name Salesians was given to those who chose and would in the future choose to engage in such an exercise (MB V,9).
Having its source in the communion of the Son with the Father in the Spirit and taking its concrete shape from the way in which such communion of love becomes the incarnate Son’s gift of self, pastoral charity can only be a practical exercise of freedom recognised by a greater love which is able to give of itself in the thousand ways we need to do so in life, but, in its principal form, as a vow, that is as total consecration of self to being completely like Jesus and Don Bosco: the gift of oneself for the young.
I am a Salesian Cooperator, chief psychologist in the ‘re-attach the wings’ programme at Borgo Ragazzi Don Bosco.
Borgo Ragazzi Don Bosco opened in 1948 in Centocelle, a suburb of Rome, taking in sciuscià, or war orphans, whom the Salesians collected off the streets as Don Bosco did in Turin. I grew up at Borgo; I was born in that suburb and began attending the oratory. I then became a leader and soon after a Cooperator, along with my fiancée Agnese who was also a leader. I was 24 and she was just 20. In our discernment, guided by a Salesian who was our spiritual director, we grew as a couple and as a family, Salesians deep down, and we wanted to dedicate ourselves to less advantaged youngsters. So we began to collaborate with the reception centre for children who were there instead of receiving a prison sentence. This is why I gained a degree in psychology. Two years later we married and left as international volunteers with VIS. We were sent to Albania to work with an educative and pastoral community made up of sdbs, fmas and volunteers. We spent two years there, experiencing the problems of the civil war but also seeing miracle wrought through the application of the preventive system with young people who had no idea of God and no one to guide them. In this dangerous time we really felt we were “children in their mother’s arms”. When we returned re had no idea really what we would do, but knew that we wanted to continue in this spirit, while at the same time we had 4 children. We trusted and along the way our direction open up for us.
This introduction was necessary because my work now at Borgo comes out of life experience, from a missionary mandate, and a dream that Don Bosco put in both of our hearts. At the end of the 1990s the Salesian community at Borgo Ragazzi Don Bosco, at the request of the Province, began to rethink its presence in the area seeking to rediscover its fidelity to its original mandate: looking after the poorest youngsters in a way that was obviously adapted to our times. With a group of sdbs and laity we studied and prayed over a two year period at the end of which Providence played its part and we opened a family home for teenagers, offering them semi-autonomous arrangements, a movement of families that could be trusted and worked together, a centre for psychological help and, in 2008, a day centre at Termini where we had a group of experts working in Salesian way then shifted to Borgo.
At the moment, in the programme we call “Reattaching the wings” we take in more than 200 young people at risk each year, and there are some 30 staff and 100 volunteers. These particular activities for kids in trouble are linked with the rest of the work, and the oratory which is the heart and centre of all our vocational training.
Every day we have an experience not unlike St Paul writing in Hebrews and recalling the experience pf Abraham and Sarah: “remember always to welcome strangers, for by doing so some people have entertained angels without realising it” (Heb 13:2).That has become our motto and we often contemplate it when we bring in boys and girls but also many volunteers and families who play their part, including by taking some into the intimacy of their own homes. We have been aware that Don Bosco and Mary Help of Christians also bring us youngsters who have known and come across them in their countries of origin! Some time after taking them in we have learned that such a youngsters was already a child of Don Bosco!
We begin each day with the staff at the Reception centre by reading the Gospel of the day and with a passage taken from a book to do with Salesian formation for that year. We take it in turns to comment on this then entrust the day, the kids and our plans to Mary and the Lord, and then hand out tasks to people. How often it has happened that we have been able to contemplate that what we was experienced, seen, put up with or brought about by Don Bosco can be linked, mutatis mutandae, with what we experience today, beginning with his dreams, enthusiasm and decisiveness in doing good for young people whatever the cost. It is up to us then to tackle the day knowing that the Lord is there in whatever happens. In the staff room we have put up article 19 of the Salesian Constitutions: “The Salesian is called to be a realist and to be attentive to the signs of the times, convinced that the Lord manifests His will also through the demands of time and place. Hence his spirit of initiative: "In those things which are for the benefit of young people in danger or which serve to win souls for God, I push ahead even to the extent of recklessness.”
