We’re all familiar with the story of Don Bosco’s meeting with Bartholomew Garelli, in the Church of St. Francis of Assisi on December 8, 1841. It is a popular story for the kids in our camps and schools to act out. For Don Bosco, it was much more than one more encounter with an at-risk youth. In this encounter, he saw the image of his entire life’s project: to give himself in service to the young, especially the poorest, as a response to God’s call. Don Bosco was attentive to God’s pointing out to him what he was to do, and Don Bosco said “yes.” This project of life became his burning passion.
In fact, there were many incidents in Don Bosco’s life that guided him to decide on his project of life. Reflecting on these incidents, he could discern where God was directing him. Along the way there were also sure guides. In the context of the Convitto, he received guidance from Fr. Guala and Fr. Cafasso. It was at the Convitto that Don Bosco said he learned to be a priest.
The decade he spent in Chieri was a fruitful time for vocational discernment. Through moments of doubt or confusion, his prayer, good friends, and trust in his spiritual directors helped him make good choices. Even from his earliest years, at his home in Becchi, he learned the Faith from his mother, Mama Margaret. Lessons from nature and daily life taught the young John Bosco that we live in God’s presence; God sees us and loves us. All this prepared Don Bosco to see God at work in the Bartholomew Garelli encounter.
God’s call is always very specific, never an abstraction. God called John Bosco from a particular family and a particular context. His call always invites people out of particular families and their specific contexts. As it was for Don Bosco, so it is for us and the young today. God calls each of us, with all the specificity and peculiarities of our lives. This is an action of God’s grace, to which we respond with our gifts and our limitations.
The readings chosen for this Mass of First Profession speak of vocation. In Isaiah 44 God lovingly refers to Jacob, his servant Israel, as his “darling.” This term expresses the tender, personal relationship God has with his people and each person. The call draws Israel close to listen to God speaking; it invites Israel to be attentive. God knows Jacob, and he knows us, personally, and he addresses us as “darling.”
In the prophecy, the call is followed by further action of God which helps us understand the nature and purpose of our vocation. Using the imagery of the parched desert, the prophet says God will renew it with a spring of water, the outpouring of his Spirit on his people. From our Salesian perspective, we can think of the many young people today who are thirsting for meaning in their life, who have lost purpose and direction. They are waiting for the announcement of the Good News, for someone to share with them the living water. Our vocation is oriented toward mission. We don’t live for ourselves.
God has in view new offspring, the many who will come from Jacob, the many who will come after us. God’s love is to be shared with them also.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of the vine and the branches; without Christ we can do nothing. The vine and branches were used as an icon of GC27: the vine extends from Christ to the apostles, then to the whole Church. The life of Christ flows through the vine to many others who share in mission of announcing the Gospel. That’s an image of what happens in the Garelli story: Don Bosco told him to bring his friends, which he did, and from there Don Bosco’s mission has spread across the world.
In Isaiah God’s call extends beyond Israel. Even those not part of the people of Israel will know that they belong to the Lord. It will be written on their hands—tattooed, perhaps; all will be marked as belonging to the Lord. As religious we wear a medal or a cross, not a tattoo, to show that we are consecrated to the Lord, we belong to God, we live entirely for God. The witness of our consecrated vocation is like the prophecy, helping everyone hear God call them “darling.”
Don Bosco’s apostolic passion to save souls flowed out of his experience of God. Dan and Tom have had an intimate personal experience of God in their hearts, which must flow from them to others. This beautiful day is an occasion for all of us to respond to God’s call to live united with the source of life and at the same time to be signs and bearers of God’s love to others.