“I am the good shepherd: The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (Jn 10:11)
Let us make the young our life’s mission by coming to know and imitate Don Bosco
Year one of the three year preparation period for the bicentennial of the Don Bosco’s birth focuses on our getting to know his story. We need to study him and, through the events of his life, we need to come to know him as an educator and pastor, founder, guide, legislator. It is an awareness that leads to love and imitation. This is the theme of Strenna 2012.
For us members of the Salesian Family, who turn to Don Bosco as our reference point, he needs to be what St. Francis of Assisi has been and continues to be for the Franciscans and St. Ignatius of Loyola for the Jesuits , i.e. the founder, the spiritual master, model of education and especially initiator of a movement of worldwide importance, someone who was able to formidably bring young people’s needs, circumstances, future to the attention of the Church and society. But how can we do this without turning to history, which is not the custodian of a lost past, but a living memory within us which challenges us in terms of relevance?
Our approach to Don Bosco, done with appropriate methods of historical research, has led us to better understand and assess his human and Christian greatness, his practical brilliance, his skills as an educator, his spirituality, his work, fully understood only if deeply rooted in the history of the society in which he lived. At the same time through a knowledge of his journey through history we have always been aware of God’s providential intervention in his life. In this historical study there is no a priori rejection of the valid and respectable image that generations of the Salesians, Salesian Sisters, Salesian Cooperators and members of the Salesian Family have had of the Don Bosco they knew and loved, but there is and must be a presentation and reworking of an image of Don Bosco for today, one that can speak to today’s world, makes use of a renewed language.
The image of Don Bosco and his activity should be seriously reconstructed, beginning from our cultural horizons: the complexity of life today, globalisation and the difficulties of the apostolate, the decline in vocations, the “questioning” of consecrated life. Radical, or epochal changes as my predecessor, Fr Egidio Viganò called them, force us to rethink and revise the image in another light, in view of a fidelity that is not mere repetition of formulas or formal allegiance to tradition.
The historical significance of Don Bosco also has to be rediscovered, beyond his “works” and certain relatively original pedagogical elements, especially in his practical and affective perception of the universal, theological and social problem of ”neglected’ youth, and his great ability to communicate this to large crowds of co-workers, benefactors and admirers.
Let us ask ourselves: Are we faithful followers of Don Bosco today? Do we still experience the tension that he experienced between the ideal and its realisation, between intuition and its embodiment in the social fabric in which he operated?
To be faithful to Don Bosco means knowing his history and the history of his times, making his inspiration our own, taking up his motivations and choices. To be faithful to Don Bosco and his mission is to cultivate in ourselves a strong and abiding love for young people, especially the poorest.
This love leads us to respond to their most pressing and deepest needs. Like Don Bosco, we feel touched by their difficult situations: poverty, child labour, sexual exploitation, lack of education and vocational training, integration into the world of work, lack of self-confidence, fear of the future, loss of meaning in life.
We try to be with them, in affection and through selfless love, holding sway discretely, offering sound proposals for them to follow as they make their choices in life and experience happiness and seek their future. In everything, we become their companions on the journey and competent guides.
In particular, referring to the youth of today, we seek to understand their new way of being. Many of them are ‘digital natives’ looking for experiences of social mobility, the possibility of intellectual development, elements of economic progress, forms of instant communication, opportunities to be pro-active via new technologies. Here too we want to share their lives and their interests. Guided by the creative spirit of Don Bosco, as educators and ‘digital immigrants’, we stay close to them, trying to help them overcome the generation gap with their parents or the adult world.
We take care of them throughout their journey of growth and as they mature, giving them our time and our energy and staying with them as they grow through childhood to become young adults.
We take care of them when difficult situations like war, hunger, lack of future opportunities, lead them to abandon home and family and face life alone.
We take care of them when they are looking out anxiously for their first job and setting about fitting into society, sometimes without any hope or prospect of success.
We take care of them when they are building up their world of affection, their family, accompanying them especially when they become engaged and in the early years of their marriage (see GC26, 98.99.104).
We are particularly keen to fill the deepest void of their hearts, helping them seek meaning in their lives and above all offering a way for growth in knowledge and friendship with the Lord Jesus, in the experience of a living Church, in real commitment to experiencing their lives as vocation.
Beginning from our knowledge of the history of Don Bosco, our major points of reference and our tasks stemming from Strenna 2012 are as follows.
Pastoral charity characterises Don Bosco’s entire story and is what animates his many works. We could say that it is the concise historical perspective through which to read his entire existence. The Good Shepherd knows his sheep and calls them by name, he quenches their thirst with clear water and allows them to graze in green pastures; he becomes the gate through which the sheep enter the sheepfold, and gives his own life so that the sheep may have life in abundance. The greatest power of Don Bosco’s charism is the love drawn directly from the Lord Jesus, imitating him and remaining in Him. This love consists in giving everything. From this stems his apostolic vow: “I have promised God to spend myself until my dying breath for my poor youngsters”. This is our brand and our credibility with the young!
In Don Bosco’s story we come to know of much hardship, privation, suffering, and of the many sacrifices he made. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Through the needs and requests of young people, God is asking each member of the Salesian Family to sacrifice him or herself for them. Living the mission is therefore not a vain activity for activity’s sake, but rather conforming our hearts to the heart of the Good Shepherd who does not want any of his sheep to be lost. It is a deeply human and deeply spiritual mission. It is a path of asceticism, for there is no animating presence among young people without asceticism and sacrifice. Losing something, or rather, losing everything to enrich the lives of our young people is what supports our dedication and our commitment.
Through the minutes of the founding of the Salesian Congregation, and especially through historical development of the multifaceted work of Don Bosco, we can get to know the purpose of the Salesian Family, as this purpose was detailed little by little. We are called to be apostles of the young, of popular settings, of poor and mission areas. Today more than ever we commit ourselves to a critical understanding of media culture, and we use the media, in particular new technologies, as potential multipliers of our activity in being close to and supportive of young people. While we are in their midst as educators, we involve them as our first collaborators, as did our Father, and we give them responsibility, help them to take initiative, enable them to be apostles of their peers. In this way we can extend the great heart of Don Bosco; he wanted to reach and serve young people throughout the world.
Our good intentions cannot remain empty declarations. Like Don Bosco, God waits for us in today’s youth! We therefore need to meet them, and stay with them in the places, circumstances and frontiers where they await us. This is why we need to go out to meet them, take the first step, walk with them. It is heartening to see how the Salesian Family throughout the world is doing its best for the poorest young people: street children, excluded children, young workers, young soldiers, young apprentices, neglected orphans, exploited children, but a heart that loves is always a heart that asks itself certain questions. Even today, or perhaps today more than ever, Don Bosco asks questions. By getting to know his story we must listen to the questions Don Bosco addresses to us. What more can we do for poor young people? What are the new frontiers where we work, in our country? Have we the ears to hear the cries of young people today? Besides the above-mentioned poverty, how many other kinds of poverty weigh on today’s young people as they struggle on their way? What are the new frontiers we must get involved in today? Think about the reality of the family, the educational emergency, the confusion in affective and sexual education, lack of social and political involvement, the ebbing tide of privacy of personal life, spiritual weakness, the misery of so many young people. We hear the cry of young people and offer answers to their deepest most pressing needs, their practical and spiritual needs.
From his personal life’s experience we can know the responses Don Bosco gave to the needs of young people. In this way we can better consider the responses that we have already put in place and what others still need to be created. Of course there are difficulties. We have to deal with the wolves who want to devour the flock: indifference, ethical relativism, consumerism that destroys the value of things and experiences, false ideologies. God is calling us and Don Bosco encourages us to be good shepherds in the image of the Good Shepherd, so that young people will still find Fathers, Mothers, Friends and above all can find Life. Moreover, true Life, the abundant life offered by Jesus!
The Memoirs of the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales, written by Don Bosco at the explicit request of Pope Pius IX, are a point of reference for coming to know Don Bosco’s spiritual and pastoral journey. They are written so that we might come to know the prodigious beginnings of the vocation and work of Don Bosco, but especially so that taking up Don Bosco’s motivations and choices, we as individuals, and as each group of the Salesian Family, might follow the same spiritual and apostolic journey. They were regarded as “memories of the future”. So in the course of this year let us commit ourselves to getting to know this text, communicating its contents, disseminating it, and especially putting it into the hands of young people: it will become an inspirational book for their vocational choices.
Fr Pascual Chávez V, SDB