The Virtues of Don Bosco Present in Our Midst
Homily for Mass to Celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of St. John Bosco
January 30, 2015; Saints Peter and Paul Church, San Francisco, California
On this happy occasion when we come together to celebrate Mass for the 200th anniversary of the birth of St. John Bosco, we hear from the prophet Ezekiel who paints a vivid picture of the Good Shepherd who traverses the wide wilderness to care for his sheep: “As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep. I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark” (Ez 34:12). It was in this spirit that the first four Salesian priests came to the City of St. Francis in 1897, to minister to the large, lively Italian community here.
Salesians in San Francisco
At the outset of this homily I must express a debt of personal gratitude to the Salesians, for my grandparents were among the newly-arrived Italian immigrant parishioners whom they welcomed, and my father and two of my uncles were baptized in the old SS. Peter and Paul church. The great founder of the Salesian order, Don Bosco, had been dead less than ten years when his intrepid sons arrived here.
Every order is marked with the personality of its founder, and the memories of Don Bosco’s remarkable character must have been very fresh in the minds of those priests as they assumed the pastoral care of the Italian community in North Beach. They might have heard their founder’s gentle voice saying what St. Paul wrote to the Philippians: “Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you” (Phil 4:9). What had they seen in him? Of his many virtues, I would like to reflect on three which suggest themselves to me from the readings we have just heard: zeal, kindness, and trust in God.
Three Marks of Don Bosco
First, zeal. The Good Shepherd says through his prophet: “The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal” (Ez 34:16). John Bosco had this kind of zeal even as a child. One of the first images that comes to mind when we think of him is of a lively young boy balancing on a tightrope or juggling to entertain his friends. He wasn’t showing off – he was using his unusual talents to attract those who were lost and straying, so that they could hear the voice of the Good Shepherd who wanted to bind up their injuries, the injuries inflicted by poverty and neglect. When he grew up and became a priest, his zeal led him to balance on the tightropes of civil and ecclesiastical restrictions and juggle the meager resources at hand to provide for his ever-growing community of young people.
Zeal is a great virtue, but if it is not tempered it can become excessive. Don Bosco learned this lesson in a dream he had when he was nine years old. He was playing in a group of children, and some of them began to act roughly and use bad language. John tried to make them stop first by arguing with them and then by hitting them; suddenly there appeared a mysterious lady who said to him: “Softly, softly if you wish to win them! Take your shepherd’s staff and lead them to pasture.” When he began his priestly ministry, Don Bosco treated the rough, difficult young people he met with kindness. And they were drawn to him, seeing in him a living image of the God of whom the psalm says: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (Ps 103:13-14). Don Bosco took as his patron St. Francis de Sales, the gentle bishop who famously taught that more flies are caught with honey than with vinegar. Truly, what St. Paul asked of the Philippians was fulfilled in the founder of the Salesians: “Your kindness should be known to all” (Phil 4:5).
Kind people can be taken advantage of, and some of Don Bosco’s contemporaries felt he was very imprudent in the initiatives he undertook. But Don Bosco was no fool – he combined the simplicity of the dove with the cleverness of the serpent. There is a wonderful story to illustrate this: some ecclesiastical officials felt that Don Bosco was mentally unbalanced, and they arranged for him to be committed to an asylum. They came to call on him under the pretext of going for a ride in the country, but he outfoxed them. Graciously holding the door of the carriage open for them, he invited them to get in ahead of him. Then he slammed the door and called to the driver: “To the asylum!” and off the carriage rumbled.
God’s folly is wiser than human wisdom, and this was the bedrock of Don Bosco’s kindness. He could rejoice always, because he knew the Lord was near. As St. Paul counseled the Philippians, “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7). Even as he faced what seemed to be insurmountable difficulties, the heart and mind of Don Bosco was guarded by the peace of God; his trust in divine Providence was unshakeable – and perhaps a little unnerving to those around him.
Zeal, kindness, trust in God: these traits of the founder were fresh in the minds of Fr. Raphael Piperni and his three companions when they landed in far-off San Francisco, California over a century ago, and the flame of that Salesian spirit has burned brightly here ever since. The sons of Saint Don Bosco, the Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians, the Salesian Co-operators and countless lay people continue to witness to the joy of the Gospel today as they did to my own family a century ago. This same spirit binds together the Salesian family all over the world, as it continues the work of the Good Shepherd who seeks out and brings back those who are lost, sick, or injured.
We need look no further than our Holy Father to see an embodiment of the Salesian charism, which he learned as a boy at Ramos Mejia School in Buenos Aires. By way of conclusion, we might compare some words of St. Paul with the recollections of Pope Francis. Paul writes: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8). And then we have these words of our Pope, words that could be echoed by the thousands of people who have encountered the spirit of Don Bosco here in our Archdiocese:
The [Salesian] School created, through the awakening of the conscience in the truth of things, a Catholic culture that was not at all ‘bigoted’ or ‘disoriented.’ Study, the social values of living together, the social references to the neediest (I remember having learned there to deprive myself of some things to give to persons who were poorer than me), sport, competence, piety … everything was real, and everything formed habits that, all together, molded a cultural way of being. One lived in this world but open to the transcendence of the other world. … This Catholic culture is – in my opinion – the best that I received at Ramos Mejia.”
And it is the best that the Salesians offer here as well. Thank you, family of Don Bosco, for your 118 years of ministry to the people of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.