|RMG – Strenna 2014: The spiritual experience of Don Bosco as the source of Salesian holiness|
“Da mihi animas, cetera tolle”
Let us draw upon Don Bosco’s experience, so we can walk in holiness according to our specific vocation
“The glory of God and the salvation of souls”
My dear brothers and sisters in the Salesian Family,
After dedicating the first of the three years of preparation for the Bicentenary of Don Bosco's birth to an historical appreciation of who he was, and the second year to recognising his characteristics as an educator and updating his educational practice, in this third and final year it is our intention now to go to the source of his charism and draw upon his spirituality.
Christian spirituality has charity at its core, the very life of God himself who is Agape, Charity, Love at the very depths of his being. Salesian spirituality is no different from Christian spirituality; it too finds its focus in charity; in this case we speak of “pastoral charity”, the charity that urges us to seek “the glory of God and the salvation of souls”: “caritas Christi urget nos”.
Like all the great holy founders, Don Bosco lived his life as a Christian through fervent charity and contemplated the Lord Jesus from a particular angle, the charism that God entrusted him with: the mission to the young. “Salesian charity” is pastoral charity because it seeks the salvation of souls, and it is an educative charity because it finds a resource in education that allows it to help young people to develop all their energies for good; in this way young people can grow up to be upright citizens, good Christians and future inhabitants of heaven.
I invite you then, my dear brothers and sisters, all members of the Salesian Family, to draw from the wellsprings of Don Bosco's spirituality, from his pastoral and educative charity; it finds its model in Christ the Good Shepherd and its prayer and programme for life in Don Bosco's motto “Da mihi animas, cetera tolle”. Thus we will be able to discover “Don Bosco the mystic”, whose spiritual experience lies at the basis of our way of being today, our Salesian spirituality according to the different vocations which take their inspiration from it.
* * *
Getting to know Don Bosco's life and pedagogy still does not mean understanding the deepest secret and ultimate reason for his surprising relevance. Knowledge of aspects of Don Bosco's life, activities and his educational method are not enough. Behind all of this, as the source of the fruitfulness of his activity and relevance, is something that can escape even us, his sons and daughters: his deep inner life, what we could call his “familiarity” with God. Who knows, but maybe this is the best aspect of him that we can use to invoke him, imitate and follow him as we encounter Christ and bring young people into the same encounter.
Today we could draw up a spiritual profile of Don Bosco, starting from the impressions of his earliest collaborators, moving on then to Fr Eugene Ceria's book, his “Don Bosco con Dio” (Don Bosco with God), which was the first description of his spirituality written with a view to disseminating it. We could compare this with the various reinterpretations of Don Bosco's spirituality offered by his Successors, finally arriving at research that has signalled a turning point in the study of Don Bosco's very way of living his faith and religion.
These recent studies are more faithful for the way they are in touch with the available sources and are open to consideration of the various spiritual perspectives that influenced Don Bosco or with which he was in contact (Saint Francis de Sales, Saint Ignatius, Saint Alphonsus Maria Liguori, Saint Vincent de Paul Saint Philip Neri, …). They help us recognise that his was still an original and ingenious experience. At this point it would be interesting to have a new spiritual profile of Don Bosco, a new hagiography, as this term is understood by spiritual theology today.
Don Bosco the “spiritual man” was of interest to Walter Nigg, a Lutheran pastor and professor of Church History at the University of Zurich, and he wrote thus: “Describing someone but overlooking the fact that we are dealing with a saint would be like presenting a half truth. The category of saint has to take precedence over that of the educator. Any other ranking would falsify the hierarchy of values. On the other hand, the saint is someone in whom the natural borders on the supernatural and the supernatural is there in Don Bosco in a remarkable way... We have no doubts: the real modern saint of Italy is Don Bosco”.1
In the 1980s this opinion was shared by theologian Fr Dominique Chenu o.p. To a journalist who questioned him about pointing to some saints who bore a relevant message for our new times he answered: “I would like to call one especially to mind who was the precursor of the Council by a century, Don Bosco. He was a prophetic model of holiness because his work broke with the way of thinking and believing of his contemporaries”.
At every cultural stage and in every context we need to answer these questions:
- What did Don Bosco receive from the environment he lived in? How much does he owe to his context, family, schooling, the Church, the mindset of his times?
- How did he react and what did he give to his time and setting?
- What has been his influence on the times that followed?
- How did his contemporaries see him: Salesians, the people, the Church, lay people? How have later generations understood him?
- What aspects of his holiness seem most interesting to us today?
- How do we translate today, without just copying it, the way Don Bosco interpreted Christ's Gospel for his own times?
These are the kinds of questions that a new hagiography of Don Bosco has to answer. It is not a matter of identifying a definitive, perpetually valid profile of Don Bosco but of highlighting one that is relevant for today. Evidently we emphasise certain aspects of every saint that seem relevant today and leave aside those that we consider not so necessary at our particular moment in history or that we judge to be less relevant for discerning his (or her) chief characteristics.
