Fr Frank Bertingolli translates a homily given by Rector Major Fr Ángel Fernández Artime

Your first Rector is dead. But there will be another elected, who will take care of you and of your eternal salvation.  Listen to him, love him, obey him, pray for him, as you have done for me.

Don Bosco wrote these words in his last Will and Testament directed to the Salesians. Since the death of Don Bosco in 1888, there have been ten Rectors Major who have taken his place as his Successors.

All have had to face major challenges – due to rapid growth, or steady decline, trying to maintain the Salesian identity across many different cultures. They had to deal with situations of war and political turmoil followed by expulsion or suppression of religious congregations and in recent years, the growth of the Salesian presence in Asia and Arica has been close to phenomenal.

The first four Rectors Major after Don Bosco’s death knew Don Bosco personally and were formed in the Salesian way by the Founder himself. They guided the Salesian Family through a period of rapid growth, up to the early ’60s. Then with the Second Vatican Council, religious life went through a major process of evaluation under the call of “returning to the Founders and to the sources”.  It was a process that generated radical changes and shook the old style of religious life to the core. Not only was there a decline in numbers, but greater responsibility and freedom were placed on the members that remained. This resulted in a mixture of success and failure.

Superiors General and their Councils were entrusted with the major undertaking of re-shaping the presence and the mission of religious congregations, especially those who were engaged in the active apostolate of school education, health care, youth work and social welfare.  At the same time, the leadership of religious congregations was no longer a “European” prerogative, but tended to be more universal, looking at well-prepared leaders from “mission” countries. 

There have been 10 successor Rector-Major's to Don Bosco

This was certainly the direction taken by the last four Successors of Don Bosco, who came from South America, Mexico and Spain.  These leaders were men of God, imbued with the Salesian spirit of Don Bosco; they lived the fatherliness of Don Bosco, while personally visiting the Salesians who are at the coalface of the mission. Their presence and their ability to connect with the young - regardless of the language they use – creates an atmosphere that Don Bosco himself used to generate in his visits to the fledgling Salesian works in France and in Spain. 

The visit of the Rector Major is always planned in advance, with the expectation that would be given to a visit of Don Bosco himself.  It is never just a photo-opportunity, or an occasion for some publicity.  It is always a visit with a message, a challenge, with direction for the future, and the joy and satisfaction of knowing that Don Bosco himself appreciates and supports the work of his sons and daughters in the world.

And when the visit of the Successor of Don Bosco takes place on some extraordinary and unique occasion, as it happened with the recent visit of Fr Angel F. Artime for the centenary of the Salesians in Australia, then the expectation is even  greater.  And those who were part of this experience – including many young people – enjoyed the presence, the rapport, and the message of Fr Angel.

The Australian-Pacific section of the Salesian mission has welcomed three of the last Rectors Major (Frs Vigano’, Chavez and Artime).  Their presence and personal engagement have given new impetus to the work of the Salesian family in this part of the world.  And when they departed, they left behind the feeling of a father leaving the family for a period of time but looking forward to his return!


This story originally appeared in the Winter 2023 edition of the Salesian Bulletin, available now!