When Don Bosco was ordained in 1841, Turin was in turbulence. With the Industrial Revolution making headway in Piedmont, many young people migrated from the impoverished countryside to the industrialised Turin, in the hope of finding employment and a better life. They lived on the streets, and were exploited by the industrialists; many ended up in prison. Don Bosco decided to work for these youngsters.
Not everyone approved of the idea of a priest working with street children. Don Bosco was forced to make a choice: to be a priest within the Church establishment, or with the boys living in poverty. He made the option for the poor. This was not an easy decision; it left him without housing, without promotion prospects, without an income and not much of a future.
The core of his work was in the Oratory. It started as a kind of Sunday school, where Don Bosco met the boys from the street for worship, catechesis, recreation and breakfast. Gradually, it developed into a youth centre, which was a combination of a home, a school, a playground and a parish. This combination ensured that the young received an all-round formation: human and emotional (home), intellectual (school), social and recreational (playground), and spiritual (parish). Don Bosco envisaged that every Salesian work would be this combination, and above all, a family!
An elderly woman expressed her loneliness within her church: "I sit in the pew next to a warm body every week, but I feel no heat. I'm in the faith, but I draw no active love. I sing the hymns with those next to me, but I hear only my voice. When the service is finished, I leave as I came in—hungry for someone to tell me that I'm a person worth something to somebody. Just a smile would do it, or perhaps some gesture, some sign that I am not a stranger."
I daresay she is not alone in her "loneliness". We have many friends in the virtual world, but very few companions in the real world. And yet, we need real relationships; we need warmth and love; we need signs that we are not strangers. We need the presence of people in our lives. God never intended for us to be alone; He created us relational.
No wonder, an important aspect in Don Bosco's spirituality and pedagogy is 'presence'. In the Salesian tradition, 'presence' is being with the people entrusted to our care. It is a physical, active and animating 'being with'. It means having their best interests and welfare at heart; it implies establishing relationships with them based on love, mutual respect, equality and cooperation, rather than fear and superiority. Presence demands that we love what people love, so that they can learn to love what we love. It is a sharing in their lives: listening and speaking, playing and praying, laughing and crying, encouraging and challenging, correcting and guiding. Through sharing our lives and ourselves, we communicate the presence of God's life-giving love to His people.
For everyone, Don Bosco is a gift from heaven: for the Church, for the Salesian Family, for the countless boys he knew personally, and for the millions with whom his sons and daughters interact. For his Salesian Family, Don Bosco is the model, the father and the teacher to the faithful following of Jesus. Even though the actual circumstances in which we live are very different, Don Bosco's spirituality and his project have a striking relevance in our world. May he continue to inspire us to be a 'family', where life and love abide and grow!
Fr Godfrey D'Souza SDB, Provincial of the Salesian Province of Mumbai
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