Friday, December 18, 2009

Salesians of Don Bosco 150 Years Old
Millions (of Poor and Abandoned Young People) Served since 1859

The largest religious order that Catholics in the United States have never heard of is named after St. Francis de Sales. This year it is celebrating its 150th anniversary. We wonder how many readers of the Salesian Bulletin can guess its identity?
Probably most of them. In case not, here are two more hints: it was founded in northern Italy, and its founder, canonized in 1934, is hugely popular all over the world.

That religious order is the Society of St. Francis de Sales, or the Salesian Society, or the Salesians of Don Bosco. The Salesians, with a membership of 16,092 bishops, priests, brothers, and novices on Jan. 1, 2009, are outnumbered only by the Jesuits (18,711). There are more Salesians worldwide than Franciscans (15,130), Capuchins (11,092), Benedictines (7,558), or Dominicans (6,002)—orders that are from 325 to 1,330 years older than the Salesians.
In their relatively short lifetime the Salesians have risen to great heights in the Catholic hierarchy with 13 cardinals, 5 of whom are living, and 225 other bishops. The 5 living cardinals include the “vice Pope,” i.e., the Pope’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone; human rights champion Cardinal Joseph Zen, retired bishop of Hong Kong; and Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez of Honduras, often listed as papabile (a potential Pope). Among the 112 other living Salesian bishops (2008) are a Nobel laureate, retired Bishop Carlos Belo of East Timor, and a rising star of the Asian episcopate, Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil of Guwahati, India.

The Salesian Pontifical University, founded in 1940 in Turin and located in Rome since 1965, is highly regarded with schools of theology, philosophy, canon law, education, communications, and Christian and classical literature—the last established at the explicit request of Pope John XXIII.

Six members of the Salesian family (Salesians, Salesian Sisters, Cooperators, pupils) have been canonized as saints, and 114 beatified.

Hierarchical status, however, is neither the glory of the Salesian Society nor the reason for its astounding growth across six continents. Both the reason and the glory lie in its charism: care for the poorest and most abandoned young people, a care exercised in 136 countries through schools, hostels, orphanages, youth centers, catechetical centers, medical clinics, outreach to street children, defense of the rights of child workers, activities against the “sexploitation” of the young, and more.

Beginnings
It all began, Don Bosco said, with a Hail Mary and a simple catechism class in the sacristy of Turin’s St. Francis of Assisi Church on Dec. 8, 1841. But what developed out of that simple catechesis into the apostolate of the oratories in Turin eventually needed to be regularized, to be put onto a solid, permanent foundation. And so on Dec. 9, 1859, Don Bosco invited 19 of his most dedicated staff at the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales to think about making a permanent commitment to the work of the oratories, to the care of needy youngsters, by joining him in a religious society to be called, like the first and principal oratory, after St. Francis de Sales.

Nine days later 17 of those helpers responded by meeting with Don Bosco in his tiny room. Aside from Fr. Victor Alasonatti (age 47) and Don Bosco himself (44), the others were all callow youths, none older than 24; Francis Cerruti was only 15. Angelo Savio was a deacon, Michael Rua a subdeacon, the others seminarians except for Louis Chiapale.

The expressed aim of the new religious society was to “promote the glory of God and the salvation of souls, especially of those most in need of instruction and education, while providing the members with mutual help toward their own sanctification”—a twofold aim, really: the salvation of souls, including their own, through apostolic-educational work on behalf of needy youngsters.

It was not an auspicious time for founding a religious order. The Piedmontese government had just gone about suppressing most religious houses and was about to extend that suppression to the rest of the Italian peninsula (most of which was in the process of union with Piedmont to form the united kingdom of Italy). But even the anticlerical government recognized the value of schools and oratories that offered academic education, training in trades, and moral upbringing to the poor, including the orphans of Piedmont’s own war dead. Minister of the Interior Urbano Rattazzi, author of the law suppressing the religious orders, personally advised Don Bosco on how to organize the Salesians so that they would be left alone.

Nor was the government alone in appreciating what Don Bosco was doing and in concern for the future of his work. Pope Pius IX, too, had asked him in 1858 what his plans for its continuation were. That Don Bosco, as well, had been thinking of the future is evidenced in his presenting to the Pope at that time a draft rule of life for his followers—what would eventually develop into the Constitutions of the Salesians.

Growth
The demand for what Don Bosco and his men had to offer was great, and within 25 years the Salesians were spreading to the rest of the Italian peninsula, to France, Spain, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. He founded a parallel congregation of sisters in 1872 to work for the souls of girls and young women. The expansion would proceed relentlessly, so much that vocations could scarcely keep up with it.

What was the secret of such growth? Fr. Pascual Chavez calls it Don Bosco’s intuition for youth—not just to serve the young, but to use the young themselves as apostles. Don Bosco was guided in this direction by his dreams in which he gathered lambs around him, and the lambs themselves became shepherds, in which he gathered crowds of boys and young seminarians and brothers around him as his helpers.

Another secret was Don Bosco’s conviction that the Virgin Mary herself was guiding his work through such dreams and through her protection. She wanted those lambs gathered, sheltered, and nurtured for her Son. If St. Francis de Sales was the patron of the work, she was truly its inspiration, foundress, and patroness, and Don Bosco took no step without seeking her assistance.

Continuity
In this 150th year of the Salesian Society, the Rector Major has called upon all of Don Bosco’s sons to reconsecrate themselves to his ideals: to the pursuit of personal holiness, to dedication to the young and the poor. For instance, at last April’s send-off of a glass and steel casket containing a relic of Don Bosco on a worldwide pilgrimage (2009-2015), he said: “Love the young, but above all let them know they are loved. This is the task awaiting us. Now as yesterday the young often experience disappointment, a lack of confidence in themselves, the enormous difficulties in the workplace, a feeling that adult generations and society around them are far removed from them. Like Don Bosco, who modeled himself on the Gospel, and incarnating the Church’s maternal concern for education, today we too are called to organize our lives according to the needs, the aspirations, the rights, and the expectations of the young, praying for them and with them, with a friendly presence sharing with them the various stages of life, in order to free them from harmful experiences and accompany them on their way to Christ.”

The visit of the relic of Don Bosco in every part of the Salesian world will link this 150th anniversary with the coming 200th anniversary of his birth (Aug. 16, 2015). More important, it will remind all the members of the Salesian Family that they are to imitate him in their love for Christ and for young people and are to continue Don Bosco’s mission of working for the salvation of the young: “Da mihi animas.”

The 150th anniversary will culminate on Dec. 18 with celebrations in each Salesian community around the world, which will include their renewal of their religious profession—their personal commitment to Jesus Christ within the Salesian Society on behalf of the young.

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