Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the birthday of the Salesians
Posted: Thu, 03 Dec 2020 23:01
Happy 179th Birthday to all in the Salesian family!
Our tradition has it that our great Salesian family was 'born' on this day, 8th December in 1841. According to the story that most of us are familiar with, Don Bosco was preparing to celebrate the feast-day mass of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in the Church of St Francis of Assisi. He had been ordained to the priesthood only four months previously and was still searching for a way to fulfil his childhood dream: a dream that was to follow him through life, a dream that was to guide his vision of care and education of young people in an atmosphere of fun. This Church building was so important to him: it was there that Don Bosco celebrated his First Mass, at the altar of the Guardian Angel. His mentor and spiritual director, Don Caffasso, a saint noted for his work on death row, lived in one of the rooms above the sacristy. By the side of the sacristy, there was a little courtyard, which would eventually be used by the first youth group that he started.
However, 179 years ago that youth group was more of a dream than a reality—until he heard a huge row coming from the main church, and discovered the sacristan chasing a young man around the building with a broom! Although he had never seen the boy before, he realised that this was a young person who was in trouble and who needed support and encouragement. The boy was not there to go to mass, rather he was sheltering from the cold Turin winter—at least the Church was warm. The pious and rather officious sacristan could not cope with this—the child needed to be punished. "Is this any way to treat a good FRIEND of mine?" asks the kindly priest of the embarrassed sacristan and the confused child. Some eminent Salesian historians see this event as a literary device to include all the young people that our founder tried to reach out to in those early days; the boy, 'Bartholomew Garelli' is presented as an amalgam of these young people.
Just as we need not get too worried or upset about the historical accuracy of an actual 'Good Samaritan', Bartholomew's encounter with Don Bosco reflects a reality that we, as followers of that ideal, still strive to practise to this day. Bosco takes the initiative; he does not care that this youngster is not there to serve mass or sing in the choir. We sometimes expect so much from young people, whom society and the media can then conveniently scapegoat when things go wrong. A wise priest once said to me, "it's not about WHY you come to church. The more important question is why do you STAY?" Don Bosco had that ability to offer welcome and hospitality that all of us need—young people will know where they are not wanted. How does your school, parish and family really LISTEN to the young? As a school or parish, are you truly prepared to give the youth a voice? Jesus saw that we, as a Church, need to listen as he helped the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak. Our young people have a unique perspective and understanding on this recent pandemic that we need to hear—can you listen?
In the conversation, Don Bosco discovered that Bartholomew had so much weighted against him: he was homeless, poor, lacked proper food or clothing and had no formal education. Society was not on this child's side: he had been dealt a bitter blow, sharing the fate of thousands more like him on the streets of Turin. Bosco never saw the negative, he discovered that one deeply hidden talent that Bartholomew had, and he chose to focus on that. By highlighting the positive, Bartholomew was able to realise quickly that his life was not a failure. Children today need adults to believe in them—they need YOU to believe in them. What a great way to celebrate the feast today: show a younger member of your family that you trust them. Why not listen to their dreams and visions for the future? Are you prepared to share with them your dreams for a world shattered by COVID-19? Bosco knew that he had to fulfil his dream and so shape the lives of desperate young people in need. We can only come out of this international pandemic by consciously working TOGETHER across nations, gender and age groups.
In this simple meeting on this feast day 179 years ago, Bosco showed a willingness to share his wisdom and listen to the dream of the young person. Sadly, the angry sacristan displayed an attitude that so many show in the world today, even at the highest political level: if you cannot get your way, then bully, shout and turn to violence. In the history of our Salesian family, this simple encounter and Don Bosco's ability to listen and show that compassion marks our birthday. Don Bosco was able to begin his mission on this day with a simple prayer with Bartholomew—that 'Hail Mary' was for the millions of young people who remain FRIENDS of Don Bosco across the globe and throughout time.