I am constantly aware that if Don Bosco had been a great educator but not a man of faith, not a saint, he could not have done the same things. My everyday experience of meeting people in terrible situations challenges me as an educator, psychologist, but especially as a human being and believer in the Risen Lord. It challenges me and forces me to go to the roots of my Faith so that I can give reasons for the hope that I am trying to lead those who feel they have no escape towards. Without Faith and Hope how could I, I often ask myself, believe in the possibility that every young person could change his or her life? Believe that in every young person – yes including those before me whom I look in the face and who get up to all kinds of things, despite so many failed attempts – there is some point accessible to good? That also amongst the so-called bad apples there can be good seed?
In his constant relationship with God Don Bosco found strength, reason, motivation. Through my relationship with God and feeling that I am loved in a unique way I can discover that the other is my brother and sister and that it is worth investing each day in loving my brother and sister in a special way, through encountering the other, encountering God. I am discovering that Don Bosco set up a community because only in community relationships can we celebrate our daily encounter with God.
The most difficult kids are a challenge to our faith, and the limit to our acceptance is in our ability to accept them, an ability we see grow to the extent that we trust in Him who loved these kids first and has entrusted them to us. These youngsters become our masters because in their eyes we glimpse God’s gaze. Through them we encounter Him. In their dreams we glimpse God’s plan for them. And walking with them we are constantly urged to grow in our capacity to love, grow in Faith and in Charity.
We have no experience of sheep and shepherds but we can contemplate the personalised educational plans for our kids in the family home and try out and try out yet again all our strategies to help them discover the personalised love of the Good Shepherd and the greatness of Don Bosco who chose Him as the icon for his Salesians, called to love each of them as God loves them.
The challenge then is to move from unconditional acceptance and from love that shows up for the kids as interest in them as human beings and in their story, to preparing them to encounter God. Here too Don Bosco was our teacher:we are aware – with the help of the recent Strennas of the Rector Major – that it is worth daring to do this.
The kids know we pray for them in the morning, speak to them about God and that we are interested in their religious affiliation when we take them in just as we are interested in the other aspects of their story. We invite them to be part of Salesian feasts, to send an sms to Don Bosco, to discuss faith in their groups and these little seeds prepare the ground. It is the Spirit who then suggests the way ahead to them and to us. At times we have to wait and seize occasions for moving from witness to proclamation.
We have retreats together where we involve them, and invite them to understand that we educate through words and deed but especially through who we are, the value we have within and that shine through or not apart from anything we do. It is by being with them, simply patiently, that we can seize occasions which present in order to reach their hearts.We become better witnesses knowing that through Don Bosco and his sons Providence has worked miracle after miracle and today it is up to us, in our little way, to continue with the same approach and the same Faith: the youngsters and their families are not ours, the works are not ours but we are instruments, through each one’s daily contribution, for Don Bosco’s charism and the memoirs of the Oratory to continue… Other chapters, other books, but the same chief characters: Providence, Mary Help of Christians, Don Bosco… the kids!
I was asked to tell you how I bear witness to the Salesian charism in the social network digital 'playground', so let me tell you of my experience in this arena. But firstly I would like to clarify something that many might take for granted, but I believe it is necessary to say: the playground with a capital P ('Cortile' or Courtyard would have been his term), so dear to Don Bosco, is primarily one of face to face relationships, the word in the ear, games, confidence. So I would never consider the world of social networks to be the only place for witness. Social networks for me are not a second life, nor are they something to be demonised. But they are a place I inhabit and which allow me to extend my witness beyond the oratory or where I physically live. And clearly it is always a good idea to pay good attention to the likely risks in this digital playground: spending too much time there, the amount of useless and even dangerous material found there, and the dangers that any one of us in daily life has to fight against. For us social networks are a tool with which we can be closer to young people in some way and by which we can bear witness, but this obviously must not take priority over face to face relationships; nor should we lower our guard where the pitfalls are concerned.
And just how do we get closer to young people through social networks? By seeing how important they are for them, paying attention to what they publish, reading what they say to their friends, looking at the photos they post. That is why I believe that for leaders and for whoever looks after young people, Facebook is important. From a sentence he writes, a link he publishes, or from his way of using it I can understand that 'piece' I am missing and that maybe in other day-to-day circumstances the youngster does not show me. I may understand that he needs to be helped to do things there a bit differently, and I can especially relaunch the relationship that I have with him outside Facebook.
