This is an interesting article by Brother Matt, a young Salesian Brother from Poland taken from Don Bosco Today (Summer 2010). Last year he completed a year’s work experience as a teaching assistant in a Salesian School in England
A car, a mobile, money and a girlfriend – that makes you a man nowadays. That’s the way some lads think. So many of those they consider heroes behave like children. They seem to lack responsibility, they indulge in foolish and dangerous behaviour, they use people; for them what they have is more important than who they are. So it was inevitable that at first the young people regarded me as an alien rather than a normal person. I tried to show them, to teach them that being a man means to love and be ready to protect what you love, to give your life for it. It means not to fear even when everything and everyone is against you. Do not be afraid. They were the gospel words that sustained me during my stay in England. Being a man means to work hard, to be the head, be in charge – first of all in charge of your own life. Not to give the steering wheel to mass-media, mates, alcohol, drugs or your X-Box. That’s what I was trying to show them. Maybe one year is not enough but I hope they’ve seen that I’m happy, in charge of my life, even if I don’t have my own car, money or a girlfriend. For me, being a man means to be a good Salesian – a father, brother and friend.
Although Polish and English teenagers are different – because of language, education, culture and family background, there is something that everyone understands – a smile. I am convinced that’s the key to their hearts. The only difference is that sometimes it takes longer to open doors. That was, for me, a lesson in patience. In my country when a Salesian or priest smiles youngsters come and want to chat, ask different questions, they’re interested in him, in his story, in his vocation. It’s so obvious, but not here. I was someone from a different world, an adult, a staff member and they must have thought I was a spy. It took me a long time to break through. Eventually I used the simple Don Bosco method – like what young people like. When I’ve seen them with headphones for example, I’ve asked about their favourite bands, types of music. And I’ve shared my tastes in music with them. Similarly with sport, art, and books. It was difficult for me because I’m the type of person who does everything quickly – I think fast, I talk fast, I walk fast, I eat fast, I make friends easily. In England I had to slow down. I’ve also become more tolerant of the behaviour of young people, they are slightly more aggressive and hyperactive than in my country. Perhaps it is because of their family situation – some lack both parents, some boys miss the father figure in their lives. After quite a few failures at the beginning I decided I wouldn’t give up, I’ll try again and again… and it was worth the fight. Despite being so different from them, I think the youngsters began to appreciate me. I didn’t see it at the beginning, but soon I recognised signs of their appreciation. I treasure those moments when, jogging after school and passing the school bus, the pupils would wave and shout Hello, Brother Matt. I’ll never forget those moments, and hi-fives on the corridor. When I heard I was going to England I imagined myself a fighter, a warrior, a crusader. I wanted to take my cassock, bible and crucifix (and maybe a sword) to evangelise. But when I stepped out of the plane I realised that it just wouldn’t work. You can’t tell an Eskimo the parable about the good shepherd because he has got no idea what sheep are like. So I had to change my way of thinking, I had to become more modest about my religious life, hide the shepherd’s crook. They live in a different culture; have a different way of praising God, of talking about him. So I had to change my behaviour, my way of thinking. I soon realised that, in a different culture learning the language is just the beginning. Inculturation means discovering all the good and valuable things that British people and their culture produced during 2000years. I can’t just step in like an unexpected guest in other people’s houses and tell them what kind of books they should read, what kind of music to listen to, and how to prepare a meal. I’m the guest; I must respect the host.
So I never said a word about things that I thought were wrong; because they weren’t wrong – they were different. Even if sometimes I was boiling inside and wanted to shout out. I just stopped and thought: Why? Why say it’s wrong? Don’t judge! How do I know that Poles are doing these things correctly? Who am I to judge? If something works here but not in Poland let it be, just leave it as it is. The best way is to observe; don’t criticise. Learn because maybe you’ll need to do the same. Does it work? It worked for me. After weeks of inner rebellion I fell in love with this country, its people, its food, and even the weather!
In school, the staff are wonderful. They spend so much time in the school. I really admire their commitment and the passion they show in their teaching. That’s the impression I’ll take, in my heart, back to Poland and tell people about it. The school staff were a great example to me, a 26 years-old foreigner, with no experience of professional teaching. Thanks to them I’ve learned so much and I’ve achieved so much. Being a teaching assistant in their lessons was a pleasure and huge life lesson for me. They didn’t have to say a word. I just watched them; it was like a good film. Now I need to share my experience with others and invite them to play that role. They deserve an Oscar. What surprised me was that, after a few months of working with them, some of the teachers occasionally did things the way I was doing them with the youngsters – ways that worked. I like to think they appreciated the Salesian way.
How do English Catholic young people differ from Polish young people? They have their English Catholicism the same as Polish young people have their Polish Catholicism. There is no point in trying to make judgments, no need to compare or to assess the differences. This diversity is an area where the whole richness of the Church takes place: a space that cannot be measured or defined. But when you enter that space with an open mind you will never be the same again. You become a new Catholic – a richer Catholic. That certainly has been my experience. That’s why I encourage others to join Project Europe – for that enriching experience. They will discover that they receive more than they give. I have certainly changed since I came to England. Some people have commented on the improvement in my English, and have even remarked that I’m more British now, whatever that means. I’m sure that is not just about Health and Safety issues or tea breaks. It seems to me that I just understand people more than I did before. I’m curious to see what my family and friends are going to say when I return home. I can certainly feel the difference. I just know I’ve changed; even when I can’t name it I can feel it.
There are still many areas of disagreement; that’s inevitable and that’s healthy. I didn’t come to England to change into Brother Matthew. I’m still Mateusz. Most of our differences are caused by our lingual, cultural and historical differences. But an appreciation of this makes us more valuable as people, more effective as Salesians. I’ve learned something from you but I hope that you’ve learned something from me. This is Project Europe, not Project England or Project Poland. We can only hope that every country which takes a part in Project Europe will reap the benefits.
As I said in the beginning, Why? was the most important question. Sometimes the question is more important that the answer. A good philosopher is the one who asks the most important and basic questions.