Friday 6 May 2016

Don Bosco and Dominic Savio

Way back in the 1970s, when we were in the aspirantate, it was considered offensive to be called "Dominic Savio." And it was not only Lonavla: George Williams, now almost 100, used to tell of the story of two youngsters in a Salesian boarding school who were fighting. When separated by the watchful assistant, and asked the reason for the fight, one of them replied: "He called me Dominic Savio."

Dominic Savio: somehow, the image of a not-quite-all-there kind of youngster, not quite a model for anyone. But I think we have come a long way from all this. I, for one, have begun to appreciate just how much the famous Life written by Don Bosco has to say to us as educators and as followers of the spirituality of Don Bosco.

Today, on the feast of Dominic Savio, three words come to me: mission, education, and formation.

Mission. Don Bosco's work with Dominic Savio, and the Life that he wrote, indicate very clearly a priest who was extremely clear about his mission: not just working for poor young people, not even "making them priests," but accompanying them on the way to God, to sanctity, to that fullness of life that we see and that we have been promised in Jesus. This kind of clarity is quite amazing, really, especially when we think that Don Bosco was all of 42 years old when Dominic Savio died in 1857. Amazing, because it indicates a spiritual maturity that is quite astonishing in a young priest in his early forties.

We have been taught by our scholars that the Lives written by Don Bosco are really also mirrors of Don Bosco's own interior life, about which he is usually so reluctant to speak. No one can recognize the special spiritual gifts in another if he is not somehow already familiar with them in his own experience, as G. Buccellato says in his Notes for a Spiritual History of Father John Bosco.

One of our Salesian temptations is activism - the tendency to be busy with a thousand things, and to forget that Don Bosco's passion was Da mihi animas. All to easily we think of our mission in terms of "working for young people," or at best, for poor young people. But our Constitutions are clear: mission is "being signs and bearers of God's love to the young." Our mission is not just work. It is the call to reveal God and his mercy and love to young people, especially to those who have deficits in their experience of fatherhood and motherhood.

This is what our last two General Chapters, 26 and 27, have been trying to remind us: our identity, our vocation, our mission. GC26 called us to return to this fundamental salesian identity, to understand and own our vocation and mission, and our identity as salesian consecrated persons. GC27 reminded us that our lives are rooted in a call, the gospel call, the call to follow Jesus radically.

Buccellato says that, almost as soon as Don Bosco had settled in the Pinardi House, he began organizing semi-live-in retreats for young people, the young people off the streets of Turin. We still have the programs he had drawn up for them - and they are far more rigorous in terms of prayer and silence than what we usually demand from ourselves in our retreats.

Buccellato also points out that "preaching retreats to young people and to people of the working classes" was one of the five aims of the Salesian congregation enshrined in the Constitutions written by Don Bosco. An aim that somehow got dropped in the renewed version of the Constitutions that we now possess. According to Buccellato, the Salesian congregation will not be the one founded by Don Bosco unless we restore to it this aim.

Then there are the biographies of young Salesians who died while Don Bosco was still alive. Don Bosco, ever the educator, made Giulio Barberis, the first novice master, write their biographies - which he signed or at least owned completely when they were published. The surprising thing about these biographies is their descriptions of these young Salesians at prayer: one going red in the face, another unable to contain his tears at Communion; yet another prostrating before the Sacrament, and a fourth getting up in the night to pray. This is not quite what we have learnt as "Salesian prayer," as my theology students of Ratisbonne said to me. So what really is Salesian prayer? What was Don Bosco trying to tell us about the life of prayer of these young Salesians, and of the three young people (four if we count Comollo) whose lives he took the trouble to write? Whatever the answer, one thing is clear: Don Bosco understood his mission clearly in terms of Da mihi animas. His job was to walk with young people on their journey to God, nothing less.

Education. Don Bosco was not content to work with Dominic Savio. He took the trouble to write his biography - and this reveals his consciousness of being an educator. The wriring of the Life is the act of a great educator: Dominic becomes a model and inspiration to a whole group of youngsters, and to many generations of youngsters in the future. It also becomes a modeling of Don Bosco’s idea of education to his Salesians and to all those who would follow Don Bosco. The Life multiplies Don Bosco’s efforts enormously, for his boys and for his Salesians. And it adds to the creation of the environment, which is such an essential part of Don Bosco’s way of educating.

Formation. The fact that Don Bosco wrote the Life is also a revelation of his own ability to attend to experience: to the experience of the boy, as well as to his own experience as educator and guide. Don Bosco knows how to attend to, reflect and discern the action of the Spirit in the lives of the young and in his own life. This is the central attitude of ongoing formation described in the two chapters of our Constitutions dedication to formation: the ability to pay attention to experience, to “make experience” or learn from experience the values of the Salesian vocation (C 96), to discern the action of the Spirit in the lives of the young (C 119). Don Bosco models for us the central attitude of ongoing formation, that formation that never ends, because it is our ongoing response to the ongoing call and action of the Lord in our lives.


So mission, education, formation: all these are modelled for us in Don Bosco's relationship with Dominic Savio. The Life that Don Bosco wrote of his beloved student tells us much about Savio, but it reveals to us even more about the educator and guide that Don Bosco was. Certainly a timely lesson for us at this moment in the life of the congregation, when we are learning to see Don Bosco in his true complexity and depth. 

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