Last year I was working for a cooperative in a project on youth activity, and I visited various senior high schools in the province of Venice. After we had finished the meetings at school many kids asked me to be friends on Facebook and I also asked them. This enabled me to see a slice of the younger population very different form the one I meet in the oratory or in my youth group. In particular I had something to do with a small group from Portogruaro whom I have continued to follow up on behalf of this project but only meeting them every fortnight for a couple of hours. Facebook has enabled me to discover some quite serious and worrying aspects of these kids' lives. It has let me see that this group is risking a lot by their lifestyle and amusements: alcohol, parties, and even problems with the local police... The photos that are tagged have let me understand things about them that I would have never understood by only seeing them every two weeks. It has launched a true and proper educational effort around these problems.
It has often happened that when I am working with a group of senior students, my hook into the relationship with some of them begins with something they have published – it might be a video of a song, a link to a telefilm. Don Bosco's line: “Love what the young love” fits the bill in these cases. The kids are hungry for confirmation by their elders and their peers and giving importance to what they publish is to respond at least in part, to this hunger. The aim is to look for a key to open the relationship. Obviously this relationship then has to be built up at the personal level but what is shared on the Web can be the departure point.
I mainly use Facebook and Twitter and I often think “What does someone looking at my account, my pages, think of me? Or better, does that person really understand me? Do they get a real and genuine picture of me?” This question of genuineness is fundamental: I would like to think that someone looking at my profile would have a clear idea of who I am, what I am involved in, my values, my life style. This is not just out of arrogance but to pass on the fact that this is what I experience, this is what I do at the oratory, this is why a choose social type studies, that I am happy. If the thing that marks us out as Christians and especially as Salesians is authentic joy and not just a passing moment of cheerfulness, then it is well that it should be transmitted through concrete things and through these tools too. I am firmly convinced that the Web is not an abstract place to be demonised and that it can be a place for apostolate. The Web is a place where I, if I choose the path of true authenticity and testimony, can make my voice heard. And perhaps with an intelligent little probe I can launch the discussion that, I must also say, is always best then taken up in person.
It is a challenge to successfully bear witness of Christian life in social networks. Here too Christian faith and the Church are under attack from links, videos, ideas that are often determined by false prejudices, some of which we are immersed in too. Unfortunately, given the speed of information and sharing times, these prejudices in digital space spread fearfully. My only hope is to be successful in saying, in my own small way, that there is something else, another way of seeing things. There is a fullness that we need to unearth. For example: some months ago I published the photos of the wedding of two of my dearest friends at the oratory, writing that their smiles were an expression of the happiness that comes from their faith as they went through engagement and now in their married lives. But their choice to spend their engagement in a deeply Christian way gave rise to many of the usual prejudices. But on the day of their wedding everyone recognised that their happiness came from they way they wanted to live this sacrament and that they were allowing themselves to be challenged by the Lord, accompanied by him and by the parish community. This is why I say that social networks help me to show that a life of faith and service is a happy life and they can help me provoke, in a positive sense, those who are still attached to the common ideas floating around in society today. Giving testimony means also getting beyond the fear of publishing things that are not politically correct, go against the tide, or are thought to be too explicitly Christian.
How can I bear witness to the fact that I belong to the Salesian charism? By doing what many others already do: I publish articles that make people think, I insert songs with words that get you thinking, I write down lines from books that tend to go a bit deeper, I connect with and share the status of those who give their lives for the young and the poor, I suggest links to organisations working in the missions, or pass on videos of some of the large Triveneto SYM gatherings and initiatives, or publish emails a good Salesian sends from Ethiopia, express my support and sympathy for the Pope. I don't deny that it can happen that I write insulting things about something going on at my University or against the political class or that occasionally I might wrote banal things about my day or what has happened to me. This is why I say that I am no different from many others who use social networks like me. What I consider important, however, is to succeed in my own small way in bringing a little bit of seriousness, along with the basic joy that must, in my view, characterise the Christian and especially a Salesian leader.
Who knows, though. Maybe a photo of a retreat with a group of superiors, rather than some serious article, might give rise to the desire to ask a question that goes beyond just common things. I place my presence on the Web before the Lord so that from some tiny seed I have tossed out, someone's curiosity may be aroused, and the desire to encounter Him.
Sr Marta Drei
In this final year of preparation for the Bicentenary of Don Bosco's birth we are reflecting on his spirituality and how to live it today in our various situations. This is why I have been asked to share with you the experience of fourteen years in the Salesian Oblate Sacred Heart Community in Naples.
We have been active in the St John Bosco parish and oratory run by the Salesians, since 1999, lending a hand in parish ministry, catechetics and the oratory. For a number of years I have been teaching religion at the junior secondary school there and in a number of other quite difficult areas. We are located in a popular neighbourhood in Naples which features many young families and therefore many young people.
Salesian spirituality: embodied in a particular setting
Fitting into this scene is something we have done gradually and over time, and this has allowed us to move from where people were surprised to where they now are curious. It was surprise when the work opened, but now we are able to sincerely share what we are experiencing today. I still recall meeting a sixteen year-old who, after watching us for a week, asked us why we were there and suggested it might be more convenient to go somewhere else because there, with them, we would find “nothing very nice”! The young man needed to have his hope re-awakened … for indeed his view of things was pretty much realistic. This area suffers severe social problems tied to unemployment, illegal labour where there is work, for the most part, with no guarantees and difficult hours; any escape from this seems to be only by leaving the place and this means that some of the best energies are haemorrhaging from our suburb. This precarious scene also involves family relationships, couples often showing emotional instability, taking on parenthood too soon, when they are still immature. Parents have great difficulty in bringing up their children. No surprise then that there is a high rate of school drop-out, and school is seen as a place that limits rather than frees young people even though there are some who succeed, pass their final exams and even some who succeed at university. The social context also means that some fall into crime, tempted by easy money.
A “Da mihi animas”: experienced in daily life…
I believe these years spent at Rione Amicizia have been a strong experience of Salesian spirituality in daily life. Our intense apostolic work has been an expression of Don Bosco's pastoral charity experienced through the specific overtones of the founder, Salesian Bishop Giuseppe Cognata. So the “Da mihi animas” has been coloured with the evangelical overtones of “Pick up the pieces left over so that nothing gets wasted” (cf. Jn 6:12) taking in the little ones and the poor, being companions on the journey and a silent and discreet presence to young mothers, the youngest children in humility, simplicity and familiarity.
The “Da mihi animas”, further enlivened by the Pauline motto “Caritas Christi urget nos” “The love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor 5:14) which inspires the Salesian Oblates, has become a daily encounter with so many faces, so many stories that have revealed the face of Christ to me. This has encouraged me to love with a generous heart, courageously and firmly point out goals for growing up, share joy and suffering, work with tireless enthusiasm and form hope.
This is how these years of mission at Rione Amicizia have become a real training ground in holiness and encounter with the God who loves life, offers himself in Oblation, because he is the Good Shepherd. Apostolic activity has been marked by the task of establishing positive human relationships, approaching families through the welcome we give their children, including the youngest of them, setting up a local network of interest in the parish and oratory through encouraging and supportive presence.
It is through simple apostolic gestures like this that, day by day, we have sought to proclaim the presence of Jesus who takes care of his people and is a neighbour to all, offering his life as a gift of love. Apostolic involvement has been a daily incarnation of the Gospel petition “May your Kingdom come” following the politics of the Our Father as Don Bosco wanted it; this commitment to helping the Kingdom of God grow amidst young people and families, promoting human and religious development, is where I have met Christ, sometimes clearly and evidently, and at other times in the suffering of the seed that must die so that life can sprout.
… enlivened by hope …
Living out the “Da mihi animas” in this kind of setting means rejoicing at tiny results without being discouraged by failures, trusting in human resources and God's grace and in humble, patient, hidden work; it means sharing joys and anxieties of youngsters and families, continuing to sow and never giving up.
The years I have spent at Rione Amicizia have been years where Salesian spirituality has been lived strongly under the banner of hope: hoping and continuing to struggle to sow Christian values even in the face of quite difficult situations. Hope and trust in the inner resources of young people has helped us continue because while some might have chosen useless paths that they have paid with their lives for there are others who, with all the objective situations of frailty, have grown, learned a trade, and take an active part in the life of the oratory so they can give back what they have received.
… witnessed to through communion
So I can state that in this setting it has been possible to have a real experience of the spirituality Don Bosco has passed on to us and I would like to conclude by highlighting one aspect which I believe is not secondary but the basis of a real spiritual experience: communion in mission.