Don Bosco used the 'Accompaniment' model of Jesus that is seen clearly in the resurrection account of the 'Road to Emmaus' (please read Lk. 24: 13-35). The Gospels abound with journeys from the road to Bethlehem shared by Joseph and Mary, to the Way of the Cross. On the way to Emmaus, the disciples are so full of grief that they cannot recognise the risen Lord; undeterred, Jesus uses it as a chance to help them in their understanding of what death and new life meant for Jesus and the infant Christian community. This walking together prompts the disciples to invite Jesus to their table at home. It is in this context of family, that they finally see who this 'stranger' is as he breaks the bread of Eucharist with them. The sharing of the bread of life and cup of blessing comes at the end of the process—Jesus would have lost them if he had started with this. He was willing to listen to their story and questions, before he shared the Word of life with them. We can often feel distracted, rejected, beaten up by the world—and then the Lord himself begins to speak to us through the Scriptures, the inspired Word of God. Have you ever noticed how so often the first reading and the Gospel fit so perfectly together? That's because the Tradition of the Church has coordinated the readings—so that is what Jesus showed to Cleopas and his companion on the road. The connections between Old Testament prophecy and fulfillment in Christ become apparent to us too. If we are paying any attention at all, our faith is built up, our spirit renewed. Thus prepared, we move from the table of the Word to the table of the Eucharist. Don Bosco saw this friendly meeting as his model of encounter with the unchurched and spiritually illiterate youngsters he was called to work with.
As we celebrate 179 years of Salesian ministry, we thank God for the simplicity of our way of life—we are invited to a simple family spirit. We share that vision of a nine year old John Bosco, who wanted to make sure that children and young people are cared for, and encouraged to reach their God-given potential. As with all birthdays, we can give gifts today—the gifts of listening and trust, so crucial in the Salesian outlook. In the gospel at mass today we will hear again Luke's account of the Annunciation (please read Lk. 1: 26-38): we are invited to have that listening ear of Mary and her unending faith and trust. Our special gift today is that we truly listen to our young people and that we show our trust in them. We need to live the saying of Don Bosco, "it is not enough to care for young people, they must KNOW that they are cared for!"
2020 was a transformative year for all of us, one that hit us so hard. If we, as adults, have been hurt by the extremes of the pandemic, then think of how difficult it has been for our young people. Certainties have been taken from them and their education disrupted as they faced lockdown. This past year has been one of the most rapidly changing, chaotic periods many of us have ever experienced. When life's uncertainties threaten to steal our inner calm, we can either give in to despair or turn to God and others in faith. It has not all been negative: some of us at least, gained time and space that, hopefully, we have been able to use to the good.
As we move towards 2021 and the blessing of a vaccine, we may be able to travel again. Wherever you go, I would urge you to take time and travel to Turin and visit Valdocco, the Church of St Francis and the early playground. At this very first Salesian campus you will still find the essential elements of Salesian ministry still played out: the playground, home, school and church are alive. It is not a museum but a living experience of Bosco's warmth and methodology that is still relevant 179 years later in its popular parish and thriving school. However, this year a small Salesian museum, 'Don Bosco Home' did open; we need to remember and acknowledge our firm foundations as we move forward in new and exciting ways, still responding to the needs of young people. The joys and hopes, the grief and sadness of teenagers in 2020 will be different in some areas of their lives to that of teenagers in 1841, but the vision of support remains the same. Working together we can all be part of the solution. Our Rector Major, Don Ángel SDB, inspires all of us to share a living common history:
Today the invitation is made to everyone: Come! Get to know Valdocco. Browse around. Experience this place. Be still and listen to what the "walls are saying" because "at Valdocco, everything speaks.
Ángel Fernández Artime SDB 14/10/2020
If you would rather not travel physically, then make the journey online—you can connect and discover what Valdocco is saying today: www.museocasadonbosco.it
Remember today is a wonderful feast and a birthday—cake and a drink is a must. Enjoy and have a wonderful day.
Fr Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB