Message of the Rector Major
18 December 1859. Everything began here! In this room and in these surroundings which have witnessed thousands of boys and young men grow up at the school of Don Bosco. To some of these he made a demanding specific proposal: “to form a Society or Congregation with the aim of promoting the glory of God and the salvation of souls, especially of those most in need of instruction and education , while providing the members with mutual help toward their own sanctification.” Our Congregation has a founding date, but it goes back further than that. A story which began and slowly matured in the heart and the life of Don Bosco who knew how to read the signs of the times, overcoming difficulties and working tenaciously. A story we need to recall and to tell to our young people involving them in our life. With you, dear friends, I want to recall what happened that evening.
An episode to be remembered
The minutes of the founding of the Congregation have a date: the 18 December 1859. That day represents above all the point of arrival of a long and not easy journey. Don Bosco, having realised that the Lord was calling him to a special mission with the poorest and most abandoned boys, guided and supported by Don Cafasso, gradually embarked upon an exercise of welcoming and training the boys, overcoming not a few difficulties in the process. After his arrival at Valdocco, in the spring of 1846, and the first tentative steps at establishing the Oratory of Saint Francis of Sales, Don Bosco started to reflect on how he could maintain his work and follow it up. There were quite a few signs of encouragement from outside, from Prelates and lay people who, being admirers of the work of the Oratory were putting the same question to Don Bosco, and at the same time there were attempts to involve the first collaborators in a more permanent project. But as history shows us it was a series of attempts and failures. Don Bosco saw that it was necessary to change his strategy.
Certainly as the basis of his intuition there is the passage from the evangelist St Mark where he gives an account of the setting up of the group of the Twelve.
And he went up into the hills and called to him those he wanted and they came to him. And he appointed twelve to be with him and to be sent out to preach.
The passage from Mark tells us that the group of the twelve had a very specific task: that of being with Jesus so as then to become the ones he sent out. Time spent living with Jesus is their first duty, after which will come the commission to evangelise. For the apostle the sharing of life comes before the mission: only the companions of Jesus, his close friends, will be his representatives. This was Don Bosco’s starting point!
In the Valdocco Oratory there was an atmosphere of commitment and pastoral outreach. The Immaculate Conception Sodality, organised by Dominic Savio with the approval of Don Bosco himself in the autumn of 1854, is an example of this. The better boys and youths set themselves to follow up those who had the most need of help and support. It was the yeast in the dough! To some of his boys who were more open to it Don Bosco used to make suggestions which were demanding and specific, as happened in January 1854.
“On the evening of 26 January1854 we gathered in Don Bosco’s room; Don Bosco, Macchietti, Artiglia, Cagliero and Rua. Don Bosco suggested that with the help of the Lord and St Francis of Sales we should first test ourselves by performing deeds of charity towards our neighbour, then bind ourselves by a promise, and later if possible and desirable make a formal vow to God. From that evening on those who agreed – or would later agree – to this were called Salesians.”
It was the first step! In the following years Don Bosco began to follow up with special attention some young men in whom he saw the clear signs of a call from God, inviting them to stay with him. Many promised to do so, but not a few had second thoughts. On the evening of 8 December 1859, at the end of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Don Bosco announced at the Good Night that the next day there would be an important meeting in his room.
And so it was. On the evening of Friday 9 December 1859, 19 people met together in Don Bosco’s room.
My dear friends, you know how recently I have spoken at length about how good and meritorious it is to be part of a religious congregation. Whoever consecrates himself totally to God can more easily save his own soul acquiring merits through his obedience. In recent years the work of our Oratory has grown and I think the time has come to start our congregation. Many have suggested it and the Holy Father himself has encouraged me. Some of you have been engaged in performing acts of charity towards your neighbour … the time has come to take a further step forward. We shall continue to call ourselves Salesians and all those who do not want to join us need no longer attend my conferences. I am giving you a week to think about it.
It was not an easy decision. Don Bosco had invited his young men to become part of a religious congregation, to put their lives and their future on the line, consecrating their lives to God for boys who were abandoned and in danger. The social climate of the time was no help. A few years earlier the Rattazzi Laws had closed convents and expelled religious. Joseph Buzzetti, extremely close to Don Bosco, did not feel like it. He would become a Salesian Brother only in 1877. Michael Rua, as always, accepted Don Bosco’s request as a command and began a retreat prior to receiving in the following days the minor orders and the subdiaconate. John Cagliero, wasn’t sure. He paced up and down the portico with various thoughts crossing his mind.
Monk or not it’s all the same to me. I’m staying with Don Bosco!”
He wrote a note in which he told Don Bosco that he deferred completely to his advice and to the decision of his superior.
“Come, then, come; this is the way for you!”
The following Sunday, 18 December, at the end of the day all met up in Don Bosco’s room. Only two were missing. That evening the Salesian Congregation was born! At Don Bosco’s side were: Fr Victor Alasonatti, 47 years of age a companion of Don Bosco at the Ecclesiatical College, Michael Rua, 22 years of age, always attached to Don Bosco, his 1st successor, Angelo Savio, 24 years of age, first Economer General, died a missionary in Ecuador, John Cagliero, 21 years of age, became the first Salesian Bishop and Cardinal, John Bonetti, 21 years of age, first Director of the Bollettino salesiano, Charles Ghivarello, 24 years of age, appreciated as a confessor, John Baptist Francesia, 21 years of age, a great writer, the last survivor of the first generation of the Salesians. Joseph Lazzero, 22 years of age, a friend of Michael Magone, Celestine Durando, 19 years of age, a great teacher and author of school text books, Francis Cerruti, 15 years of age, Director General of Salesian Schools and of the Salesian Press, Francis Provera, 23 years of age, a great administrator and priest, Joseph Bongiovanni, 23 years of age, helped Dominic Savio start the Sodality of the Immaculate Conception and draw up its rules, There were also John Anfossi, Marcellino Luigi, Secondo Pettiva, Anthony Rovetto, and Aloysius Chiapale, all of them very young too. Life’s ups and downs and the way they kept changing their minds ended with them all, some sooner some later, leaving the Pious Salesian Society
An episode with a lesson
Having traced the main outlines of the story of the birth of our congregation, I want to indicate three elements which I consider fundamental and which are focal points for us to be able to keep alive Don Bosco’ s dream and apostolic plan. In the first place are the young, the real protagonists in the birth of the Congregation, of our mission and of our life. The second follows from our consecration and from the observance of the Constitutions which point out for us the path of fidelity to Don Bosco’s charism and, finally, the special attention we need to give to the Salesian Family that vast movement of people who are working for the salvation of youth.
The Salesians are born with a youthful heart. The Founders, with the exception of Don Bosco and Don Alasonatti, were all young men between 15 and 24 years of age. The Salesian Congregation was born and grew up thanks to the involvement of young men who had been enthused by Don Bosco’s dream. Gradually as the years passed Don Bosco had personal experience of the difficulty of gathering collaborators for his work. Soon he realised that among the lines of his boys good helpers were growing up and with these he began a slow process of involving them in the work of the Oratory. In addition he did not hesitate to suggest to his young men courageous and daring undertakings such as voluntary service during the cholera epidemic of summer 1854, and the outreach to the missions in 1875 when the congregation was still in its early stages. Knowing how to make great demands on the young men and involve them in pastoral activity seems to be Don Bosco’s secret and one which Salesians nowadays are being called to re-discover and put into practice in the various contexts.
The episode of 18 December 1859 contains in itself a second important element: a Salesian is a consecrated person. Don Bosco very soon became convinced of how important the inseparable link was between consecration and mission, and made of it the keystone of the formation of his Salesians. The seed cannot germinate and grow upwards (mission) unless at the same time its roots are spreading downwards (consecration). After having asked the opinion of Don Cafasso, of Mgr. Losana, and, on their advice, that of Pope Pius IX, Don Bosco was convinced that his helpers, in addition to staying with him and acting like him had to “belong to God” in order to be able to devote their whole lives to the salvation of youth. The date of Don Bosco’s profession is not known, but it is certain that he felt himself to belong totally to God, to the extent of living in full intimate union with Him. Pius XI, who only spent two days with him said of him: “Don Bosco was with God.” For the consecrated person and in particular for the Salesian, the religious vows constitute an offering to the Lord.
“True obedience which makes us dear to God and to our Superiors consists in doing cheerfully whatever is commanded by our constitutions, or by our superiors, who can guarantee what we do in God’s eyes. …; It is true that at times we shall have to suffer some inconvenience on our journeys, in our work, in times of health and of sickness. We shall sometimes have food clothing and other things not to our liking; but it is precisely then that we ought to bear in mind that we have made profession of poverty and that if we want to have its merit and reward we ought to bear with its consequences. Chastity is “the virtue supremely necessary, the great virtue, the angelic virtue, the one to crown all others … Our Saviour assures us that those who gain this priceless treasure, become, even in this life, like the angels of God,”
The way to strengthen the indissoluble bond between consecration and mission according to the heart of Don Bosco is to be found in the Constitutions. Definitively approved on 3 April 1874 and renewed in the light of the Second Vatican Council, the Salesian Constitutions represent for the person who professes them a safe and infallible path of holiness.
The great heart and the untiring mind of Don Bosco did not limit themselves to the Salesian Congregation. Interpreting, and some times anticipating the signs of the times Don Bosco gave life to the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, the Cooperators and the Devotees of Mary Help of Christians. After him, his sons always listening to the promptings of the Spirit, brought into existence religious and lay Institutes creating a vast movement of people dedicated to the salvation of the young. The Salesians, the first-born nucleus, are called to have a great heart which welcomes and recognises as brothers and sisters all the members of the Salesian Family; a welcome which is grateful for, and rejoices in the diversity, as an expression of the Spirit who speaks in many languages; the desire to walk together towards a shared goal: The Kingdom of God to be brought to the young and to the poor.
My dear and beloved Sons in Jesus Christ I thank you with all the most ardent affection of my soul for the obedience you have given me, and for all you have done to sustain and propagate the Congregation. Make firm and efficacious resolutions to remain staunch in your vocation until death. Continue to love me in the future by the exact observance of our Constitutions. I wait for you in heaven.
Let us take to heart the exhortation our Father left us in his spiritual testament. May the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the founding of our Congregation help us to re-discover the vitality of its origins and to know how to transmit it faithfully to the Church and to Society of today. Let us tell our story: that of Don Bosco, that of the first Salesians and that of our own lives; let us co-involve our young people and courageously invite them to follow Don Bosco’s dream. And so for this reason, I invite you to renew today our offering to God making it ever more profound and authentic.