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Tuesday, 21 January 2014 16:15


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It was at the age of nine that I had a dream. In this dream I seemed to be near my home in a fairly large yard. A crowd of boys were playing there. Some were laughing, some were playing games and some were swearing. When I heard these evil words, I jumped immediately amongst them andfight tried to stop them using my words and fists. At that moment a dignified man appeared, a nobly dressed adult. He wore a white cloak and his face shone so I could not look directly at him. He called me by name, told me to take charge of these children and added these words. ‘You will have to win these friends of yours not by blows but by gentleness and love. Start right away by teaching them the ugliness of sin and the value of virtue.’ (Memoirs of the Oratory)

In the dream at nine years of age, Don Bosco was told that he had the traits and skills to conquer the unruliness of these children and to make them his friends. This made a profound impression on him and throughout his life in all that he did, he never failed to see beneath the layers of dirt, the rags, the uncouthness of the young person, to the spark which a little kindness and encouragement would fan into a flame. You will have to win these friends of yours not by blows but by gentleness and love. This is the secret of Don Bosco, this is the spirit which animated his Oratory and this is the secret of Bontà!

Don Bosco exuded Bontà/Goodness; this was the first impression that people had on meeting him. He was the personification of goodness, especially for the poor. His whole life was based on this goodness and kindness.

Take a moment and ask yourself Am I always able to do this in my work, family etc?

For Don Bosco, the environment was the vital element in the development of each person, because he believed that by creating the right environment, we could assist the young people to get closer to their full potential. His first dream underlines the importance of a warm and friendly environment in nurturing young people towards the fullness of life. He was to overcome the wildness by creating an atmosphere of gentle constant kindness. Don Bosco could make a difference and behaviour could be changed if he could create an atmosphere of reasoned kindness.

Don Bosco saw the environment not simply as a physical space that was safe and resourced, but also a network of relationships marked by constant kindness. He created teams of people, who focused on gentleness, optimism and reasonableness for everyone, a truly friendly presence. This was all held together by an invisible spiritual dimension based on the awareness of the mystery of God, present in every moment, in every person.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014 16:14

Friendship for Life

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Over the years I have presided at many weddings. Almost invariably I have ended my few words of homily by saying that whatever prayers, hopes and wishes others might have for the happy couple, mine was simply this: that they would be for each other the first, the best, the truest and most faithful friend. And I would recall the words of Ecclesiasticus: Whoever finds a faithful friend has found a rare treasure; there is no measuring his/her worth; a faithful friend is balm for the spirit. True friendship releases the other gifts of married love — mutual care, thoughtfulness, affection, tenderness — which make for a life-long, life-giving relationship: till death do us part.

I call you friends

Why does Scripture wax so eloquently about friendship? Why does St Francis of Sales, in his short book of Introduction to the living of the Christian life, devote no less than six chapters to friendship? The answer to both questions is the same: friendship is one of the most beautiful gifts life has to offer. More than that: they are both speaking of the kind of friendship that has its roots in God. The kind of friendship in which only the best and truest of the human heart is shared with another. The kind of friendship in which we look at each other with eyes that also look at God. For us Christians all that is best begins in God’s heart, begins in God’s love for us. God IS love, and he has made us to BE love for each other.

One of the most thrilling phrases of the Gospel is near the end of chapter 1 of St Luke. Zechariah can hear people around him asking about his newly-born son, John: What will become of this child? He looks into the future with the eyes of a prophet: he sees his son as the one who will go before the Lord to make known to the world the loving-kindness of the heart of our God (Luke 1: 78). It was John’s call to go before Jesus and make him known: Jesus who would bring to the world the tender love of God’s heart; live it, share it, pour it out from his human heart. Jesus is the embodiment of all that is in God’s heart for us.

The small circle of disciples was the first to begin to know and experience the love of Jesus and the rich promise it held for them. Their hearts must have leapt with joy when they heard him say Whoever believes in me, streams of living water will pour out from his heart (John 7: 38). This would be the inner secret of their life: a stream of love, a power within, an energy of goodness. They reached a high point in their relationship with Jesus when he finally told them I call you friends (John 15:15). He had shared with them the secrets of his heart — his profound love for the Father, his compassion, his attachment to them, his wish to share his joy, his life, his very Spirit with them — and his ultimate proof of friendship would be to lay down his life for them.

Peter would call this having tasted the goodness of the Lord (1Peter 3). Jesus also put Peter on the spot to declare his love for his Lord. Friendship is a two-way relationship. We can rarefy the friendship of Jesus so much as to expunge all human feelings from it. But can we forget that Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus (John 11:5)? Can we forget how his heart was touched, and he was deeply moved when he saw Mary and the others weeping over the death of his dear friend Lazarus? Can we forget the woman who washed his feet with her tears — with his full approval? Can we forget the tears of the broken hearted Magdalene in the garden? Jesus’ circle of friends was real, and full of tender love.

