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.
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.