In fact saints are a response to the spiritual needs of a generation, an eminent illustration of what Christians at a particular time mean by holiness. And evidently the hoped-for imitation of a saint can only be proportional to the absolute reference point which is Jesus of Nazareth; in fact every Christian, in his or her real situation, is called to incarnate in his or her own way the universal figure of Jesus, obviously without ever exhausting it. The saints offer us a concrete and valid path towards this identification with the Lord Jesus.
In the commentary on the Strenna that I will offer the Salesian Family, these will be the three basic aspects I will develop. At the end I will propose some concrete tasks that I anticipate here.
1. Don Bosco's spiritual experience
Spirituality is a characteristic 'feel' for Christian holiness and being inclined in that direction; it is a particular way of ordering one's life for acquiring Christian perfection and being part of a special charism. In other words it is a lived Christianity, a way of acting united with God, and this presumes faith.
Salesian spirituality is made up of various elements: it is a lifestyle, prayer, work, relationships with other people, a community way of life, an educative and pastoral mission based on a pedagogical legacy, an approach to formation, a characteristic set of values and attitudes, a particular focus on the Church and society through specific areas of involvement, an historic inheritance of documents and writings, a characteristic language, a typical series of structures and works, a calendar of festivities and celebrations that are proper to this spirituality ...
The departure point for Don Bosco's spirituality was “the glory of God and the salvation of souls”; he formulated this within his overall program of life “da mihi animas, cetera tolle”. The deep roots of this experience were his union with God, as a theological expression of existence developed through faith, hope and charity, and his spirit of authentic piety. This experience was then translated into visible activity; faith without works is dead and without faith any works are empty. And finally, as a point of arrival he had holiness: holiness that is within everyone's reach, depending on their cooperation with grace; and everyone receives the grace for this.
Our spirituality runs the risk of disappearing because times have changed and sometimes we live it only superficially. To bring it back into life we need to start from Don Bosco, his spiritual experience and from the preventive system. Clerics at the time of Don Bosco saw what was wrong, but they did not want to become religious – yet they were captivated by him. Young people need witnesses, as Paul VI wrote. They need "spiritual people", people of faith, sensitive to the things of God and ready for religious obedience in seeking what is best. It is not novelty which makes us free, but truth; truth is not fashion, superficiality, improvisation: “veritas liberabit vos”.
2. Core and synthesis of Salesian spirituality: pastoral charity
One of St Francis de Sales' lines runs like this: “The human being is the perfection of the universe; the spirit is the perfection of the human being; love, that of the spirit; and charity, that of love.”2 This is a universal approach that places four modes of existence on an ascending scale: being, human being, love as a form of being superior to any other of its expressions, charity as the highest expression of love.
Charity is at the heart of every Christian spirituality: it is not only the first commandment but also the source of energy for progress. It is a mystery and a grace that charity should be sparked off in us; it does not come from any human initiative but is participation in the divine life and an effect of the Spirit's presence. We could not love God had he not loved us first so we might know him and have a taste and desire for him, and have the intelligence and will to measure up. We would not even be able to love our neighbour and see God's image in that person, had we not had personal experience of God's love.
Pastoral charity is an expression of charity with many manifestations: maternal love, conjugal love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, ... It indicates a specific kind of charity. It recalls Jesus the Good Shepherd, not just for the way he acted: kindness, seeking out the lost one, dialogue, forgiveness; but also and especially for the substance in this ministry: revealing God to every man and woman. It is more than evident how different this form of charity is to other forms whose preferential focus is on particular needs of people: health, food, work. The element typical of pastoral charity is proclamation of the Gospel, education to faith, formation of the Christian community, bring the yeast of the Gospel to our setting.
Salesian pastoral charity, then, has its own further special characteristic, documented from the very beginnings of our story: “On the evening of 26 January 1854 we gathered in Don Bosco's room and it was proposed that we engage, with the help of God and of St. Francis de Sales, in an experiment in the practical exercise of charity toward neighbour, ... From that evening the name Salesians was given to those who chose and would in the future choose to engage in such an exercise”.3 Pastoral charity is the core and synthesis of our spirituality, and finds its departure point in the spiritual experience of Don Bosco himself and in his concern for souls. After Don Bosco, his Successors have reaffirmed this belief; it is interesting that their concern throughout to stress this has seen a convergence that leaves no room for doubt. It is expressed in his motto “da mihi animas, cetera tolle”.
3. Salesian spirituality for all vocations
If it is true that Christian spirituality has common elements valid for every calling, it is also true that it is experienced through particular differences and specifics according to one's state in life: priestly ministry, consecrated life, lay faithful, family, youth, the elderly, … they all have their typical spiritual experience. The same is true for Salesian spirituality.
The “Identity Charter of the Salesian Family” identifies the characteristic spiritual traits of each of its groups; we find this especially in part three of the document. But the various groups, legitimately, because of their origin and development, have their own story and spiritual characteristics which need to be known and are an asset for the entire Salesian Family.