We are all invited and called to taste the goodness of the Lord: to live in genuine, life-long, life-giving friendship with Jesus, returning love for love as one of those in his circle of friends. Dare we say, too, that when we are truly in love with him, we can, like him, find the freedom and joy to love and be loved by others? Can we, too, welcome human love that touches our heart, yet sits comfortably with our love of Jesus? This does seem to be the amazing discovery of many of the saints. St Francis of Sales puts it in the simplest of terms: he says we can be all for God and yet all for our friends. It sounds impossible, yet this is the highest ideal of Christian friendship. How did Don Bosco measure up to it?

A heart wide as the sands on the sea-shore

John Bosco — boy, young man, priest — was one who loved and was loved in return. His life is the story of a heart made to love; made to draw others into his circle of love; made to create an environment of love, an air of refreshing, creative friendship.dreamstime m 21459989

Shaped by a strong, loving, generous-hearted mother — Mamma Margaret — it became his life’s ambition to give to desperately needy youngsters the security of knowing that someone loved them and cared for them; someone who would give his last breath to give them a life and release the streams of latent goodness in them.

From his earliest years he formed close, personal friendships and drew a larger circle of friends around him. This was no mere fan club. It could mean swapping his mother’s lovely, soft, white bread each day over a period of three years for the coarse, black bread of a poorer school friend. It could mean cuts and bruises as he got his acrobatic act together to draw unchurched youngsters to his impromptu RE lesson.

As a young man he formed intimate, personal friendships with two of his companions. One was a Jewish boy named Jonah. He was fine-looking, had an excellent singing voice and was a skilled billiard-player in the café where John worked. They sought out each other’s company and spent much time together — John at the piano, Jonah singing, or simply chatting endlessly. These were two 18-year olds, united in a genuine, wholesome, life-giving relationship — the kind that many in today’s amoral society would not comprehend as they soak up the sugary sentimentality and morbid affection that ooze from our modern media. Jonah asked John to instruct him in the Christian Faith: John was his sponsor at his baptism. The other friend — and fellow seminarian — was Louis Comollo. John was like Louis’s shadow. He admired, esteemed and perhaps hero-worshipped him. During holiday time they visited each other’s home and spent time together. Looking back in later life, Don Bosco recalled the deep affection they shared, and he saw this friendship as a life-changing relationship that confirmed him in his call to the priesthood. It had been life-giving.

During his final student years, the peace and tranquillity of the Chieri seminary was often shattered by the stentorian voice of the porter calling out for Bosco d’Sales. Groups of youngsters, John’s holiday oratory, were just calling in to see him — something practically unknown in the seminary! He was their great friend and hero. These visits were pre-echoes of things to come with Don Bosco, priest and founder of the Oratory of Turin — Don Bosco the friend of youth.

As he came to know the grim condition of destitute boys on the streets of Turin, he knew that their first and greatest need was a home. That’s what he gave them. And Don Bosco, that genius of the heart as Pope John Paul called him, brought his own mother, Mamma Margaret to be the Mamma that many of them had never had. In that home they were loved, and knew that they were loved. They were given a life, found jobs and were prepared for the future. One young chap, who became a hairdresser’s assistant, saw Don Bosco passing by one day. Without a thought he rushed out to greet his great friend — forgetting that there was a glass door between them!

If he wanted to find them a place in society, Don Bosco wanted even more to make them aware of the love of a greater heart than his. He wanted them to know the loving-kindness of the heart of our God. But he also knew that there was only one way to make that possible: that was the way of love; the way of kindness and friendship. Without that lived experience of love, God would remain a stranger. Don Bosco gave them just that. His friendship was life-giving: it opened them up to a greater and higher friendship.

It had been a defining moment when the newly-ordained Don Bosco came to the rescue of the ragged youngster lurking in the sacristy and said: That boy is my friend!

A new style of life and action

Some years ago the Times Educational Supplement looked for a face that would seem to express most perfectly, through its serenity and kindliness, the gentle authority of the good educator. The face they chose to print was that of Don Bosco.

How well we know that face! We in the Salesian Family recognise in that face the legacy, the charism, the spirit, we share. We use our own special vocabulary: preventive system; reason, religion and loving-kindness; apostolate of presence; family spirit; making the first move; the oratorian heart; even the Salesian smile! We know his way, his style so well. We try to make it ours.

He made it look so easy with his natural, open friendliness, his joyful optimism and mischievous humour. As a boy, though he had no sister of his own and practically all his friends were boys, he could be at ease in the presence of girls of his own age: like Rose Febbraro, who looked after his cows whilst he studied his books; or Ann Moglia, whom he treated as a sister when he stayed with her family — though he wasn’t keen to be her baby-sitter! As a teen-ager he found great joy in his special friendships with Jonah and Louis. As a man and priest he was at ease in the company of women, in line with the etiquette of the day. And with his own boys or with girl pupils of the Sisters, he was equally at home whether giving serious talks or indulging in light banter.

But this charism for building friendship was much more than a natural gift. It was a gift of the Spirit. In Don Bosco grace and nature blended beautifully. As the years passed and others joined him, he realised more and more that only with a wholesome inner life sustained by the Spirit could the way of loving-kindness be a life-giving gift for others. He admitted openly that he reached the age of fifty before he understood the full implications of that and began to preach it with great energy. It is the Spirit, the stamp of God’s ownership on us, who keeps our gaze on God and warms our heart with joy in all our friendships.

The face of Don Bosco invites us to live our charism of loving-kindness, make it blossom in friendship and bring joy of heart to those who give and those who receive. Between husband and wife, parent and child, it creates a happy home. Among members of a religious community it confirms the deep peace of belonging. In every gathering of the Salesian family it crackles into life with music, song and laughter. Perhaps that is what Don Bosco had in mind when he said that his followers were destined to spread far and wide the energy of love.


When John Bosco was doing his pre-seminary studies — our Sixth Form — he took on a commitment which his biographer describes as Christ-like and truly heroic. He had got to know an older man, Charles Palazzolo. He was 35, had dearly wanted to become a priest, but had no way of financing any studies. John agreed to tutor him privately. Day after day he gave him lessons, and within two years he brought him up to standard and Charles passed his exams.

John entered the seminary to study Philosophy and Theology. Without funds, Charles had to work from home if he was to continue. The tuition carried on as John painstakingly wrote out in clear and often simplified form the lessons he had received, and frequently Charles visited John at the seminary. Philosophy over, the same routine continued with Theology and with the same success. The greatest love a person can have for his friends is to lay down his life for them (Jn15:13). John Bosco was doing this throughout his life — denying himself in a thousand ways for others, yet with great joy in his heart. It was the joy, says Joseph Aubry SDB, that came into the world through the wood of the Cross.

The ordination of Charles to the priesthood on the same day as Don Bosco is a monument to the love of his friend that knew no limits. A faithful friend is indeed a rare treasure.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014 16:13

The Ministry of the Headteacher

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3209-1 Main2One of the most attractive and fascinating aspects of John’s Gospel is his wide use of the symbolic. Many of the characters in the story are used symbolically. There are symbolic gestures or actions, and symbolic narratives. And there are elemental symbols like water and light. In John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand we have one of the best attested signs or miracles of Jesus. Of the six versions of the story in which Jesus provides a meal of bread and fish for a large number of people, I have chosen this version precisely because of its rich symbolic content. Symbols can transcend time and culture. Symbols can communicate meaning with clarity and power.

In John’s telling of the familiar story it is not one of the disciples but a young person who provides Jesus with the few barley loaves and fish which enable him to offer nourishment to the crowd. This young lad is central to the story. He is central to what Jesus is about. He is an inspiring symbol. Young people are central to what we Salesians are about and to what Salesian Headteachers are about. Without them, their presence, their openness, co-operation, spontaneity and generosity, their giftedness, our lives would be so impoverished. Young people are our future, indeed, but they are also our present. They are not just recipients, but partners. They are at the heart of the action.

The gesture of Jesus in providing a feast of bread and fishes by the lakeside is profoundly symbolic. It rides in tandem with his earlier action when at the wedding in Cana he transformed gallons of water into wine of the highest quality. Together these two events point to the fulfilment of longings and dreams articulated over the centuries by the great prophets and poets of Israel, expressing the firm hope that one day God would intervene to save the people, and establish his reign, his kingdom. Often the imagery they adopted had to do with plentiful supplies of food and rich wine. At Cana the wine is abundant. By the lakeside there are basketfuls of food left over. In Jesus the long awaited reign of God is dawning, the messianic era is being inaugurated. The reaction of the crowd at the end indicates a realisation of the significance of what Jesus has done.

We believe that through the subsequent death and resurrection of Jesus, and the outpouring of the Spirit which followed, the presence and life of the God of Jesus, the God of love, is unleashed on the world. We believe that through our baptism we are caught up in this new creation, drawn into the reign of God, the Kingdom. We are always in the heart of God. Any Salesian school is a Kingdom context. It is a place where young people and staff can experience the love of God embracing their lives. School is a place where we know we are accepted, and welcomed; it is a place of hospitality, of inclusion. It is a place of warmth and care and friendship. It is a place where we are challenged to grow, to reach out, to serve. It is a place of healing and forgiveness, a place of truth, justice and hope. That is Kingdom, and it’s now.

Within this general symbolism of the meal, the lakeside banquet, there is the specific symbolism of the bread. As John’s narrative unfolds, we find that soon after the feeding of the crowds, Jesus returns to Capernaum, the town which he has made his home. In the synagogue there Jesus, with echoes of Moses and manna in the wilderness, explores the symbolic significance of the bread, the bread from heaven, the bread which leads to life, a unique quality of life.

In the first place bread is a symbol of the revelation which Jesus brings, the enlightenment he offers. School is a place of revelation, enlightenment, awareness at many levels. We seek to introduce our young people into the exciting mysteries of so many areas of human experience and environment — science and technology, language, literature and culture, geography and history. We seek to enable them to become aware of the unique individuals that they are, to discover the mystery of their own personal truth and identity, to discover how to become what they are called to be. We seek to enable them to learn the art of interaction, teamwork, community, to appreciate the richness of difference, and not see it as a threat. We seek to enable them to penetrate more deeply their identity as children of God, beloved, nurtured, precious and free. We help them to discern what is true and wholesome, of genuine worth and lasting meaning, as an alternative to what our consumer, instant fix, materialistic, individualistic society proclaims so seductively.

