The dynamic care of St Mary Mazzarello
Posted: Thu, 06 May 2021 16:06
A reflection for the Feast of St Mary Mazzarello (13 May), co-founder of the Salesian Sisters, from Fr Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB. Photo (SDB UK): Mural of the meeting between Mary Mazzarello and Don Bosco, Mornese.
To be cheerful we must go ahead in simplicity, not looking for satisfaction,
either from people or from the things of this world. Think only of doing your duty well for the love of Jesus and don't think of anything else. If you are humble, you will have confidence in Him. He will do the rest.
St. Mary Mazzarello in a letter to Sr. Giuseppina-Directress of Postulants, 1879
May is a great month for Salesian feasts and it is very important to reflect on the spirituality and goodness that Mary Mazzarello offers the Salesian family. Her letter to Sr Giuseppina sums up her amazing common sense: a call to cheerfulness with a good dash of simplicity! We can make the Christian life so over-complicated, when the central message is so simple; Mary, like Don Bosco, grasped that simplicity: love God, love those around you, and do not forget to love yourself! On the Feast of St Mary Mazzarello, we are invited to share in the simplicity of that message and ensure that we do not preach or live a complicated Gospel message.
Born into a poor farming family in the village of Mornese in 1837, Mary Domenica Mazzarello decided to join the Daughters of Mary Immaculate when she was fifteen; the Daughters were founded by her parish priest, Fr Pestarino, to perform good works in the parish. She seemed to be a popular member of the group, with children drawn to her gentle and self-giving nature. She was no stranger to pandemic and, when a typhoid epidemic hit Mornese, she volunteered to nurse sick members of her family. Like our modern NHS heroes, Mary selflessly stepped up to the plate and offered practical support. Sadly, Mary herself contracted typhoid and made a recovery that left her weakened, but even more able to identify with those who were sick and disadvantaged. As Don Bosco was working hard to bring a solid future to the working class boys of Turin, so Mary felt called to offer hope to the girls of her own neighbourhood: the voice of God called to her, as she passed the village playground, 'I entrust them to your care!'
Like so many brave women of her generation, Mary saw that a good education was going to be the key to raise up the lives of poor working class girls. Under the gentle care of her mentor, Fr Pestarino, Mary gathered the Daughters around her to begin a religious community of Sisters. This tiny seed planted in Mornese has grown into a global family. Don Bosco met with this infant community and saw that it would be an ideal fit for the founding of the Salesian Sisters that he saw as a natural extension of his vision for young people. Mary had to face the chauvinism of her fellow villagers, who were hoping that Don Bosco was there to open a school for boys; her gentle patience and humour won out and Mornese became home to the first convent of the Institute of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians—in Italian, Figlie di Maria Ausiliatrice (FMA). In 1872, Mary and her fourteen pioneering Sisters made their first vows—and history.
These women, guided by Mary Mazzarello, enhanced the feminine dimension to Salesian spirituality that we can see with Jane Frances de Chantal and St Francis de Sales, and Margaret Bosco, Don Bosco's mother. Above all, Mary was a 'mother' to her Sisters and the girls in their care and it is wonderful to think that the FMA, to this day, still refer to her as 'Mother Mazzarello'. Her spirituality, grounded in kindness and common sense, goes on making an impact as the work of The Salesian Sisters continues to impress and encourage. In my own ministry, I have been privileged to share ministry with the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians: I thank God for Sr Bruna, Sr Teresa, Sr Ann (a fellow Mayo native), Sr Marie Louise, Sr Pauline and countless other Sisters who have shared that dynamic care of Mother Mazzarello. To them all, we owe a deep thanks and an opportunity to reflect: in these difficult times of pandemic, they offer us a unique insight into needed space and time for contemplation. Don Bosco told us that he wanted his followers to be 'contemplatives in shirt sleeves'; as I well know, there is a danger in making the ACTION of our lives and ministry an end in itself. In recent times, when we were told to 'stay at home to save lives' we were able to capture something of the meditative spirit of Mary. The hours she spent gazing out of her window in Valponesca helped her to ground her ministry in the love of God. True contemplation allows us to live a Gospel life and reminds us of Jesus' own needed time away from his busy apostolate. As Don Bosco wrote to her:
Pray certainly, but do as much good as you can, especially to the young, and do all you can to prevent sin.
Don Bosco 1864
One of my favourite stories about Mother Mazzarello is the time when she brought her Sisters down to the kitchen during the 'great silence', after night prayer; they had a rather strict convent chaplain who wanted 'peace and order'! Mary wanted to inject much needed fun into the stressful lives of these hard-working women, and gave them treats on condition of not waking the chaplain! Thank God for that sense of fun and deep pastoral care that needs to be more evident in the Church today. As the 'contemplative in action', Mary accompanied her Sisters, offering whatever support and encouragement they needed. It was in Marseilles, supporting her missionaries, that she fell ill and made a long and tortuous journey back home to the simplicity of the convent at Nizza Monferrato—she died here on 14th May 1881, aged only forty-four years. Her vision and witness is celebrated on 13th May, as we remember her; we offer our thanks and gratitude to the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians and wish them every happiness for this great feast.
St Mary Domenica Mazzarello stands with Don Bosco as a passionate advocate for young people. As we move forward with increased hope during this period of vaccinations and a gentle easing of lockdown, we would do well to listen to what our young people are telling us in schools, parishes and youth centres across the land. FMA and SDB ministry is uniquely placed to hear that voice of the young, as we support them in building a future. With Mary, we can all try to live the Gospel Way, as this Belgian Salesian Sister reminds us:
The saints are living Gospels. We can therefore pray through their lives; we can let ourselves be touched by the Lord through the way in which Mary Domenica lived.
Sr Sandrine FMA
Fr Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB