SALESIAN BRAND OF SPIRITUALITY FOR LAY PEOPLE
Roberto Lorenzini SS CC
I would like to reflect with you on the gift Don Bosco has given so many non-consecrated lay people in the Salesian Family. They have taken him up and his spirituality is their point of reference in their lives: they include Salesian Cooperators, members of the Mary Help of Christians Association, Past Pupils, friends of Don Bosco and anyone who, whatever title they come under, is part of the broad Salesian Movement.
I like to think of these lay people as good Christians and upright citizens who become so by following the model of the human being which Don Bosco dreamt of.
In this talk I will refer to the presentation of the 2014 Strenna of the Rector Major’s, the Youth Ministry dossier in June 2013 which explores some of its aspects (especially contributions by Bissoli, Séïde, Garcia and Errico), the pamphlet “Educatori di santi” (Educators of Saints) by Fr Giuseppe Casti, World Delegate for the Salesian Cooperators, and “Suoi testimoni” (His Witnesses) by Salesian Cooperator Nino Sammartano, and finally the brief work “Testimoni dell’alleanza”,(Witnesses to the Covenant) by Fr Joseph Aubry, Vittoria and Roberto Lorenzini.
They all draw on Don Bosco’s inner energy
Responding to the love of a God who loves us so much is a way to holiness which is possible for everyone. Allowing this love to penetrate us to the point where we can no longer hold on to him as our own but want to share him with everyone – such is the dynamic of pastoral charity which urges us to leaven wherever we live with the Gospel, beginning with our families extending ourselves to the young and our less fortunate neighbours. We see the image of Jesus himself in all these (cf, Strenna No. 2).
In presenting Strenna 2014 the Rector Major states that “Salesian spirituality is not something different from Christian spirituality.” Why not? Because it stems from the same root which is charity, meaning God’s very life, which Don Bosco drew on through Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
It certainly strikes us when we realise how natural it was for Don Bosco to live in a supernatural way. Contemplating God’s loving presence amidst the mixed events of daily life, his being united with his Lord was transformed into energy for life, all of it spent for his youngsters, the poor, the least. Activity permeated by prayer, prayer permeated by activity.
What does it mean for us lay people to experience this inner energy? It is Don Bosco himself who shows us how we might answer that: “You can make yourself worthy of the Society through work… and do good for your soul especially if you offer all your daily work to God” (OE XXIX 68-69). In other words he is inviting us to see God’s presence in our ordinary daily activities and everyday tasks, making Christ the criteria for all our activity.1
Branches united to the one vine
“Christifideles laici” (1988) speaks magnificently of lay spirituality, but a reflection beginning from Don Bosco helps us to be part of that in such a way that it makes every context for our life fruitful in a Salesian way: amongst young people, family, in the church, in society… (cf. Strenna No. 3). This spirituality draws on a heart-to-heart relationship with God; it involves us in giving of ourselves fully to life for his glory, in the primary belief that “the glory of God is man alive” (cf. Strenna no 4).
For us lay people union with God the Father is a condition for our apostolic commitment: branches united to the one vine. The energy that comes from the Spirit leads us in a single direction, to agape, taking up the Father’s salvific plan as the unifying project of our lives.2
Prayer, meditating on the Word, sacramental life becomes resources for the strength which nurtures our desire to cooperate in building up the Kingdom of God, transforming life into prayer and prayer into life so that, as Martha Séïde puts it, “everything can become prayer for someone who has a careful, habitual and intense life of prayer” (NPG no 6-2013 p. 47).
Living in God’s presence is a cornerstone of Don Bosco’s spirituality.3 Thus our encounter with the Risen Lord transforms us to the point where we no longer believe that evil is stronger than good and this gives us the strength to get ourselves involved, struggle, so that hope is the lay virtue par excellence, knowing that the spirit of the Risen One always goes before us and is present and active in history.4
Called to holiness
Strengthened by this awareness and inner power, what is it that lay people whose point of reference is Don Bosco are called to do?
They are called to embody God’s love, which “has been poured into our hearts” (Rom. 5:5) meaning that we recognise Christ’s charity overwhelming us and urging us to be a leaven in our daily context, giving ourselves in a generous and disinterested way. In other words this is equivalent to our directing ourselves decisively towards holiness.5
In such a demanding task as this we do not hide our limitations, fragility, difficulties, failures, but it is precisely here that Jesus, the Risen Lord encourages us: “I am with you all days“ (Mt 28:20) or, as Paul said, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor 12:9), wherein Paul exclaimed: “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). Even difficulties have meaning when Paul assures us that in Christ “sufferings bring patience, patience brings perseverance and perseverance brings hope” (Rom. 5:3-4).
For each one of us every moment of life can be a point of encounter with God. This is the mysticism of daily life experienced in an extraordinary way by recognising God’s footprints as he walks beside us. According to Martha Séïde “We need to educate ourselves and educate others to be attentive to each moment in life so that we can make it an eternal moment: of love for God and humankind” (NPG no 6-2013 p. 49). We are called to be disciples of Mary for whom contemplation and service were one. Someone who lives this “grace of unity” so typical of Salesian spirituality has set out on a sure path to holiness.
On the other hand the temptation of thinking that results depend on our ability to act and plan things is overcome by following Jesus’ words: “Whoever remains in me with me in him bars fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). Trusting in this bond with Jesus, as kingly, priestly, prophetic people through the gift of Baptism, we offer him all our efforts and our work.6 There is little doubt that this asks us to step back from the way the world thinks, and this is where renunciation comes in for us.7
Spirituality that aims to have an impact on society
Spirituality understood this way calls us to unite faith in God with fidelity to our human condition and become hope for the world…8 It involves us in the common good by having an impact on society and political life… because everything that is human is a place for experiencing and encountering the Lord of life.9
This spirituality according to Don Bosco sees that the “good Christian” also takes up the responsibilities of the “upright citizen” dedicated to looking for ways and new approaches to transplant Don Bosco’s shrewd approach to public life, culture, politics, social life.10 It is the lay person dedicated to saving his or her soul by being a responsible citizen11 convinced, as the Salesian Bulletin put it in 1883, that “working for the education of abandoned youth is giving glory to God and cooperating for the good of civil society” (cf BS in its 7th year, 1883, no 7. p. 104).
There have been appeals to us as lay people to get involved in society: the Rector Major, at the 2012 Cooperators World Congress, asked us to “leave our sacristies” and Pope Francis echoed the same thing recently asking us to “get out from our Upper Rooms”.
What Don Bosco meant by “helping civil society” is, finally, our aim in helping to build a better world and more human world in a Christian and Salesian (as in St Francis de Sales) way, through fully realised human beings.
Involved in the world as Christians and citizens
If Don Bosco’s spirituality is the precious legacy that enlivens us, this does not mean that the upright citizen in the Third Millennium is the same as the one in the 19th century, when the role was reduced mostly to obeying the law, not causing problems for the legal system… basically aimed at “what we should do right.”13
Today, thanks to the development in the Church’s social teaching since “Rerum Novarum” by Leo XIII in 1891 until “Caritas in veritate” by Benedict XVI in 2009 (a development nurtured by the 2nd Vatican Council), building a just social order has become a task for the Christian based on the primacy of conscience, corroborated by study, prayer, dedication, collaboration, effort constancy… and sometimes accepting that we are blocked by something.14
Lumen Gentium entrusts lay people with the priority task of giving a soul to temporal realities as Christians: “seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God” (LG 31).15 Don Bosco is not far from this view of the laity when he urges us to “work for the Kingdom by doing good for civil society!” (Reg. Coop. DB 1876). The viewpoint is that of the common good, what is good for society. We could say that this is translating the spirituality, not just the pastoral side, of the “da mihi animas”. This is the task for the Salesian brand of lay person, through social, civil institutional involvement, via volunteer groups… looking to human beings, looking to their good: the good of every human being and all humanity, in a variety of needs: material, emotional, cultural and spiritual. Because mankind, as John Paul II taught us, is “the way of the Church”; Man, each individual, all of mankind, is “a common good: the common good of the family and humanity, individual groups and many social structures” (John Paul II, Letter to families, 11).
Christian, lay and Salesian values are harmoniously founded on and fully experienced in “spreading the energy of charity” (MB XVIII 161).16 From statements like this it is clear that the involvement of Christian laity in secular settings is an effective and valuable kind of evangelisation.17
Action areas for lay people of a Salesian bent
So what are the fields of activity, the most relevant ones at least, for the Salesian lay person? I would say we can take for granted that the educational dimension is the common denominator for Salesian presence in all social contexts, with that characteristic feature of Don Bosco’s, the ability to “love and make oneself loved”.
So I will not spend time on this dimension which is so central and special and typical for the oratory and school, but rather I will spend some time on one area that deserves our reflection as lay people: the family.
Spouses are called to witness to the beauty of faithful, fruitful love, given and received as an expression of total self-giving.18 It is wonderful to see this expression of the agape of God the Father in the love between spouses. Why is this? Because God is a communion of Persons. The Covenant between God and his people is often expressed in the Old Testament as one of nuptial love and while it expresses God’s love for humanity it also says something important about the marriage relationship; meaning it is not a simple contract but a covenant involving life, being faithful whatever the cost, because this is what God the Father’s love for mankind is like.
Jesus draws on the experience of conjugal love to express how much he loves the Church. He is the guarantor of love in marriage and the spouses are testimony to this covenant because their love is fully part of his redeeming work.
Lay people who are married in the Lord strongly sense this need to welcome the Lord Jesus’ presence as the one who was invited first to the wedding feast, and is responsible for their happiness. This presence of the Lord is something they recognise in one another and feel responsibility for the other’s growth in faith. This mutual love then becomes a sign and bearer of Christ’s love, and thus opens up a direct path to holiness. (cf J. Aubry, Testimoni dell’alleanza, pp. 81-91).
This love, which builds up the domestic church is open to fruitfulness, the gift of life, accepting children. And it is with regard to children that Don Bosco has something great to tell us about their education.
Have we ever thought of the positive results the Salesian system of education can have in the family when the two parents are looking after their children especially during the growing up phase? The answer can be taken for granted: the Preventive System gives a truly phenomenal contribution!
Don Bosco himself wanted life in his houses to be permeated by “family spirit”. We recall the splendid, and at times disconcerting, “Letter from Rome” in 1884 which reminds us of the fatherliness of the educator, of confidence and familiarity with the one being educated, of the atmosphere of joy, festivity, prayer, duty and responsibility: these are all things that refer not only to the Oratory but also to the family understood as an educating community.
This family spirit, instead, is often at risk today, especially in families. Here we Salesian lay people are called to embody it in our family relationships with the spirituality of the “it is not enough to love”.
What comes to mind is the experience and extensive documentation of the Hogares Don Bosco movement, a gift from Spain, but not only there, on couples’ lives, education of children and the family’s involvement in church and society.
I am also thinking of the www.ilgrandeeducatore.com website (and who is the great educator, if not Don Bosco himself!), where a group of lay people with other friends in the Salesian Family offer parents (and it includes a magazine) how to be “educators to life”, making Don Bosco’s encouragement and promptings available along with extensive Salesian material right up to the most recent. This is an enormous mine of good material to draw from and reveals the wealth of Salesian pedagogy for lay people who want to educate in the family context, including in Don Bosco’s style.
We should keep in mind the hidden dangers attacking the family today. The task of the lay person formed in a Salesian way is aimed at truth: through a view of love and human sexuality, (think of the purity Don Bosco asked of his educators and boys), marriage between a man and a woman according to a view that unites love and self-giving, fidelity, stability, being open to life. Without forgetting the rights of children, beginning with the complete human dignity of the embryo and the right to be born given that the embryo is already ONE OF US! “One of us!” as it says in the European campaign for the right of every embryo to be born. Not only believers back this campaign. And we also think of the scientific development of genetically oriented biotechnologies which need bioethical truth if they are to avoid the risk that it all ends up to the detriment of the human being.19
Our task of being “upright citizens because we are good Christians” then, broadens out to all of society. This is the field of the laity.
The famous “letter to Diognetus”, on John’s Gospel, chap. 17 (15-17), reminds us that Christians are in this world but not of it. They carry out the same function as the soul does for the body: they are light, salt, yeast… a leaven. This twofold attention helps the lay person avoid two equally distorted approaches: a disembodied spiritualism and a secularism which is too skewed towards the earthly dimension.20
How should the lay person who takes Don Bosco as a reference point be guided in social and political life at a time of profound tensions, globalisation and economic and financial crisis?
There is a criterion which can guide us in today’s crisis which is also leading the world into a profound anthropological crisis, especially in ‘advanced’ cultures. Saint Augustine, at an equally dramatic historical time towards the end of the Roman Empire, invited people to hold to veritas in every area of civil involvement; to hold to profound values rather than to vanitas, the ephemeral, appearances, what is superficial. This is the primacy of conscience in social activity.21
Following the criterion of truth today in the political sphere, in institutions, means for us lay people that we are animated by a strong ethical approach which respects participation by everyone decision-making processes and which is aimed at serving them. We need to distinguish, as Simone Weil carefully noted, between “those who live off politics and those who live for politics.” Thus the importance of offering courses, formation opportunities for social and political involvement which follows the Church’s social teaching, especially for young people who wish to get seriously involved in administrative, political service, especially in a political party.
Being truthful in the area of the economy means aiming for an economy geared to the social order, an integrated economy, one of communion… attentive not only to what is of most use, but also to seeing that everyone can enjoy its benefits, that those who are weakest are not left out, that the cause of young people, women, the elderly, minorities is advanced.22 An economy that seeks reinvestment with social ends, which respects nature, is responsible for future generations.
We lay people, looking at Don Bosco getting young people ready for work, a profession, drawing up dignified contracts for his boys, will consider work, including our own, as an integral part of human dignity, self-fulfilment. We will look upon it as service of the community, as relationship with other people, as being united to the sacrifice of Christ: this is a primary good to be safeguarded at all costs.
On the cultural and spiritual resources level, the triumph of veritas leads us to consider education of the young, school, to be central… as also the development of their/our cultural, artistic, religious heritage.
Our vigilance and commitment to truth is to focus in particular on social communications media, the traditional as well as the most recent developments so we can unmask negative models which shape the minds of the young and the people. There is a very high risk of manipulation: not only in listening! We also need to spread values in an intelligent way.23
Our concern for the environment as something given to us that we must pass on to future generations should be joined with a constant attention to fostering a “human ecology” which means trying to achieve the spiritual and physical well-being of all mankind, with special attention to emerging and developing nations.24
By taking as our criterion an ethics of truth, finally, means assigning priority to the weakest, be they individuals or groups, peoples or entire countries. We focus attention on globalising solidarity, sharing, gratuity. Against all structures of sin and death.25
We can be consoled by the number of people in the Salesian Family who are networking to achieve this ethic of truth.
If the lay person truly wants to be a sign of the Kingdom of God amongst people, then there is a vocation to be found in self-giving, in service so that the common good leads to the Absolute Good who is God.26
I believe that if Don Bosco were amongst us today he would encourage us to try out new approaches to evangelisation including through social and political activity which Paul VI called the highest form of charity.
Thus while we are involved in seeing that all human beings can share the “penultimate” goods such as justice, peace, freedom, well-being, solidarity… we are aware that we are also working for the “ultimate” goods the Lord directed us to: goods which belong to the Kingdom.27
I would like to conclude by proposing for us all a concrete example of what I have been describing: Salesian Cooperator Attilio Giordani from Milan, recently declared Venerable.
Attilio used every ploy he could to get youngsters involved and lead them to God. “Our faith should be life” he used say; so before heading off to work at Pirelli he would always be at the 6.30 a.m. mass. He was cheerful and exact at work, also cheerful in the playground, loving and optimistic at home with the family: these were some of the features that distinguished a man who once write to his future wife, Noemi: “May the Lord help us not to be good to those who are good, but to live in the world without being of the world, to go against the flow…”.
When his three sons became volunteers in Brazil as part of Operation Mato Grosso, he and his wife also went to share in this mission as catechists and leaders. On 18 December 1972 at a meeting while he was speaking enthusiastically about giving our lives for others he said: “For me it is enough for you to make choices in life, not remain passive when faced with situations”, then suddenly he felt ill and barely had time to tell his son: “Pier Giorgio, you continue on for me.” This is the appeal we all feel is addressed to us today as lay people in the Salesian Family We admire an all-round Salesian lay person in Attilio: husband, father, someone who really put the preventive system into action, a missionary: this is the simple but powerful outline of the Christian who trusts in, entrusts everything to the love of Christ.
It is my profound belief that the new heaven and the new earth will belong to those who, like Attilio, are involved here and now in building them up “for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.”