For Jesus, the bread of revelation is a source of life. Life — this is perhaps the fourth Evangelist’s favourite theme. Jesus tells us that he has come, still comes, that we might have life, life in all its fullness. For me that is one of the most precious statements in the New Testament. As human beings we are called to be fully alive, alive in all dimensions of our personhood. As educators our wonderful role is to foster the aliveness of the young people we serve. School is a place throbbing with life. We want our young people to develop their bodily gifts in sport and drama and movement. We want them to develop their musical and artistic talents, their creativity and flair, their practical abilities in technology and cooking, their intellectual and relational skills. We wish to foster the flowering of God’s Spirit within them. The Kingdom of God and every Salesian school is an expression of this, is about aliveness. And that is challenging and demanding and very exciting.

Returning to the story line, Jesus blesses the bread and distributes it to the people for their nourishment. On a different occasion Jesus performed this symbolic gesture again at a meal with his friends. This bread, broken and given in love and service, is an expression of who Jesus is; it captures what his life is about, and his death: My flesh for the life of the world. We repeat this gesture, these words, in memory of him in the Eucharist. It’s tough bread.

God’s Word offers us bread. The acceptance of leadership in a Salesian school is not primarily a career option. It is a response to a call from God, a call to cooperate with God in enabling the transforming presence of the Kingdom gently and powerfully to touch the lives of both staff and pupils, a call to shed light and foster aliveness. But it will cost. Leadership is a call to service and self-giving. Jesus will be with us as our inspiration, friend and guide, our strength and support.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014 16:12

Prevention or Repression

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Some reflections on the Salesian Education and modern theories of Empowerment

At the heart of the Salesian tradition oDon Bosco 1f education is the so called Preventive System. This was the name given to Don Bosco’s style of education after a lecture that Don Bosco gave to his French Co-operators in 1887 in which he contrasted the Preventive System with what he characterised as the Repressive System. Empowerment is a modern term used in educational discussion to focus on enabling the learner to become independent and self-motivated.

In that lecture Don Bosco wisely took the view that fear as a motivating force for children was disabling and hence a system based on punishments failed to win over or change the hearts of the young or help them to learn. Therefore, he counselled the educator to look to win over the hearts of the young by becoming an animating presence among them. He should always begin with what they enjoyed, especially in terms of games and active recreations as well as music, singing and theatre, and bring them gradually to a deeper awareness of the beautiful, the true and the good and thus to God, the Giver of all that is Good.

The context in which Don Bosco first evolved his System was that of the Oratory which was of its nature both a voluntary and fast flowing youth activity. The pace of activities had to match the relatively short span of attention of youngsters who were used to manual rather than intellectual activities, and for whom Don Bosco evolved the Oratory model. Assistance in that context meant getting the youngsters involved in the various activities and seeing when they were losing interest and moving them on to something else, gradually seeing the opportunity for a word in the ear and the catechism and worship which was at the heart of the activities.

The early stories of the clerics Rua and Cagliero shocking the Turinese clergy by running through the streets on the way to their various assignments in the city’s oratories speak of a freshness of approach and an energy and vigour that characterised the emergence of the preventive style of education. Sensitive leadership was the principle that guided the young Salesians and quickly involved them in looking after and leading others. Those famous sodalities actually were training sessions for peer mentors or youth leaders who were engaged in the same apostolic enterprise with Don Bosco.

When this model was transferred to the much more institutionalised and stable environment of a large boarding school, what had begun as a flexible style of youth-work rather like a skilled sailor matching the wind and the waves with his sails and rudder, was in danger of becoming a rigid system, of almost total control. When the voluntary element diminished or disappeared then the danger of the system becoming repressive was very strong.

In Don Bosco’s practice this presence/assistance among the young was, no doubt, a creative and active way of engaging young people at the Oratory in a friendly relationship, and where, till his late middle age, Don Bosco would run races and be actively engaged in recreation with his boys. It is also clear that with the advent of boarding schools as the predominant Salesian apostolate, what began as a technique for outreach to young people from the streets that had lost their trust and confidence in adults, became a form of almost complete supervision and control.

Sadly the title that Don Bosco gave to his lecture The Preventive System narrowed the educational focus of a style which was really still evolving. The focus on prevention, apart from Don Bosco’s equal emphasis on reason, religion and loving kindness as the basis of an educational relationship, could easily put a very exaggerated emphasis on control. This was made even more unbalanced when it was read in the light of his famous summing up of the Preventive System as “letting the youngsters know the rules of the Institute and then assisting them without respite, by advising them, by guiding them, and correcting them” or in other words, as he concluded awkwardly, “in putting them in the impossibility of committing faults (mancanze, which could also be translated as sins).” (Quoted in F Desramaut Spiritualita Salesiana: Cento Parole Chiave LAS, Roma, 2001, p573)

This concern with putting youngsters in the impossibility of committing sin soon became an unhealthy preoccupation in some Salesian boarding schools. The insistence that the Salesians constantly supervise the youngsters meant that not only was any exercise of personal freedom immensely limited but the Salesians themselves became negatively preoccupied, with unhealthy consequences for their own mental state. Such a quasi-totalitarian approach was resisted strongly by the early English and Irish Salesians.

