With Heart filled with Gratitude
My heart is filled with gratitude and immense joy as I lay down my office after having served the Association of the Past Pupils of Don Bosco as the World Delegate for 4 years (2016-2020). It has been a God-given opportunity to visit and animate the Past Pupils’ Federations around the world. I hand over the baton, received from my predecessor, Fr. José Pastor Ramirez SDB, to the new delegate, Bro. Dominic Nguyen Duc Nam SDB from Vietnam. The Association is on a firm footing with the updated Statutes, the strategic plan with 7 priorities, and with an efficient working structure coordinated by the presidency and the executive council. I am grateful to Rev. Fr. Ángel Artime Fernández SDB, the Rector Major, for this singular opportunity and to the President, Mr. Michal Hort, and all the presidency members for their friendship and collaboration in implementing the strategic plan and thus enhancing the quality of the Confederation worldwide.
The Past Pupil Confederation is a big asset and a huge potential, with a long history and a large number of past pupils who love Don Bosco and live with gratitude to the Salesians and are committed to their families and society. It offers also a big challenge to animate them in order to help them build up their own lives first, and also become apostles who build up the Church and society.
Roots – 150 years back
We celebrate the 150 years of our existence as Past Pupils of Don Bosco. The origin of the Past Pupils’ Movement goes back to the initiative of a small group of artisan past pupils of the first Oratory at Valdocco, Turin. Led by the book-binder Carlo Gastini (who later became the first president of the Past Pupils of Don Bosco), they went to Don Bosco on his name-day, June 24, 1870, to express their gratitude to him. They gave Don Bosco a pleasant surprise on the feast day of his patron, with a gift of “tazzine” (coffee cups). Don Bosco had sown in their hearts the seed of gratitude and solidarity that bore fruits.
Don Bosco loved his pupils. Once they completed their educational programme, he followed them up, welcomed, guided, admonished them when necessary, and was concerned about their wellbeing, above all, about their spiritual life. “With your presence you assure me that the principles of our holy religion that I taught you are set firmly in your hearts and that these are the guidelines for our lives” (MB XVII, p. 173-174).
While addressing the Past pupils once, Don Bosco said: “One thing for which we must gratefully thank the Lord, which forms my greatest consolation, is that wherever I go, I always hear good things about you: everywhere good words are spoken about my young of bygone days, everyone praises this meeting of ours, because it is a significant means to remember the warnings and words of advice I used to give you when you were of a younger age.”
Don Bosco remembered the absent ones and like a loving father exclaimed: “If I loved you when you were young pupils, now that you are grown up men, I love you much more. Not all have come back, but when you meet them, tell them on my behalf that Don Bosco loves them always.”
On another occasion, speaking to the Past Pupils, Don Bosco said: “One thing I urge you, my dear children, more than any other and that is: wherever you might be, always show yourselves to be good Christians and honest citizens… Many of you already have families. So, share the education you received in the oratory from Don Bosco, with your nearest and dearest” (MB XIV, p. 511).
The World Presidency of the Past Pupils has prepared, among other initiatives, 5 main projects to celebrate the 150th year and the Jubilee year 2020-2021:
• The statue of Carlo Gastini at Valdocco and his Biography in various languages;
• The book on Blessed Alberto Marvelli, a model Past Pupil on how to be a good Christian and upright citizen, in various languages;
• The publication of an e-book with the profiles of 150 outstanding model Past Pupils who are inspiration to the Alumni today;
• The 150 best Projects carried out by the Past Pupils worldwide;
My Joyful memories
As we enter into the jubilee year, and as I pass on the baton, I recall some wonderful experiences that made me realise how much the association has grown in these 150 years. I have seen great enthusiasm of the past pupils in various countries like India, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Slovakia, Portugal, Thailand, Philippines, Japan, Timor Leste, Cambodia, the United States, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Kenya, Tanzania, etc. I was happy to see the dynamic delegates and presidents and their various initiatives for and through the past pupils.
The Asian Congress of Past pupils at Timor Leste and the South American Congress (Congrelaat) at the Dominican Republic were organized very well by the Regional Federations with great enthusiasm and precision. The national congresses of India, Brazil, Spain and Italy are imprinted in my heart. The meeting of African delegates and presidents in Kenya showed a great future is possible in African continent if helped consistently.
An experience that remains embedded in my heart is the visit to the “Cristal school” in Timor Leste, run by the past pupils for about 5000 poor students, an outstanding example of the commitment of the past pupils. More than 100 schools built by Fr. Vincenzo SDB in Kenya and South Sudan with the help of the past pupils of South Korea and Japan is yet another sign of the spirit of Don Bosco burning in the hearts of the past pupils and what they can achieve. The involvement of the past pupils in many countries at the time of national disaster like Tsunami and Covid-19 is praiseworthy. There are many other memorable experiences that are etched in my mind.
At the world level, it was my joy to see the following System set up: the meeting of the World Presidency every year in different continents and the Executive council every three months; Continental regional meetings once in four years; Clarity and vision with the strategic plan with 7 priorities focussing on: i) information (database, communication); ii) formation (personal formation, family, salesian family); and iii) transformation (business platform and fund-raising for the salesian mission and social projects). Focus has been given to the Formation of GEX (Giovani EXallievi) with a world vice president, regional councillors and a specific formation programme. Enthusiasm among the Salesians and past pupils in various countries and provinces has filled me with joy and optimism.
