The Salesian: Being and Doing

Our class in Salesianity brought us back to the letter of Don Bosco in  May 10, 1884. This is fondly called in Salesian Tradition as the “Letter from Rome” which holds the sweetest and most fatherly sentiments of Don Bosco for his sons. In fact, the letter is so important to the congregation it is appended to our Constitutions and Regulations from which every Salesian can glean the very thing that makes one a Salesian.

In Philosophy, we often speak of the nature and operations of a thing. All the operations of the thing flow from its very nature and operation is itself the uttermost perfection of the thing. Anything you encounter in life can be considered in its nature and its operation.

So goes the Salesian. We can speak of the Salesian in his nature and his operations. What a Salesian really is, is described by Don Bosco in this letter to his sons. The letter begins with Don Bosco’s expression of longing and endearment for his boys and proceeds to narrate to us a “vision” in which two of his former boys appear to him to lament the change of atmosphere in the oratory.

It is interesting to note that what they lamented and warned to Don Bosco is very much applicable to the current state of our Salesian houses. It is summarized in one question: Where are the Salesians? The spirit which pervaded the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales in its beginnings and what Don Bosco wanted to be perpetuated there is a culture of familiarity between boys and the Salesians. Yes, Don Bosco wanted that his houses would be filled with boisterous laughter from his boys with their Salesian assistants.

Here, Valfre along with Joseph Buzzetti, showed Don Bosco the stark difference between the early oratory and the 1884 oratory. For the early beginnings, Don Bosco described,

“It was a scene full of life, full of movement, full of fun. Some were running, some were jumping, some were skipping. In one place they were playing leap-frog, in another tig, and in another a ball-game was in progress. In one corner a group of youngsters were gathered round a priest, hanging on his every word as he told them a story. In another a cleric was playing with a number of lads at “chase the donkey” and “trades”. There was singing and laughing on all sides, there were priests and clerics everywhere and the boys were yelling and shouting all round them. You could see that the greatest cordiality and confidence reigned between youngsters and superiors. I was overjoyed at the sight…”

Then, some sentences later, Don Bosco would dictate with a heavy sigh,

 “I saw the Oratory and all of you in recreation. But no more could I hear the joyful shouts and singing, no longer was there the lively activity of the previous scene. In the faces and actions of many boys there was evident a weary boredom, a surliness, a suspicion that pained me. I saw many, it is true, who ran about and played in light-hearted joy. But I saw quite a number of others on their own, leaning against the pillars, a prey to depressing thoughts. Others were on the steps or in the corridors, or up on the terraces near the garden so as to be away from the common recreation. Others were strolling about in groups, talking to each other in low tones and casting furtive and suspicious glances in every direction. Sometimes they would laugh, but with looks and smirks that would make you not only suspect but feel quite certain that St Aloysius would have blushed to find himself in their company. Even among those who were playing, there was some so listless that it was clear they were not enjoying their games.”

Don Bosco, now in his 69th year just less than four years before his death, would dictate for his sons at the oratory a moving letter that contained powerful emotions, and indeed the secretary later noted that Don Bosco stopped dictating as he was moved to tears, no other Salesian literature has ever surpassed. This is his testament to the Salesians from which he speaks from the depths of his heart.

Woe to us if we find that the very houses we live in as Salesians could be described like the second vision related by Don Bosco! It would be a scene where we can truly say that we as Salesians have failed; we as Salesians have failed our father, Don Bosco.

The deciding difference, according to Joseph Buzzetti, between the two scenes is not so much on the pastoral charity with which the Salesians pride themselves with in their apostolate. Salesians are known to possess an admirable zeal with which they tire themselves to death. Everyone knows that Salesians work themselves out for their mission among the young but then Joseph Buzzetti points out:

“… it is not enough; the best thing is missing… that the youngsters should not only be loved, but that they themselves should know that they are loved.”

We read these very lines from t-shirts our Salesian educators wear, from the sayings found in stationaries and calendars, from the walls that line our schools and workshops. Here, two of Don Bosco’s boys remind him of the most important thing with a Salesian: PRESENCE.

“By being loved in the things they like, through taking part in their youthful interests, they are led to see love in the those things too which they find less attractive, such as discipline, study, and self-denial, and so learn to do these things too with love.”

From here on Don Bosco becomes prophetic:

“I looked, and I saw that very few priests and clerics mixed with the boys, and fewer still were joining in their games. The superiors were no longer the heart and soul of the recreation. Most of them were walking up and down, chatting among themselves without taking any notice of what the pupils were doing. Others looked on at the recreation but paid little heed to the boys. Others supervised from afar, not noticing whether anyone was doing something wrong. Some did take notice but only rarely, and then in a threatening manner. Here and there a Salesian did try to mix with a group of boys, but I saw that the latter were bent on keeping their distance from teachers and superiors.”

Are we the Salesians that Don Bosco just described? Has our Salesian Presence really faded in the course of the 150 years of history? Have we forgotten the best patrimony Don Bosco left us as Salesians?

Today, some Salesians, and sadly I would comment, say that their work brought about by their position and function prevents them from being present with the young during times of recreation. There is an infinite list of things to do, some paperwork to be finished, some business to be attended to. But our guides have this to say to us:

“… by neglecting the lesser part they waste the greater, meaning all the work they put in.”

No, our doing follows our being. Salesians are called to be present to the young, in both sense of the word. While they have made out of their youthful lives a gift to the young, their presence makes this self-giving evident. As one Salesian wittily puts it, “Salesian assistance is T-I-M-E.”

If I were to describe our ministry, it is an Apostolate of Loving Presence: signs and bearers of God’s love for young people. It is in the heart of our being Salesians that we waste time with our boys. It is in wasting time with them that we invest by planting those seeds of confidence and familiarity with which our tradition has been proud of.

Can we not share the story of an overseas father who finds himself alienated from his children back home? He has worked the nights off in a distant country to provide for their needs, who out of circumstances was pushed to trade presence for sustenance. Do our boys need absent Salesians?

We, Salesians, want to follow our greatest hero, our father and founder St. John Bosco. But to follow him is to be like him. We need to integrate into our own gifts of nature that Spirit enshrined in our Constitutions and Tradition. We need to put Don Bosco back into our being. And from there, our work will naturally flow as the perfection of our religious profession: Salesian Presence.


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