Talk for Salesian Family Spirituality Days January 2014
Fr Valerio Baresi, sdb
We have in mind and heart the Strenna for this new year: “Da mihi animas, cetera tolle”. Let us draw upon Don Bosco’s spiritual experience, in order to walk in holiness according to our specific vocation “The glory of God and the salvation of souls”.
My testimony can be summed up in the words “glory of God” and “holiness”! The overall aim of the Missionary of the Sacred Heart Project is one of giving life to an ecclesial community with a strong youthful character, one that lives its educative and evangelising mission to the full by sharing a Resurrection experience with the poverty it encounters.
Our desire is to walk in holiness as Christians/consecrated individuals/Salesians and see that the young people we reach out to can have a gradual but intense experience of Resurrection and Church, that we can raise the bar for the way they live their Christian life as holy, good Christians, honest citizens and eventual inhabitants of Heaven!
Our main beneficiaries are young people from 16 to 30 years of age, Italians and migrants, and refugees especially amongst this group. We earnestly want everyone to encounter Jesus!
On 1st September 2008 the ICC (Central Italy) Circumscription came into being. Living at Sacro Cuore (Sacred Heart), right in the centre of Rome next to Termini, we were aware that our work was unfolding at the heart of the Capital. We felt that Don Bosco had providential insight into the fact that this must be where our Province’s ‘heart’ would beat, fully in accord with the merciful Heart of Jesus. At the beginning though, we did not know quite what to do. The Basilica, recently restored, seemed empty of young people, even though in the past there had been hundreds of them filling every spare spot at Sacro Cuore: hundreds of trade students in Don Rua’s time; thousands of youngsters welcomed and followed up in the years that followed in the school, oratory and youth centre …
But the choice of moving the school to Pio XI and the juvenile centre to Borgo Ragazzi Don Bosco, the focus on youth centres in other parts of Rome thus closing the one at S. Cuore, then the building reconstruction work at the Basilica, left the House with just guests, people coming for meetings or overnight stay. What one saw mostly were guest’s suitcases and cars parked in the courtyard.
What we really wanted to do was repopulate S. Cuore with young people, like Don Bosco wanted it!
Towards the end of 2008 three Missionaries of the Risen Christ knocked on our doors; hey were from a small Institute which came into being within the ambit of Salesian spirituality in Latin America. Already in Rome for more than 10 years, they were looking for somewhere they could work more directly with young people.
Thanks to what turned out to be a providential meeting between one of the Salesian superiors and the MRC General Coordinator, they were sent to us at S. Cuore. Speaking with them we became aware that we had the same ideals: Jesus at the centre of our lives, evangelising the young, especially the poorest of them, reaching out to them where they were and restoring their esteem and often lost dignity, and spreading joy.
We began praying together and asking what the Lord was asking of us.
A few days later, along came a young family with three small children: they too were seeking a youthful spirituality, fellowship and sharing, and seeing the value of their vocation to marriage and family offered to the Church and the world in freely given service. It all comes out of an experience of not so long back, by Fr Alfano, at the Juvenile Centre which used be here at S. Cuore. We felt that the Lord was asking something special of us, to come together in a unique experience of Church: male and female consecrated life, families and young people, in Don Bosco’s spirit.
We set up a dignified but simple place on the top floor behind the Basilica (where the Juvenile Centre used be in fact) on Easter 2009 and brought the Missionaries of the Risen Christ into “their house”, inside our own Work.
After a year of intense prayer and weekly meetings (praying and thinking together!) on the poor situation that so many young refugees were in, on the search for meaning on the part of other university students around Rome, on the likely aims of our presence at S. Cuore, and also urged on by the pressing invitation of the Rector Major to make our Salesian Charism more obvious and not rely on old attitudes but dare to enter new experiences attentive to the needs of the young and sensitive to new evangelisation, we began to draw up a text for our S. Cuore Missionary Project.
Meanwhile our house began to be inhabited by various young people who were attracted to serving the poor (at the time we were offering supper each Saturday for poor homeless people around the Tiburtina Station, volunteer work by uni students continued at the Umberto I polyclinic; we also began some activities for refugees, like Italian classes, and organising some places for them to come together like in outings where young Italians and refugees could meet up in a mutually enriching situation amongst peers from different countries) – and prayer: every Thursday evening from 8.30 to 10.00 in the choir in the Basilica we had Adoration preceded by lectio based on the Sunday readings. An occasional retreat allowed us to involve some young people more deeply in more systematic formation activities.