All the apostolic work we carry out at Rione Amicizia is marked by a deep experience of communion. The first element of communion is the Oblate community which is a strong point for mission; the youngsters and much more the families have perceived this as a sign and guarantee of the goodness and beauty of a life harmonised by the presence of God. Also significant has been the experience of communion within the Salesian Family. The Salesian Oblates community has always worked together with the other SF groups in the neighbourhood: Salesians, Cooperators, Don Bosco Volunteers, Volunteers With Don Bosco, so that the parish and oratory can be a stable educational setting and a support for young people and their families. Communion in living out the Salesian mission has been, therefore, a true experience of shared spirituality.
Experiencing Salesian spirituality as an Oblate at Rione amicizia means nourishing our hearts with hope, and for this area which has been so violated physically and in its people, there is hope of redemption; giving oneself constantly and with passion to spark in the hearts of so many young people and young families the desire to do and be something better, to broaden the horizons of personal and cultural existence, discover that it is possible to dream of a better and different future.
Don Valerio Baresi, sdb
Abbiamo nella mente e nel cuore la Strenna di questo nuovo anno: «Da mihi animas, cetera tolle». Attingiamo all’esperienza spirituale di Don Bosco, per camminare nella santità secondo la nostra specifica vocazione “La gloria di Dio e la salvezza delle anime”.
La sintesi della mia testimonianza è proprio nelle parole ”gloria di Dio” e “santità”! Obiettivo generale del progetto Missionario Sacro Cuore è “dare vita” a una comunità ecclesiale dal forte carattere giovanile, che viva in pienezza la propria missione educativa ed evangelizzatrice condividendo, con le povertà che intercetta, un’esperienza di Risurrezione.
Desideriamo camminare nella santità come cristiani/consacrati/salesiani e far vivere ai giovani che raggiungiamo, una graduale ma intensa esperienza di Risurrezione e di Chiesa, per vivere una misura alta di vita cristiana, santa. Buoni Cristiani, Onesti cittadini, abitatori del Cielo!
In modo particolare i nostri destinatari principali sono i giovani tra 16 e 30 anni, italiani e immigrati, e tra questi, specialmente i rifugiati. Desideriamo ardentemente che tutti, tutti incontrino Gesù!
Il 1° settembre 2008 sorge la Circoscrizione ICC (Italia Centro). Vivendo al S. Cuore, proprio nel Centro di Roma, accanto alla Stazione Termini, ci rendiamo conto che la nostra opera occupa lo spazio più ‘centrale’ della Capitale. Sentiamo che Don Bosco aveva provvidenzialmente intuito che proprio qui doveva pulsare il ‘cuore’ della nostra Ispettoria, in piena sintonia col Cuore misericordioso di Gesù. Eppure all’inizio, non sappiamo cosa fare. La Basilica, appena restaurata, appare purtroppo vuota di giovani, anche se in passato, a centinaia avevano occupato tutti gli spazi dell’Opera: centinaia gli artigianelli ai tempi di Don Rua; migliaia i ragazzi accolti e seguiti negli anni successivi attraverso la Scuola, l’Oratorio, il Centro Minori…
Ma la scelta di spostare la scuola al Pio XI e il Centro Minori al Borgo Ragazzi Don Bosco; di indirizzare i ragazzi negli altri Oratori salesiani di Roma, chiudendo quello del S. Cuore e i lavori edili per la ristrutturazione della Basilica, lasciano in Casa solamente ospiti, convegnisti e gente di passaggio. Ciò che salta di più all’occhio, sono i “troller” degli ospiti e i veicoli parcheggiati in cortile.
Abbiamo il grande desiderio di ripopolare il S. Cuore di giovani: come vuole Don Bosco!
Negli ultimi mesi del 2008 bussano alla nostra porta tre Missionarie di Cristo Risorto; un piccolo Istituto, sorto nell’ambito della Spiritualità Salesiana, in America Latina. Presenti già a Roma da più di 10 anni, cercano un posto che permetta loro di lavorare più direttamente con i giovani.
Grazie ad un incontro, che si è rivelato provvidenziale, tra uno dei Superiori dei Salesiani e la loro Coordinatrice Generale, vengono indirizzate al S. Cuore. Nel parlare con loro, ci rendiamo conto che abbiamo gli stessi ideali: Gesù al centro della nostra vita, evangelizzare i giovani, soprattutto i più poveri, raggiungendoli nelle loro realtà e restituendo la stima e la dignità spesso perdute, diffondere gioia.