In the first formal Canonical visitation of the English Province in 1908, Fr Paul Virion, the Provincial of Paris from 1902-1919, commented specifically on the lack of acceptance of the Salesian idea of assistance, the traditional Salesian word for looking after youngsters in unstructured situations. He wrote in his report:

“Moreover one can say that there is no supervision. They say that assisting as it is conceived in general in Salesian houses is repugnant to the English character, which prefers to be left to its own initiative and conscience. It is true in part and agrees with the education that is given in the families and in the other Colleges in this country. But the other thing they dislike is the hard work and self-denial which is needed to give an acceptable assistance which is not indiscreet nor humiliating for the boys and which nonetheless assures morality among them. Particular friendships are flourishing.” (ibid p574)

We can sum up by saying that the Salesian preventive system, especially in its reductionist form ran into serious opposition among many of the English and Irish confreres who saw it as a foreign interference in the natural freedom in which youngsters should grow up. This opposition was in serious danger of being misinterpreted by some of the Italian Salesians as laziness or some sort of complicity in sins against Holy Purity. In this regard see Fr Albera’s circular letter of 1917 which repeated the old formula but strengthened it by saying:

“In second place this optimism can even be the cause that leads to a lack of that vigilance with the pupils that the preventive system itself suggests in order to put them in the moral impossibility of offending God.” (ibid)

Such an extravagant claim, however well intentioned, does clearly attempt to rob the individual young person of a fundamental moral freedom and does a terrible disservice to those who tried to implement it.

In conclusion we have to re-vision the Salesian Preventive System for a very different era, where youngsters are immensely conscious of their personal freedom and where concerns about child protection might well discourage efforts to accompany young people at all. We need then, to recover that zeal for souls (Da mihi animas) which drove Don Bosco and the early Salesians to find new ways of reaching out to young people with an offer of genuine friendship which supports their learning, their search for meaning and true freedom which is always at the heart of the Salesian Educational approach.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014 16:11

Mary Mazzarello’s Courage

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di-sandroLet us spend a while looking at the woman Don Bosco chose to spear head his foundation of an Institute that would do for girls what the Salesians were already doing for boys.

Reading the letters of Mary Mazzarello, one is inevitably struck by her frequent use of the word “courage”. In the simple, homely letters she writes to keep in touch with her sisters who unexpectedly had to leave Mornese to help the young in many new places this word jumps out to catch one’s attention. “Take courage, my good sisters; Jesus must be your whole strength.” “Have great courage and don’t have such a small heart but a big, generous heart.” “Take courage and be always cheerful!” (Letters of Mary Mazzarello: I Will Never Forget You)

But to see what she means by the use of the word, I think we need to look back into her life, for she really does stand up for the things closest to her heart.

Those of us who have seen the film are often exhausted at the way she is portrayed rushing to do as much as possible to help everywhere but especially in the hard work of the fields. Looking more closely it surely required an inner strength to show in her actions her deep faith and to give space to God in the ordinary places where she found herself. Resting from the hard work of labouring in the vineyards and fields she became lost in prayer. Finding that there were evening devotions in her Parish Church which was just too far away for her to attend she joins in from afar and eventually brings all the family to the same practice.

One cannot but be amazed at her audacity and determination to arrive on time for the first mass and being ready to deprive herself of sleep and warmth to get there. Her closest friend and confidant Petronella says, in fact: “One would have needed to know Mary in order to understand how much courage and will power she had!” Her courage helped her to overcome shyness and pushed her to go out to the young at times with some very original solutions. Having tried in vain to help a young friend approach confession, and having used every idea and persuasion she could think of, she finally decided bribery was the only way forward, so she said “If you go to confession, I will give you a chicken and we shall eat it together!” (Cronistoria Vol. 1 P28)

With the young there is certainly always the need to go that extra mile with a mixture of ingenuity and a brave heart. Those of us who know her life will be familiar with her availability to Don Pestarino in the face of the typhoid outbreak in Mornese. What we need to ponder and not just pass over, is that she felt a strong sense that she would contract the disease herself, as these words to Don Pestarino show: “If you wish me to go I will, though I am certain I will catch the infection” (Cronistoria Vol.1 P80)

This testifies to a huge reserve of inner strength, of determination to do her best for others; in fact it points to a characteristic, which enabled her to overcome many, many other hardships that life put in her path and even prepared her for her future leadership of the Salesian Sisters.

We see her overcoming the gossip of the townspeople of Mornese when after seeing her habitual strength taken away because of her illness she learned how to be a dressmaker from the town’s tailor. In those days this was a very daring thing to do, due to the strict protocol surrounding the social conventions between men and women. She also courageously suffered her banishment for several weeks to the distant farm at the Valponasca, caused by unsavoury gossip about her and the members of the little community in the House of the Immaculate. Petronilla commenting on this episode remarks, “Never did any complaint pass her lips either at that time or afterwards, nor did she mention to me anything about the trial God had given her through Don Pestarino, although she knew that I was aware of the cause of all this suffering.”(Cronistoria Vol. 1)

How hard it is to have this strength of will and largeness of heart. When things go wrong it is so easy to seek comfort by trying to get others to understand our side of the picture and so maybe fail in love, expecting affirmation based on others’ criticism to support our feelings of injustice. Thinking of how events panned out we see this simple, almost illiterate girl being asked to guide Don Bosco’s congregation; her courage is aligned with her trust in God’s goodness and her faith in Don Bosco’s sanctity. This did not stop her having to face innumerable difficulties, which she did with calm, wisdom and a tranquillity that left her open to the guidance of the Spirit.

Salesian Courage

Even this brief delving into some of the events in the lives of our Salesian saints shows, I feel, that this virtue of courage is at the very heart of our Salesian charism. Our Salesian spirituality is based on love, which has one great enemy - fear; it can keep us imprisoned inside ourselves with bars of our own making. Maybe today we Salesians need to be reminded that: “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win but sometimes do.” (Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird)

Tuesday, 21 January 2014 16:10

Don Bosco’s Courage

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Is this an unusual topic to consider as a vital part of our Salesian heritage? I do not think so. The virtue properly understood is perhaps more necessary for our focus today than ever.

We can pause and ask ourselves what is the essence of the inspiration which prompted Don Bosco to dedicate his whole life energy to the salvation of youth, especially the poorest? His dream at the age of nine inevitably comes to mind. Sometimes the familiar contains truths so often seen, they become almost invisible. Could this be true about the advice which the Shepherdess gave to Don Bosco?

We, who communicate in English, often suffer, I feel, because of the way some important texts are translated from the Italian. Sometimes the words used are accurate but lack the soul of what was intended. Could this be so for the famous Dream Don Bosco had aged nine? The words used to translate the instructions of Mary to our saint are: “Make yourself humble, strong and energetic.”

I think that a more appropriate word for strong could be courageous. Why? The root of this word is heart, cor. Our whole spirituality is based on the importance of love in our approach to community and education in every sphere. Love also needs a little word of explanation; by love I do not mean the touchy feely type of emotion, which is so often presented to us today in film, TV, adverts and news, “I feel - so it is love!” No, rather I mean the love that is sacrifice; that is the gift of oneself in promoting the good of the other, with a readiness to suffer in person so that that good might be achieved. This was shown to us by Jesus when, to redeem us, he was prepared to give up his life that we might have true life and the real freedom to realise our potential as human beings: knowing and loving the God who is and who comes to us, so that we might have life to the full and not live a sort of pseudo life in the shadow of make believe. Don Bosco himself says, “If one is to do good, one must have a little courage, be ready for sacrifice, deal affably with all and never slight anyone”. (MB III P39)

Courage in our Salesian Tradition

Bild-Don-Bosco bearbeitet-3Re-reading the early years of Don Bosco’s mission among the young I was truly amazed to see how creative and ingenious he was in meeting the young wherever they were. Before he had the fully organised Oratory he spent much time connecting with young people where they were. I was struck by his freedom of spirit and courage in visiting inns, taverns, hotels where the usual run of the mill clergy never set foot, so that he might chat to all and sundry in places where they were at ease and enjoying free time. He was so friendly he easily made himself part of the group. He was often invited back and so had the opportunity, gradually, to bring in the good word, the invitation to do something different, to games or even to study. He often invited the whole group to come to his Sunday Oratory or to come and find him when they needed help or a chat. His genuine kindness and interest nearly always persuaded the adults present to support his requests for these youngsters to get a few hours freedom to come to his home on the Sunday. Because of his big heartedness and courage in serving the young he was not averse even to breaking up fights or speaking up for the welfare of young workers. “When one is convinced that the cause is just, one will fear nothing. When I see God offended, I cannot ignore it or do nothing about it. To prevent it I’ll fight even a whole army.” (MBVII P 231)

We can also see that Don Bosco was a man of immense courage. In his vision of how he would care for the young every opportunity was to be used and no stone left unturned. We see that the early listeners to his visions of schools, workshops, hostels, playgrounds with the best of all types of games and an army of helpers, could only conclude that he was mad. Time was to prove them wrong and his well-founded trust in God’s immense providence make these dreams come true. He knew the risks but believed that God would provide, if he did the necessary work! Surely this persistence in the face of so many mountainous odds shows us his sure hope. He had a heart big enough with love of God and the young to go to the limit to provide what he saw was necessary for youth. He wanted them to have the space and opportunity to enjoy safe, wholesome surroundings where the message of the Gospel was lived so that they could choose to live by the same Gospel way themselves. “When we plan something, we should first see whether it will give glory to God. If that is the case, we should go ahead fearlessly because we shall succeed.” (MBVII)

The Good Shepherd

In giving us the Good Shepherd as our model Don Bosco has further underlined the need for courage. His image of the shepherd was that of those we still see in the Middle East, a person completely dedicated to the sheep. The shepherd’s life was spent for the good of his sheep. His was no nine to five job with long holidays; he was responsible for the sheep entrusted to his care all day, every day. Wandering around the desert was not easy. One never knew what problems, dangers or perils one could come across. Sleeping as the door to the sheepfold might sound romantic but in the dead of night, in the cold, with the possibility of attack from wolves and other creatures requires courage, preparation and readiness to be alert at all times, as well as putting the well-being of these, quite easily led, creatures first. “In those things which are for the benefit of young people in danger, I push ahead even to the extent of recklessness!”

Maybe it is this wholeheartedness, which draws us to want to know more about the Salesian spirit, which inflames our hearts too and stirs up our desire to work for the good of the young today. But these feelings are not the love that comes from courage. No, this gift helps us to ponder the risks, keeping our hearts open even when the heart is asked to hold more than it can! To be courageous in a Salesian sense surely means to act from one’s inner spirit, from that which can be said to be a driving passion, so that we almost rise above pain or pleasure for the greater good of those we serve. Knowing the odds we trust in the Providence of God and put in the necessary effort to work with the tools God gives us.



Tuesday, 21 January 2014 16:09

More Snippets from Scripture

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The Fourth Gospel is a richly veined mine in which we can uncover deep insights into the person and meaning of Jesus, and into the nature of discipleship. In John’s story there are two events which occur in the last week of Jesus’ life which are closely linked. The wider context for each is the celebration of Passover, the immediate setting a meal. Each event contains a symbolic gesture. Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of Jesus and dries them with her hair. Jesus washes the feet of his disciples and dries them with a towel. Together the episodes illustrate the generosity and self-giving of Jesus, and invite a similar response from his friends and disciples.

The first narrative takes place in the village of Bethany near Jerusalem. It is the place where Jesus has recently raised his friend Lazarus to life, a moment of breath-taking drama. His visit is fraught with danger, for he is a marked man. His action in giving life to Lazarus has led the Jewish authorities to decide formally on his death. Against this backcloth there is a celebration meal. Lazarus reclines at table. Martha serves. Mary, the other sister, steals the limelight as she enters with a pound of very costly ointment, and without speaking a word anoints the feet of Jesus and wipes them with her hair. Both actions are highly unusual in that culture. The house is filled with the scent of the perfume. Judas objects to her extravagance, suggesting that she should have given the money to the poor. But Jesus defends her, reminding them that the poor are always there, whereas he won’t be. He then forges a link between her action and his imminent death and burial.

Mary’s action is firstly an expression of gratitude at the restoration of her brother to the family. It captures the joy of a family reunited through the life-giving action of Jesus. It is an unrestrained expression of her love for Jesus, her devotion and commitment, her belief in him as ‘the resurrection and the life’. Her gesture is costly, lavish and extravagant. It communicates the reckless totality of her self-giving. It mirrors the generosity of Jesus, his extravagant love to the end and the uttermost (Jn 13:1). Mary somehow perceives that Jesus’ action in giving life to her brother will lead to his death, which will be a source of life for all of us.

There is an ominous solemnity about the opening of the second narrative, as the disciples gather with Jesus for their final meal together, now that the ‘hour’ has come. Jesus is fully aware of where he comes from, where he is going, what he is about. He is in control of the unfolding story. Jesus rises dreamstime m 68739412from table, and with studied, almost liturgical deliberation, removes his outer garments, takes a towel and wraps it round his waist. Like a servant or slave he pours water into a basin and carefully sets about washing the feet of his disciples, wiping them dry with the towel. So far he has not spoken a word. Simon Peter struggles to cope with this unexpected reversal of roles which subverts the social conventions of the day. Like Judas at Bethany, he misses the point, and objects to what is taking place, categorically refusing to allow Jesus to wash his feet. Jesus insists, observing that otherwise Peter won’t be able to share his heritage and be part of his company. Peter relents and begs Jesus to wash him entirely.

Having completed the washing of the disciples’ feet, Jesus puts his outer garments back on and returns to the table. This washing, this act of humble service, self-effacement and devotion, performed for disciples who in their fragility do not understand, one of whom is a traitor, is symbolic. It is a prophetic gesture. It points to his coming death. It is a kind of commentary which reveals the significance of the events of the following day, events through which Jesus expresses the depth of his love and brings his mission to completion. The good shepherd gives his life for his sheep.

These twin stories reveal to us the love of Jesus for us, his self-forgetful and generous love, his not counting the cost, his passion that we should be drawn from death into the circle of God’s life and love, and become children of the Father. His walking to Bethany, like his walking to Calvary, is an expression of his life-giving friendship. This is Jesus; this is what he is about.

Mary illustrates the meaning of discipleship, the discipleship of friendship. Jesus is at the centre of her life, whatever others may think. She gives her all. The perfume container is empty. She keeps nothing for herself. Jesus at the supper goes on to tell his disciples that they should follow his example of self-giving service. It is the practical way to show our love for one another.

Generosity and service are outstanding characteristics of Don Bosco. He vowed to give his last breath for the young. Nothing was too much trouble. He used his many gifts. He gave his time and energy. He suffered misunderstanding, criticism, anxiety, even death threats. Young people were at the centre of his thinking, his planning, his begging, his praying. His perfume container was empty. He was completely at their service. Anything he could do to help, he would do, no matter how ordinary, menial, or exhausting. He understood his life’s meaning in terms of generous service.