Called to fly with Wings
For the Past Pupils, this jubilee is a blessing, inspiring them to become more active and alive in the present context, and to realise the dreams of Don Bosco for whom the process of education and development did not end when the young person left the youth centre or the parish or graduated from the school. It is a continuous process making the young person a valuable asset to the society and to his/her mission.
Challenges for the Past Pupils
1. Creation of Local Units
It is important to focus on creation of local units in ‘every’ Salesian centre (institution). Initial official registration, constant communication and effective formation at the unit and federation level facilitate their commitment and sense of belonging. The real challenge is to reach out to past pupils who are not yet registered members of the association in order to respond to the concern expressed by Don Bosco in the very first meeting in 1870.
2. Focus on the Organisation
The local units need to be formed into provincial/national Federations. While focussing on re-activation of the federations that are struggling and enhancing the powerful ones, it is important to help the provinces that need to take the first steps. Active secretariat at Rome under the guidance of the Delegate will help the organisation better. Greater sharing and collaboration of the Delegate and the President at the world and national/provincial levels will enhance the number of the members as well as the quality of the World Confederation. Mobilising finance for its own stability, for empowerment of the regional councillors in their animations and for the upliftment of the poorest through social projects is a dire need. Geographical areas like Africa and certain provinces of Asia and Oceania need to be guided to form units and eventually federations. There is a need for greater focussed lay leadership, a united presidency team and an effective Executive Council with a greater follow-up and commitment with missionary vision. Hopefully the revision of the statutes and the formation of the new presidency team in 2021 Assembly will facilitate this.
3. Formation Programmes
There is a greater need today, more than ever, to devise the formation programmes for personal formation, leadership formation and family formation, because the Association is basically for the growth and maturity of members themselves. Formation of the past pupils to be honest citizens and committed Christians will ultimately help them become leaders in public spheres. Accompanying the young past pupils is necessary so that they become future leaders, filled with passion for Christ and love for Don Bosco, eradicating any temptation of superficiality, banality, power and comfort.
4. Mission Focus
A life lived for others is a life lived well. The Association has to make a difference in the world and pave the way for its transformation based on the values of the Gospel. It is called to give priority and centrality to the Salesian mission for the poorest and most needy youngsters concretely in all decisions.
Responsibilities of the Salesians
The Salesians particularly the delegates are called to three-fold mission: i) Enhancing the quality of the education given in our Centres and Institutions because the commitment of the past pupils depends on the seed sown there; ii) Furthering the commitment towards the life and mission of the Association; and iii) Inspiring the past pupils to be committed in their family, in the Church and in society.
The Role of Salesians (Delegates): Though the seed of the Association was sown in 1870 through an informal gathering, the tree has been flourishing, thanks to the impetus and vision given by Don Bosco and the Salesians all these 150 years. It took a giant step in 1911, under the guidance of Blessed Rinaldi with the approval of the ‘Statutes’. Down the line, we see the guidance of the Salesians to the past pupils with a passionate heart. During my visits to different countries, I found the association very fruitful wherever the delegate and the president work together.
The Role of the Provincial: He needs to appoint a competent and suitable Provincial Delegate; plan meetings of Rectors to reflect together on their responsibility of animation and organization of the past pupils of their institutions; and appoint local delegates who could guide the local groups.
Need of Perseverance: The virtues sown in the hearts of the little ones will grow and mature slowly and bear fruit in its own time as was evident in the event of 1870. While Don Bosco started his mission in 1841, the first ‘group’ of past pupils came in 1870. It took 29 years for them to come back to him with gratitude as a ‘group’. It was still evolving for another 41 years to get organised with a ‘structure and statutes’ (1911). The formation of the Association needs persevering patience and constant guidance.
My Dreams - Future of the Federation of Past Pupils
As I lay down my office and pass on the baton to Bro. Dominic, I pass on my dreams with it.
• I dream of a Confederation of Past Pupils that becomes a formidable force in the Salesian Family, becoming a beacon of light in the Church and in society.
• I dream of units of past pupils in every institution, youth centre and parish with the formal registration of members. The presence of a unit of active past pupils is a sign that the spirit of Don Bosco has really touched their hearts, evoking gratitude. It springs from a deep experience of Jesus through the system of Don Bosco, concretely shown by the Salesians.
• I dream of young past-pupils who find guidance, hope and direction in life even after passing out from the institutions through the organization and formation of young past pupils’ units in every province/country with care.
• I dream of a situation where the provincials, delegates and presidents are committed to the cause of the past pupils, reaching out to as many as possible, without being complacent with just a few units consisting of a few past pupils who live a comfortable life.
• I dream of Past Pupils Federations becoming salt of their country and light to the world through concrete social projects, thus empowering people especially the poorest and marginalized to experience values of dignity, love, freedom and justice.
• I dream of the past pupils of various religions living in religious, social and political harmony and promoting the same in society. The Association is a unique member of the Salesian Family, comprising of people of all religions.
• I dream of a World Confederation actively involved with time, energy and money, motivating every national/provincial federation to be committed to the transformation of society based on the values of Christ through their social and political commitment.
As I conclude, I realise that the organization of the Past Pupils’ Association is not easy. We can find motivation in the words of Saint Mother Teresa: “When you are not able to run fast, run slowly. When you are not able to run at all, walk; when you are not able to walk, use the stick; but never, never stop.” I think the challenge is exactly to understand that success is not in winning always, it lies in the constant effort to march on.