“This obedience is wrong, but you cannot be wrong if you obey”
The gift of six years of service in formation
Maurizio Verlezza, SDB, Rector, Postnovitiate House, San Tarcisio, Rome
“This obedience is wrong, but you cannot be wrong if you obey.” This is what Msgr Giuseppe Petrocchi, bishop of Latina said to me when I went to tell him of my new obedience as rector of the postnovitiate at San Tarcisio [Rome]. I was, at the time, parish priest of his Cathedral church, and I had worked with him a lot in the pastoral ministry of the diocese.
I felt exactly the same way as the bishop. I felt that this obedience was wrong, and I had tried to communicate to my superiors, from the Rector Major and his Vicar down to the councillor for formation. But no one seemed to be willing to listen to my reasons.
1. “This obedience is wrong…”
My reasons for feeling the way I did seemed quite clear to me. As far as my ministry was concerned, I was only in my second year as rector and parish priest of St Mark’s, Latina. I had just launched a Pastoral-Educative Project after a study of the youth situation. The parish community had seen five parish priests in ten years, and I had naturally found it quite disoriented.
On the other hand, I felt quite inadequate and unprepared for the task that was being assigned to me. I had no specific preparation whatsoever in the field of formation. Given the delicate situation that the salesian congregation was living through, with so many young salesians leaving, I was even more convinced that what was needed was someone with another kind of experience.
I brought up all these difficulties in various chats with my superiors, but to no avail. I even shared my personal difficulties and weaknesses, and the fact that I belonged to the Focolare Movement, which one of our superiors had proscribed as a “double belonging.” Even this last difficulty did not seem to matter, and so I obeyed, convinced deep down, however, that this obedience was mistaken.
At San Tarcisio, I found that my fears were being confirmed: the team of formators had been completely overhauled, there had been no proper handing over, no program received, and I had in addition the feeling that the community assigned to me had gone through serious problems in the preceding years. The thought kept coming back to me: this obedience is wrong!
2. “But you cannot be wrong if you obey….”
I soon put myself into the hands of divine providence, however, with the help of personal prayer, various cloistered monasteries, and sick confreres in the various infirmaries of the province.
Next I asked help from experts in the field of formation, both within the congregation and outside. I was able to do this thanks to the many religious I had come to know through the Focolare Movement.
I also inquired about formation courses that I could take advantage of. Thanks to Msgr. Vincenzo Zani, Secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, I thought of enrolling in the course for formators at the Gregorian University in Rome.
To my great surprise I found myself in a course with religious from different congregations, all much younger than me. I had been told that an exception was being made for me: normally people of my age [above 40] were not admitted. In my course there were future novice masters and rectors of postnovitiates and of theologates. I also discovered that I could qualify for the course only after an admission test to verify that my personality was open to modification and change. The course was based upon the capacity of the future formator to integrate, by means of personal accompaniment, the affective-psychological and
spiritual dimensions. One becomes capable of accompanying others only when one has oneself begun a serious process of personal accompaniment that should extend over a lifetime.
For three years I was accompanied by a priest psychologist who met me twice a week. With his help I engaged in a wonderful journey into my inner life, in search of my human and spiritual riches as well as my vocational inconsistencies. These three years helped me set out on a journey of knowledge of myself and of my dialogue with God. This is a journey calling for deep humility, where one begins to understand that the process of conversion extends over a lifetime, and that it is only when, with the help of God, we recognize our inner dynamisms, are we in a position to respond more explicitly and deliberately to God.
This kind of accompaniment is the central part of a formative journey that includes also intensive summer courses with examinations.
I have thanked God often for the gift of this course for formators, a good part of which I have shared with my community.
3. Some convictions about formation
3.1 The formation of formators
If it is true that the locus par excellence for formation is the educative relationship between formators and formees, the formation of formators becomes strategic. This is a question of preparing those religious involved in formation for the task of personal and community accompaniment of young salesians. Thanks to my continuous interaction with other formators, I became aware of the great importance of the selection, formation and accompaniment of formators.
Among the many urgent problems facing those who are called to govern, I am convinced that the formation and accompaniment of formators is of fundamental importance.
I understood from experience why church authorities are insisting so much on the formation of formators. The same is true as far as unity in the formation community is concerned, and most especially unity in the formation team itself. Without this, it is not possible to develop a vision and experience of church as communion.
3.2 Unity in the formation team
Just as children need not only the love of father and mother but also the witness of love between their parents, so also the formation process is in need of a clear witness of unity in the formation team.
In our life at San Tarcisio these last six years, we managed to overcome our internal resistance mechanisms and meet every week, trying to live the formation process in communion.
In the best of salesian traditions, it was good to be able to exchange observations about our young salesians, taking a look both at what had been achieved and what they had still to achieve, their strengths as well as their weaknesses. The pedagogical options we made and the coordination of formative interventions among ourselves were also of fundamental importance in this process.
The days dedicated to planning at the beginning of the year and evaluation at the end were especially vital. The formation team would also meet thrice a year with all the perpetually professed confreres living in the community. These were moments when we experienced the support of all the confreres present in the community.
Another fundamental choice was that of listening to the young confreres during the monthly moments of community evaluation and in the chats with individual formators.
The risk of self-centredness is always present in the sphere of formation. After trying out different ways, we finally asked Giuseppe Roggia [SDB] to help us plan, accompany and evaluate the formative process of the postnovitiate.
Our experience with some married couples – Gillini-Zattoni and Becciu-Colasanti – helped us launch into an external supervision that could help us evaluate our formation processes within the context of the Ratio of the Salesians of Don Bosco. The evaluation includes discernment about the journey of both community and individuals: the balance between the different aspects of formation, the completeness of the formative journey, its openness to the mission and to the future through the cultivation of the ability to listen to one another, to individuals, and to the young people to whom we are sent.
If it is true that the aim of initial formation is to learn how to conform oneself to Christ, to put on the mind of Christ, then no investment in the formation of salesians can ever be considered a waste. Investing in the quality of formation is a choice that great consequences for the needy young people of the world.
In the world, and very specially in our apostolic communities, there is a great desire for communion. Such communion allows the beauty of consecrated life to shine forth in our society, and enables us to become for young people “a home that welcomes, a playground on which to meet, a school that prepares for life, a church that evangelizes.”