I have met many people who follow Jesus in Don Bosco’s way, generously serving the young and one another. Some are Salesians with whom I have been privileged to live and work, people who are sensitive to the needs of others, and who put themselves out to be of assistance. Others have been young volunteers, cheerful in their availability well beyond the call of duty, in order to respond to the needs of the young people who visited the centre. To be in contact with such people is a wonderful experience, stimulating, enriching, challenging.

The symbols of the empty perfume container and the basin of water transcend time and culture, and continue to speak powerfully to us today about Jesus and about our Salesian way of following him.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014 16:08

Salesian Youth Spirituality

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Spirituality is an old and richly meaningful word.  It denotes the search for what lies deepest in the heart of every human person.

Spirituality is for everyone and is not the prerogative of the chosen few! This is the particular message that Francis de Sales preached to Christians of his day and the same message inspired Don Bosco. There are many expressions of Spirituality. The Salesian Way, however, does not refer to a style of Christian living which turns its back on daily life to find its place in the desert or Monastery. It is about living each day immersed in the mystery of God in our everyday situations. Jesus reveals to us that God is at the very heart of life. The Spirit of Jesus is at work within the very fibre of our humanness, our actions, our words and our daily life experiences. Spiritual women and men allow the mysterious and all-pervading presence of a living God to give meaning and purpose to their lives, their life choices and their optimism.

This conviction has helped us to recognize the gift Don Bosco left us, a spirituality of life and daily living.  Encouraged by the words of John Paul II who acknowledged Don Bosco as a "master of youth spirituality" we are trying to live it with the new insights of our times in relation to God, the human person and education.

IMG 90362The noun "spirituality" attempts to reclaim a serious and challenging search based on the tradition of discipleship. The adjective "Salesian" distinguishes it from other ways offered within the Church. The adjective "youth" stresses the fact that it refers to young people and has the characteristics of youthfulness even when it is embraced by adults. Finally we are saying that we want the "Salesian" and "youth" aspects of our spirituality to encourage us to live the Gospel radically, a practice that has been the hallmark of so many ‘Salesians’ from the beginning.

A new awareness of ‘Salesian Youth Spirituality’ burgeoned in 1988 and has spread Worldwide.  Many people today, including those who are young, continue to carry forward the apostolic mission which Don Bosco and Mother Mazzarello have entrusted to us through living cheerfully the ordinary events of each day, a mission which has education very much at heart.

From the smallest of seeds sown so many years ago a huge tree has grown and continues to grow wherever there is an educator working with the enthusiasm of Don Bosco and Mother Mazzarello, spreading the Kingdom among the young.

Could this spirituality be for you?



Tuesday, 21 January 2014 16:06

Praying as Salesians

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Don Bosco based his approach to prayer on St Francis de Sales’ vision of a loving and saving God. He modelled his prayer in a down to earth, loving kindness for the young, which reflected his deep faith in God’s presence. Six words capture this style.pic from chaplinancy meeting edited2


Salesian prayer engages the heart as well as the head. It also moves a person towards change and to see things differently.


There is an energy and joy about Salesian prayer that renews and challenges life and leads to hope in the future. It is active and practical.


Salesian prayer avoids long and complicated words and prayers in favour of genuine heart to heart conversation with God as Father.


At the heart of Salesian prayer is an awareness of God’s presence as a dependable mystery at the centre of each person and their relationships. Touching and trusting that presence is the purpose of Salesian prayer.


Salesian prayer is not an escape from life. Salesian prayer sifts life experience for God’s presence and celebrates it in personal prayer, in scripture and in sacraments. Prayer opens up an awareness of God in ordinary life and joins the inner and outer life into one story of love.


Salesian prayer focuses on the good and helps it grow. It does not dwell too long on sadness or failure but sees these as stepping stones to greater trust. Salesian prayer does not stop at the cross but moves though it to resurrection and celebration.

Together these words spell out the word “mystic” because Salesian prayer leads towards a practical mysticism that links life and the Spirit.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014 16:05

Salesian Relationships with the Young

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Don Bosco asked Salesians to treat the young as their teachers. To learn the needs, hopes, and insecurities of young people should be paramount in the minds and the hearts of Salesians. This attitude of reverence is rooted in the recognition of God’s unfolding presence in every young life. The Salesian serves this inner spirit in the young by growing into the Gospel image of the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. In adopting this good shepherd role four relationship skills are vital


The mystery of God at the heart of the young demands that a Salesian be polite, honest, genuine and sensitive in relating to the young. The dignity of the young person should be obvious in the behaviour of the Salesian.


A Salesian works with the limitations and potential of young people as groups and as individuals. Knowing their fears and strengths the Salesian shepherds them towards experiences that lead to life, preventing harm before it happens.


Engaging young people with the heart; establishing genuine, friendly relationships with the young people is essential to the Salesian work. Don Bosco said that affection sets up an electric current of confidence between adult and young person by which hearts are opened, hurts are healed and life unfolds for both the Salesian and the young person.


Don Bosco saw fun and laughter as an expression of faith in the God of life. In touching what is deepest in the young he preferred noise, laughter and chaos to heavy and solemn silences. Cheerfulness in adults and young people is a sign of holiness for Salesians.

The above four words spell out the Hebrew word for spirit: Ruah.  


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