Some activities involved a few youngsters, others many of them, initially mainly kids who were far from faith: there were Spanish classes, fraternal evenings, graduation festivities, a pilgrimage by Uni students to Assisi, involvement in regional initiatives of the Salesian Youth Movement…
We began to set up some formation courses.
Step one: “Encounters with Jesus”, nine weekly meetings of Christian initiation (love of God the Father, Jesus’ Lordship, the Word of God, the Sacraments, prayer…) and a three day retreat at the end.
This continued with weekly meetings for getting to know the Christian dimension better as children of God, disciples and apostles. As well as seeing to the content of this, it was both our wish and the young people’s wish to present ourselves as a united front, SDB and MCR. We were aware that consecrated men and women, families and young people, expressed a true and beautiful experience of Church.
I can say that the thing that brought the best results was undoubtedly communion. This choice meant we did not really have any free evenings: we were practically always there ‘together’, everyone busy. This allowed us to experience a deep sense of our being a Pastoral and Educative Community, truly Church.
Now we have set up new “Encounters with Jesus” each term with about twenty young people from all over the city; we have a Youth Community divided into three groups by age: 20-25; 26-30; over 30 who meet weekly.
Every Thursday from 8.30 10 in the evening we have lectio and Adoration; we offer courses in education to love, “Created to love”, for singles and engaged couples who have yet to set the date for their wedding; there is also a course on the Church’s social teaching; we get many young people involved in working with refugees. They not only give of their time and energy but become aware that that they gain much from their peers who have had to feel violence, war, torture, injustice and in order to find life have had to go through unheard of experiences; we have others who help homeless people, discovering through this act of charity (“Talent Bank” supper at Termini every Friday and the “Piazza Grande” fraternal afternoon at the oratory every Thursday) the possibility of affirming the amazing dignity of every human being, recognised as a child of God and wanting to be understood in their dignity in our house. There is also a good group of young people who go to the Umberto I Polyclinic twice weekly to visit the sick. Some young people are catechists, others leaders in the oratory. Through these young people we go ‘door to door’ to visit families in the parish, offering a Christmas gift and a blessing for the homes.
There is no lack of opportunity for fellowship and festivity: suppers, outings, Sundays together in the mountains or in a Roman park, cineforums, sports competitions, festivities with the parish community, ethnic evenings… where the joy of seeing ourselves as brothers and sisters well beyond culture, skin colour, language, economic status, helps us to taste the beauty of life and opens us up to gratitude.
We have seen as a blessing and confirmation of the path we have set out on, the journey of faith made by some of our brothers and sisters (Muslims, Buddhist, atheists…) who have asked for Baptism or to come into full communion with the Catholic Church (Copts, Orthodox, Evangelicals). But also vocations (2 SDB, 1 FMA, 1 Postulant for the MCR, 1 Postulant for the Poor Clares, 1 Sister of the Immaculate, 1 Dominican, 1 Seminarian, 6 young Salesian Cooperators, various engaged couples all of these from our Youth Community open to service of the poor and to mission).
Some of these young people have asked to be part of a living community, that is, to live in our ‘house’ sharing with the religious (SDB and MCR) in daily prayer and responsibility for mission in a way that is appropriate to their state of life and their duties. There are eight at the moment (five girls and three boys). They have a spiritual assistant who accompanies them in this experience to help them keep faith, life and culture together, and also help them through some important moments of fellowship and sharing between young people and religious.
It is precisely this “being together” with young people that has seemed to be the most significant and powerful aspect of the Salesian charism. Every time we succeed in “living with” young people (retreats, formation camps, shared living…) we become aware of how much more effective educative activity is. This is why we have made every effort and offered young people this opportunity, so they can taste the attractiveness of a communion of life that puts Jesus at the centre. The great joy these days is waiting for Pope Francis to come to our place: Sunday 19 January he is coming to spend the afternoon with us. He will meet with the homeless, refugees and the volunteers who are looking after them, with families and youngsters from the oratory, sick and disabled, and people in the parish. But he will especially be meeting the young people who have found a ‘home’ at Sacro Cuore, which takes them in and offers them the possibility of a significant experience of Resurrection, launching them into life as true disciples of Jesus and missionaries of the Gospel. This is immediately an experience of joy!