Around this time of year, at least in the pre-pandemic calendar, most schools, parishes, and youth centers would have a gratitude dinner for their many volunteers. Parishes especially couldn’t survive without their dedicated volunteers, who help out in the liturgy, religious education programs, youth activities, sports, fundraising events, cleaning, social outreach, home visits, prayer groups, retreats, and in so many other ways. Even though the volunteers do not look for recognition, they deserve to be thanked. The annual gratitude dinner or small Christmas gift hardly repays the hours dedicated to furthering the mission in our Salesian works.
The willingness to serve, to volunteer, is an attitude that is cultivated from childhood in the home and given an opportunity to flower and bear fruit in the Church and society. Most of our schools require 100 hours of service or more to graduate. Likewise, the Confirmation programs have a required service component. Through reflection on their experience in service, the young people can become more like Jesus who “did not come to be served but to serve…” (Mt. 20:28). These opportunities can help the young discover their talents, which are meant to be put at the service of others. They also raise awareness of our neighbors in need and move us to solidarity and a concern for social justice. In our Salesian educational system, volunteering can be a proving ground for vocational discernment. Think of St. Dominic Savio, who, with other companions in the Immaculate Conception Sodality, were expected to be big brothers to the new students at the Oratory. In this environment where the young were given the opportunity to share in the mission, Dominic Savio understood, “Serve the Lord in gladness” (Ps.100:2).
I’m guessing that probably all of us had some volunteer experiences before entering the Salesians. I can remember helping at the local hospital to transport patients to therapy and back to their rooms. With the parish youth group and the parish priest, we went to the nursing home to sing Christmas carols. Maybe some SDBs volunteered as assistant coaches, camp counselors, or afterschool tutors. The experience of volunteering can be an important element in human and spiritual growth.
Besides generous participation, service opportunities, and attitudes of helping others in need, in the Salesian world, we use the word “volunteering” in another sense. “Volunteering” oftentimes refers to several months to several years of full-time participation in the Salesian mission, usually away from home. The Salesian Lay Missioner (SLM) program and VIDES could be considered volunteering. I encourage all our confreres to be bold in inviting alumni and young adults in our works to consider “volunteering” as an SLM, in Canada and the USA or in another province. Since the young people have grown up in our educational system which cultivates an attitude of service, they will have an openness to this invitation. They may even invite their friends to join them. What they learned about giving of themselves in service while in middle school or high school will bear much fruit in their young adult years.
By now you should have received the printed resources for the Salesian Mission Day 2021 (Reflection booklet, holy card, and posters). The theme this year is “One Father One Family.” These resources can easily be incorporated into the service activities for youth and adults in all our Salesian works. Our volunteers will see how others are also sharing responsibility for the Salesian mission throughout the world. The digital versions of the resources are available here in various languages.
We may not be able to have the usual gratitude banquets for our volunteers this year because of the pandemic. And we will need to find other creative ways to express our thanks. Still, we want to make sure our volunteers know they are valuable to the mission and we welcome their service.
Happy Feast of St. Dominic Savio!
Fr. Tim Zak