Homily of Fr. Tim Zak, SDB
(Stony Point, NY – September 21) – Way back in 2013, leading up to the bicentenary of Don Bosco’s birth, Pascual Chavez gave the Salesian Family this strenna: “Like Don Bosco the educator, we offer young people the Gospel of joy through a pedagogy of kindness.”
At the end of the commentary on the strenna, Fr. Chavez recommended that the members of the Salesian Family read some of the writings of Don Bosco on education. It is no surprise that he includes “The Preventive System in the education of the young” and Don Bosco’s famous “Letter from Rome.” A bit more surprising is the recommendation to read the biographies of Dominic Savio, Michael Magone, and Francis Besucco.
We might think that these biographies were nothing more than stories to inspire the other young people at the Oratory to be good Christians and honest citizens, with Savio, Besucco, and Magone presented as examples to follow. Fr. Chavez comments that these books, in fact, are an effective way for us to come to know Don Bosco the educator, his pedagogical and evangelizing methods, and his concern that the members of the newly founded Salesian Society would know how to continue his work.
In other words, they tell us as much about Don Bosco as they do about the boys. There are certain characteristics of the Preventive System that come through each of the biographies, for example, putting young people at the center of the mission, helping them take the lead in their own formation, creating an atmosphere that ensures success in education, starting the educational growth for each of these three boys with where they are, and adapting the methods to suit to their needs. In addition to these characteristics of the Preventive System that we find woven throughout each biography, when we look at each story in relation to the others, we see even more of the genius of Don Bosco.
Let’s start with Michael Magone. He was a street kid, rough around the edges, but a clear leader. Coming to the Oratory, he went from being unfamiliar with the religion, discipline, structured learning, and service, to being a good example to his peers. Francis Besucco came from a pious family and a simple country village with a close connection to the local pastor. Arriving at the Oratory, he was able to grow in even greater knowledge of the faith and more complete self-surrender to the Lord. Dominic Savio was a remarkable student with a close-knit family filled with faith. At the Oratory, he became something of an outstanding model of what it means to be a Salesian youth. Now we call him St. Dominic Savio. The rough street kid became a good young man; the good country shepherd boy became an outstanding example; the outstanding leader became a saint. Taken together in this way, Don Bosco’s biographies of the boys at the Oratory show how a young person grows into “mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ.”
This is the goal of the Christian life that St. Paul presents to the early Church in Ephesus (4: 1-7, 11-13): to “attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ.” What a great phrase for our celebration today. If we can see how Don Bosco’s method of education and evangelization led the boys at the Oratory, even the tough or troubled ones, to become not only good Christians and honest citizens but even to become saints, what can we say about our Salesians celebrating their anniversaries of profession and ordination? After 25 years of religious life or priestly ordination, 40 years of religious life or ordination, 50 years of religious life, 50 years of priestly ordination, 60 years of religious life! Maybe these men before us don’t have the same youthful energy or idealism of Magone, Besucco, or Savio, but I dare say, they have continued on their own faith journey, growing in their humanity and offering us an authentic witness of maturity in Christ.
When the author of the letter to the Ephesians included this phrase as something of goal for the believers, I’m sure he understood no one would attain the goal of perfect maturity in this life. The journey toward full stature in Christ would be a life-long adventure, with some mountain-top experiences as well as walking through the valley of darkness. There would be times of intense and successful ministry as well as serious doubts and failures. These are all parts of life. Along the way, we would need a guide. Paul presents Christ as the perfect human being, the image of all we are called to be as we mature. We know from experience, however, that Christ is not only waiting for us at the end of our journey; he is our companion, the friend we need to continue moving forward. As we honor the jubilarians today, we see how they have advanced on the path of holiness, becoming more and more like Christ, by walking close to Christ, allowing him to take the lead.
The aim of the early Church in Ephesus is the aim of Christians today. We cannot be content that the followers of Christ live merely decent, respectable lives. We are called to be examples of full Christian maturity; we are called to saints. Remember the strenna for this year: “Holiness for you too!” Of course, we have to mention St. Matthew on his feast day. We are proud to belong to the spiritual family founded by St. John Bosco. We have seen how the boys at the Oratory grew in sanctity. So many other members of our Salesian Family are recognized because of their heroic virtue. From the Americas, we can recall Bl. Artimides Zatti, Bl. Ceferino Namuncurá, Bl. Laura Vicuña, Bl. Maria Romero Meneses, Bl. Maria Troncatti, Bl. Louis Variara, Venerable Rudolph Komorek, Venerable Octavio Ortiz, and Venerable José Vandor.
Should we add to the list the saintly Frank Twardzik or saintly Richard Pasaik after 60 years of Salesian religious life? What about Bl. Jack Janko, Bl. Dave Moreno, Bl. Thomas Pallithanam, Bl. Ken Shaw, Bl. Larry Urban after 50 years of Salesian religious life? Do I dare mention as venerable Richard Alejunas, Paul Chuong Nguyen, Richard Putnan, and Joseph Lee? Can we honor the servants of God Tom Dion, Zbigniew Majcher, and Lou Konopelski? I mention only those who are with us today, but we could include those celebrating anniversaries who could not be with us as well.
In this illustrious group of men, along with the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, we find energetic missionaries, gentle healers, dynamic preachers, wise counselors, good friends, hard workers, sure guides, great storytellers. Their gifts are too many to mention, all of them put at the service of the mission for the building up of the Body of Christ.
Writing the biographies of Savio, Besucco, and Magone, Don Bosco is presenting the gradual growth in holiness for the young and for us, too. In telling the stories of these boys at the Oratory, he reveals his unique method of accompanying them on the journey to full stature in Christ. The celebration of the anniversaries of religious profession and priestly ordination of these Salesians of Don Bosco helps us realize that Don Bosco was writing a living history. The story of holiness, the continual growth toward maturity is right here before us in these brothers and priests. Thank you for your inspiring example. Thank you for giving your lives to the building up of the Body of Christ. May you one day be counted among the saints and enjoy a little rest in Heaven. For today, we thank God for each of you and pray that God continues to bless you with fidelity and joy in your Salesian vocation to holiness.