Cominciamo a pregare insieme e a domandarci cosa ci stia chiedendo il Signore.
Pochi giorni dopo, si aggiunge una giovane famiglia con tre figli piccoli: esprime la stessa ricerca di spiritualità giovanile, di fraternità e di condivisione, di valorizzazione della vocazione matrimoniale e della famiglia, offerta alla Chiesa e al mondo nel servizio gratuito. Proviene dall’esperienza, non lontana nel tempo, di Don Alfano, proprio al Centro Minori del S. Cuore. Sentiamo che il Signore ci sta chiedendo qualcosa di speciale, nell’unire in un’unica esperienza di Chiesa: vita consacrata maschile e femminile, famiglie e giovani, nello spirito di Don Bosco.
Sistemati in maniera dignitosa ma semplice i locali dell’ultimo piano dietro l’abside della Basilica (proprio dove c’era il Centro Minori) nel giorno di Pasqua 2009 accogliamo con gioia le Missionarie di Cristo Risorto in “casa loro”, dentro la nostra Opera.
Dopo un anno d’intensa preghiera e di settimanale confronto (pregare insieme e pensare insieme!) sulle situazioni di povertà di tanti giovani Rifugiati; sulla ricerca di senso di altri giovani universitari a Roma; sui possibili obiettivi della nostra presenza al S. Cuore, sollecitati anche dall’invito pressante del Rettor Maggiore di rendere evidente il nostro Carisma Salesiano, e di non ripetere atteggiamenti scontati, ma di osare nuove esperienze, attenti alle esigenze dei giovani e sensibili alla nuova evangelizzazione, cominciamo a redigere il testo del Progetto Missionario S. Cuore.
Intanto la nostra casa comincia ad essere abitata da diversi giovani che sono attratti dal servizio ai poveri (in quel periodo si allestiva la cena ogni Sabato per i poveri senza dimora alla Stazione Tiburtina; continuava il volontariato degli universitari al Policlinico Umberto I; cominciavano ad avviarsi delle attività di servizio ai rifugiati come la scuola d’italiano, e a organizzarsi degli spazi aggregativi come le gite che volevano essere degli spazi di incontro tra i giovani italiani e i giovani rifugiati in un arricchimento mutuo e interscambio tra coetanei di diversi Paesi) e dalla preghiera costante: ogni giovedì sera dalle 20.30 alle 22.00 appuntamento nel coro della Basilica per l’Adorazione Eucaristica preceduta dalla Lectio sul Vangelo Domenicale). Qualche ritiro spirituale permette di coinvolgere profondamente diversi giovani, in cammini formativi più sistematici.
Inoltre alcune iniziative coinvolgono poco alla volta numerosi giovani, inizialmente estranei ai percorsi di fede: la scuola di Spagnolo, le serate di fraternità, la festa delle matricole, il pellegrinaggio degli Universitari ad Assisi, il coinvolgimento nelle iniziative regionali del Movimento Giovanile Salesiano…
Cominciamo a strutturare i percorsi formativi.
Primo passo: “Gli incontri con Gesù”, nove incontri settimanali d’iniziazione cristiana (l’amore di Dio Padre, la Signoria di Gesù, la Parola di Dio, i Sacramenti, la preghiera…) e un ritiro di tre giorni al termine.
Il percorso continua con incontri settimanali, dove si approfondisce la dimensione cristiana come Figli di Dio, Discepoli e Apostoli. Oltre all’impegno di curare in modo efficace i contenuti da annunciare, emerge il desiderio nostro e dei giovani di presentarci sempre uniti SDB e MCR. Ci rendiamo conto che la vita consacrata maschile e femminile, la presenza di famiglie e di giovani, esprime una vera e bella esperienza di Chiesa.
Posso affermare che l’aspetto che ha permesso di generare più frutti è senz’altro la comunione. Una scelta che non ci consente di avere serate libere: siamo praticamente sempre presenti ‘insieme’ a tutti gli impegni. Questo permette di sperimentare il senso più profondo del nostro essere Comunità Educativa Pastorale, vera Chiesa.
Oggi avviamo ogni quadrimestre nuovi “Incontri con Gesù” con una ventina di giovani che provengono da diverse zone della Città; abbiamo una Comunità Giovani articolata in tre gruppi divisi per età: 20-25; 26-30; over 30 che s’incontrano settimanalmente.
