Following the death of Pope John Paul II, I read his reflections on his own vocation story, his journey towards the priesthood. In it he pays warm tribute to the parish in which he grew up; the parish of St Stanislaus Kostka in Cracow, which was run by the Salesians. He recalls that all the parish personnel and the community were sent to Dachau concentration camp, except an old parish priest and the provincial. Reading the Pope’s words it is possible to conclude that the youth work of the parish ‘begun anew….in that difficult period’ was perceived as a threat by the Nazi regime and had to be dismantled, destroyed. The battlefield had switched from the land of Poland to the landscape of the heart and mind; a much more difficult battle to win. This reminds us of a key concept in Salesian spirituality in the words of St Francis de Sales; ‘Nothing by force; everything by love’.
We tend to think that our present age creates anew, sees things from a greater perspective than those of old. As Salesians we have moved to promote lay ministry and collaborative ministry in all of our work settings. Pope John Paul remembers a young man of the parish, Jan Tyranowski, a clerk by training, who had chosen to be a tailor in his father’s shop. He was a man of deep spirituality. He had chosen to work as a tailor, because this gave him more time and space to deepen his life of prayer. Pope John Paul writes,
‘The Salesians…had given him the task of creating a network of contacts with young people through what was called ‘The Living Rosary’. In carrying out this work Jan Tyranowski did not limit himself to the organisational aspects alone; he also concerned himself with the spiritual formation of the young people whom he met. Thus I learned the basic methods of self-formation, which would later be confirmed and developed in the seminary’. [Gift and Mystery p23]
In 1940’s Poland we find Salesians ‘networking’ with young people; enabling a gifted spiritually aware youth leader to establish youth to youth ministry in the parish; encouraging a collaborative style of ministry within the parish. Perhaps the writer of Ecclesiastes is right in saying that ‘there is nothing new under the sun! [Eccs 1:9]
I often remind those who are working in the parish at our meetings that it is important to take time to reflect again on the ‘why’ we do of the ‘what’ we do. So, here are a few reflections on the ‘why’ we try to work in a collaborative style as Salesians. The Constitutions of the Salesians of Don Bosco recognise that working together first and foremost is ‘an experience of the Church and a revelation of God’s plan for us’ [SDB Constitutions 47] This recalls that first Pentecost experience, in which ‘the whole community was united heart and soul’ [Acts 4:32], united in prayer and apostolic action. Only in working together can we come to know the direction in which God is leading us and in working together we experience afresh the presence of the living Lord and the power and depth of his love for us: individually and in community. In sharing, listening and planning we give ourselves the necessary space to discern the action of the Holy Spirit. The contribution of each person is essential, especially when suggestions are drawn out of the life experience of the person. If we are being open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, then we are attentive to the wisdom we have learned from living life itself.
Collaboration is, therefore, welcomed and encouraged, because of the opportunities it provides for all the members of the Salesian Family to share a deeper knowledge and appreciation of our Salesian spirit and Preventive System. Collaboration is a moment for all who are working together in a Salesian way to be both pupil and teacher; collaboration is an educative moment. It is a dialogue between equals, and like Jan Tyranowski and ‘the Living Rosary’ groups, collaborative ministry is an opportunity to ‘foster the spiritual growth of each [person]’ [SDB Constitutions 47]
I think that in this regard Salesian Parishes have a unique contribution to make to the life of the local Church and to the work of the diocese. If we look around our deaneries and dioceses we can see parishes where lip-service is paid to the idea of collaboration, bur where the reality falls short of the ideal. The Parish in Cowley is blessed by a very active core group of Salesian Co-operators, who are involved in developing the mission and the community of the parish. This highly visible group of collaborators sets a very good example for the rest of the parish to be willing to be involved and to share responsibility for the life of the parish.
Collaborative ministry has a life of its own; meetings multiply! Collaborative ministry makes demands on us, because it involves a high degree of ‘maintenance’. These are not simply meetings for the sake of gathering together, but opportunities for evaluation, formation and pastoral planning. Frequently this means that as Salesian leaders we may begin at one point, with a particular purpose or goal, only to discover that in the dialogue a new purpose is identified, a new goal established. Collaboration often leads us to lay down our own agendas and to be greatly enriched by the insight and faith of those with whom we work.
These reflections lead me to conclude that collaboration brings with it a growth in three Salesian ‘virtues’. In our parishes, collaborative ministry will not succeed unless we have the first ‘virtue’; a positive attitude of welcome. This welcome extends to parishioners of all ages, but especially to those who are young parishioners. A second ‘virtue’ is that of acceptance. Salesians recognise the value and dignity of each person and beyond that their infinite potential as a child of God. This leads to a third ‘virtue’; participation. Our welcome and acceptance will only be authentically recognised, when we invite a person to belong and to participate. If we take a look at the life of Don Bosco then we see these things reflected in his pastoral style of action. Young people flocked to him like pins to a magnet. They knew they were truly welcome. He recognised their value and their individual worth and reminded his Salesians,
‘It is not enough to love young people, they must know that they are loved’.
Finally Don Bosco involved young people in being responsible for the life of the Oratory as youth leaders, many of whom became his closest co-workers as young Salesians. Collaboration connects us with our Salesian roots and even produces popes from Salesian parishes!