Over time, too, a Salesian youth spirituality has developed. Other than the three boys' 'Lives': Michael Magone, Dominic Savio and Francis Besucco, written by Don Bosco, we could think of what he wrote for young people in the “Companion of Youth”, of the Sodalities, … It would be interesting to know something of developments in Salesian youth spirituality over time, up until the 1990s when an authoritative formulation of this spirituality was also provided through the Salesian Youth Movement. We need to better understand what elements of Salesian youth spirituality, and how, to offer non-believing, indifferent youth, or those belonging to other religions.
Salesian Family groups involve many lay people in their mission. We are aware that there cannot be a complete involvement unless there is a sharing of the same spirit. Communicating Salesian spirituality to lay people who share responsibility with us for our educative and pastoral activity becomes a fundamental task. Salesians, like other groups in the Salesian Family, did some explicit work in formulating a Salesian lay spirituality at the 24th General Chapter4. Certainly, lay groups in the Salesian Family are a source of inspiration for such a spirituality.
Now that we have become more aware that there can be no real youth ministry without a ministry to families, we are asking ourselves what Salesian family spirituality we need to develop and offer. There are family experiences that take their inspiration from Don Bosco. We are still at the beginning of this road, but it is one that can help us to develop our popular mission, as well as our mission to the young.
4. Some tasks for the Salesian family
4.1. Let us commit ourselves to a better understanding of what Don Bosco's spiritual experience was, his spiritual profile, so we can discover “Don Bosco the mystic”; this way we can imitate him by living a spiritual experience with charismatic identity. Unless we make Don Bosco's spiritual experience our own we cannot be truly aware of our Salesian spiritual identity; this is the only way we can be disciples and apostles of the Lord Jesus, with Don Bosco as our model and teacher of spiritual life. Salesian spirituality, reinterpreted and enriched through the spiritual experience of the Church after the Council and through reflection by today's spiritual theology, offers us a spiritual journey leading to holiness. We recognise that Salesian spirituality is a true and complete spirituality: it has tapped into the history of Christian spirituality, especially Saint Francis de Sales; it has its source in the specific and original experience of Don Bosco, has been enriched by the Church's experience and has arrived at the reinterpretation and mature synthesis that we have today.
4.2. Let us live this core and synthesis of Salesian spirituality which is pastoral charity. Don Bosco lived it by seeking the “glory of God and the salvation of souls” which became a way of prayer for him and a program of life in the “da mihi animas, cetera tolle”. This charity needs to be fed through prayer and rooted in it by looking at the heart of Christ, imitating the Good Shepherd, meditating on the Scriptures, experiencing Eucharist, making time for personal prayer, taking on a mindset of service of the young. It is a charity which translates into and is made visible by concrete neighbourly gestures, affection, work, dedication. Let us take up the preventive system as a spiritual experience and not just as a proposal of evangelisation and pedagogical approach; it finds its source in the charity of God which precedes everyone with his Providence, accompanies them with his presence and saves them by giving his life for them; it prepares us to see God in the young and calls on us to serve him in them, recognising their dignity, renewing our faith in their resources for good and educating them to the fullness of life.
4.3. And let us pass on our proposal for Salesian spirituality according to the diversity of our vocations especially to the young, lay people involved in Don Bosco's mission, families. Salesian spirituality needs to be lived according to the vocation each one has received from God. Let us recognise the common spiritual traits of each of the various Groups in the Salesian Family as indicated in the “Charter of identity”; let us make the witnesses to Salesian holiness known; let us invoke the intercession of our Blesseds, Venerables and Servants of God and ask for the grace that they may be canonised. Let us offer Salesian spirituality to the young we accompany. Let us offer Salesian spirituality to lay people who are committed to sharing Don Bosco's mission. And by focusing on family ministry, point to a spirituality for families that is appropriate to their circumstances. And finally, let us also invite young people, laity, and families in our educative and pastoral communities or groups to have a spiritual experience, as also any associations that belong to other religions or those who finds themselves somewhat diffident about God; because a spiritual experience is also possible for them, there is room there for inwardness, silence, dialogue with their own conscience, openness to the transcendent.
4.4. Let us read some of Don Bosco's texts that can be considered as sources of Salesian spirituality. I offer you a collection of Don Bosco's spiritual writings where he is a true master of spiritual life5. Thus may we draw on pages that speak to us of the immediacy of a Salesian spiritual life and an experience that each of us can take up.
Fr Pascual Chávez V., SDB
1 W. NIGG, Don Bosco. Un santo per il nostro tempo, Torino, LDC, 1980, 75.103.
2 Cf. FRANCIS DEI SALES, Treatise on the Love of God, Vol II, book X, chap. 1
3 BM V, 9.
4 GC24, Salesians and lay people: communion and sharing in the spirit and mission of Don Bosco, Rome 1996, nos. 89-100.
5 A. GIRAUDO (ED),