Ogni Giovedì dalle 20.30 alle 22.00 viviamo la lectio e l’Adorazione eucaristica; offriamo percorsi formativi di educazione all’amore, “Creati per amare”, per single e fidanzati che non hanno fissato la data di Matrimonio; esiste un percorso di formazione e approfondimento sulla Dottrina Sociale della Chiesa; coinvolgiamo nel servizio ai rifugiati molti giovani che non solo donano tempo ed energie, ma si rendono conto di ricevere molto dai loro coetanei che hanno dovuto fuggire da violenze, guerre, torture, ingiustizie affrontando esperienze inaudite per cercare vita; permettiamo ad altri giovani di accostare persone senza dimora scoprendo nella carità (“La Banca dei talenti”cena alla Stazione Termini tutti i Venerdì e “Piazza Grande” pomeriggio di fraternità all’Oratorio tutti i Giovedì) la possibilità di affermare la stupenda dignità di ogni persona umana, riconosciuta figlia di Dio e desiderosa di essere compresa nella sua dignità dentro la nostra casa. C’è anche un bel gruppo di giovani che due volte la settimana va al Policlinico ‘Umberto I’ a visitare i malati. Alcuni giovani sono Catechisti, altri Animatori all’Oratorio. Con i giovani raggiungiamo ‘porta a porta’ le famiglie della Parrocchia, con un dono natalizio e nella Benedizione delle case.
Non mancano i momenti di fraternità/aggregazione e di festa: cene, gite, domeniche trascorse insieme in montagna o in un parco di Roma, cineforum, tornei sportivi, feste con l’intera Comunità Parrocchiale, serate etniche… dove la gioia di riconoscerci fratelli al di là di ogni cultura, colore della pelle, lingua, disponibilità economica, fa assaporare la bellezza della vita e apre alla riconoscenza.
Abbiamo colto come benedizione e conferma del cammino avviato, sia i percorsi di fede di alcuni fratelli (musulmani, buddisti, atei…) che hanno chiesto il Battesimo o l’inserimento nella piena comunione della Chiesa Cattolica (copti, ortodossi e evangelici). Ma anche le vocazioni sbocciate nella Comunità (2 SDB, 1 FMA, 1 Postulante MCR, 1 Postulante Clarissa, 1 Religiosa dell’Immacolata, 1 domenicano, 1 seminarista, 6 Giovani Salesiani Cooperatori, diverse coppie di fidanzati sorte in seno alla Comunità giovani e aperte al servizio ai poveri e alla missionarietà).
Alcuni di questi giovani hanno chiesto di far parte di una comunità di vita, cioè abitare la nostra ‘casa’ come propria, condividendo con i religiosi (SDB e MCR) la preghiera quotidiana e le responsabilità della missione, in modo adeguato al loro stato di vita e ai loro impegni. In questo momento sono otto (cinque ragazze e tre ragazzi). La loro vita in casa è affiancata da un/una assistente spirituale che li accompagna in questa esperienza per una sintesi feconda tra fede, vita e cultura, e favorisce alcuni momenti significativi di fraternità e condivisione tra giovani e religiosi.
È proprio questo “stare insieme” con i giovani che ci è parso l’aspetto più significativo e potente del carisma salesiano. Tutte le volte che riusciamo a “vivere insieme” ai giovani (ritiri, campi formativi, convivenze…) ci rendiamo conto di quanto l’azione educativa sia più efficace. Per questo abbiamo cercato con forza e offerto ai giovani, questa opportunità, per gustare il fascino di una comunione di vita che metta al centro Gesù.La gioia grande di questi giorni è l’attesa di Papa Francesco in casa nostra: Domenica 19 Gennaio viene a condividere con noi il pomeriggio. Incontro con i poveri senza dimora, con i Rifugiati e i Volontari che li accompagnano, con le famiglie, con i ragazzi dell’Oratorio, i malati e i disabili e la gente della Parrocchia. Ma incontrerà soprattutto i giovani che nel “Sacro Cuore” hanno trovato una “casa” che accoglie e offre la possibilità di vivere una significativa esperienza di Risurrezione, in modo da lanciarli nella vita come veri discepoli di Gesù e missionari del Vangelo. Ed è subito Gioia!