Let 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.
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)