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
Re-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.