Journeying With the Young : A Window on Salesian Spirituality by David O’Malley

“Two men looked through prison bars, one saw mud, the other stars”. Each of us can see the same things quite differently. We all look at the world through our own “inner window”. That window can help us focus clearly or it can distort what we see.

Don Bosco looked at his work with young people perhaps through a window with four different “window panes”. He wanted his youth work to involve a school, a church, a playground and a home, all focussed on young people. He described his first Oratory at Valdocco in Turin as precisely those four elements. The vital part of this four-fold pattern was balance. No young person was pushed to pursue one at the expense of the other and Don Bosco probably used these four areas to check the development of the young people in his care. If he saw a young person constantly in church and never in the playground he became concerned. If a young person was regularly alone and did not feel at home with the rest of the young people he wanted to find out why. If a young person was always studying and not spending time with his friends he would talk to his teachers and try to balance things up.

Don Bosco was using this fourfold approach to young people as a way of seeing into their world. Like St Francis de Sales, he knew that young people needed to run and make noise and burn off energy, but he also knew that they had a deep capacity for spirituality which many adults overlook. He knew that young people needed to learn but also recognised that they did this best in a safe and homely atmosphere. In Don Bosco’s vision then, a child needed a school, a church, a playground and a home.

Today the truth of Don Bosco’s insight is as relevant as ever. But truth is a strange thing: Why is it true that the toast lands on the floor buttered side down most of the time? The truth of Don Bosco’s insight in his four fold oratory model might seem strange to us today, many of us are not school teachers and those of us who work with young people know how difficult it can be to get them into church. What does Don Bosco’s fourfold insight mean today, how can this pattern help us to make sense of our work for young people?

I want to suggest we change the words slightly, changing them from concrete places like church, school, playground and home to four active words that can help us see more clearly into the increasing variety of situations in which we meet young people today. Here is my own “translation” of Don Bosco’s four words:

• Home=Belonging
• School=Learning
• Church=Meaning
• Playground=Celebrating

Using these four words as parents, youth workers, friends and teachers we can transfer Don Bosco’s insight into our own Salesian work with young people.

Home means Belonging

Don Bosco was aware that young people needed a sense of being at home: safe, welcome and accepted. When young people feel safe and comfortable it is easier to establish trust and support them in their growth. Often that will mean that they will feel free to express both happiness and sadness, anger and contentedness. The absence of spontaneity and openness for Don Bosco was a sign that this part of his pattern was not working. When he saw a boy who was alone, sad or unusually silent he would do one of two things; either he would take him aside and ask him what was wrong, reassure him and get him involved with the larger group, or he would ask some other trusted young people to do the same. The quality of those relationships and the changing patterns of connection were vital elements in creating a safe and relaxed place for young people to be themselves.

We need to look into the quality of belonging when we work in classrooms, with families or in youth groups, it will always help us to see things as Don Bosco saw them. If we notice that a young person is no longer accepted by a group he was always with, we need to find out why. If we notice changes in noise levels, we might see beneath the surface and become aware of issues that are both positive and negative. The development of small cliques will either help or hinder the sense of belonging felt by the larger group. All these things help us to focus on young people in their world. Looking at the sense of belonging leads adults to build a sense of ownership among young people for what they do and how it effects others. Salesian belonging means giving responsibility and holding young people to account, it means building friendships that will last into life. Belonging - longing to be all that a young person can be; with a little help from their friends. For Don Bosco the skill of the adult is to create the environment that guarantees this safety and belonging among the young people in their care.

School and Learning

Don Bosco recognised that formal education was one way out of the poverty trap for the young people he worked with. But he recognised that education was a much wider reality than the classroom, it was a “matter of the heart”. In Don Bosco’s vision “school” was more than formal education. The main place where learning happens is within the group of young people and not the physical classroom. If the network of relationships is right young people learn the deeper lessons of life: who they are, what their gifts are, what limitations they have. They learn their own style of being themselves, test their dreams, teach each other skills for coping and growing to maturity. The aim of education for Don Bosco was more than academic results. For him it should fulfill the gospel promise “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”. For Don Bosco everyone is potentially a teacher. In a school it may be the dinner-ladies or the caretaker that help a young person to learn a vital lesson in life. In a parish setting the old person sitting quietly at the back who talks and smiles to young people may be a profound teacher of wisdom. Most of all in Don Bosco’s mind, so often it was young people themselves who were the best teachers speaking with an honesty and immediacy that few adult friends could match.

So Don Bosco found ways of making every situation a learning experience, games, domestic work, fights in the playground, friendly encouragement and even major problems. In his talks to young people he would often ask them what could be done about problems. In sharing their conclusions, they learnt together and Don Bosco learnt with them. The role of the teacher is dynamic, one moment teaching, one moment listening, always learning. We need a deep respect for this process of learning because it links us moment by moment to the Spirit of God moving through the group bringing maturity, deepening wisdom.

Playground and Celebration

Young people need to earth their energy in fun, games and physical exercise. Some educators see this as wasted time, Don Bosco never did. Instead he saw it as vital in the process of celebrating life. The most important thing about play and hobbies is that they are not duties, not seen as a burden. We do them for the joy of doing them and they allow us to enjoy the present moment. Moments of fun and recreation allow responsibility to stop and joy and excitement to bubble up. As adults we may take ourselves too seriously and when we do so we are in danger of losing the energy we need to be ourselves. We may even feel threatened by young people’s exuberance. “We constantly misinterpret their (young people’s) behaviour, seeing them as badly behaved when in fact they are joyful and excited. We don’t say that we adults feel threatened, we say they (young people) threaten us”.

Don Bosco encouraged his workers to be “young with the young”. He wanted young people to grow to maturity and yet still have access to that youthful inner energy that could let them play and simply be. He saw play as an act of faith that in the end each person only carried a small part of responsibility for the world and did not carry it all on their shoulders or alone. Don Bosco was looking for balance, between work and play. He did not like to see young people avoiding recreation or becoming too intense or serious about work or religion. He wanted them to live the fourfold balance.

Church and Meaning

The chapel or church was always close to the playground in Salesian Oratories. The idea of linking faith and fun was part of the geography. Don Bosco wanted the sense of God’s presence to be available in every situation and the door of the church was rarely locked until very late in the day. He encouraged short visits into the silence of the chapel even during games or on the way to workshops or classes, it was an open house. Don Bosco wanted the young people to be aware that his whole approach to young people revolved around the mystery of God represented in the tabernacle at the centre of the oratory chapel.

In today’s settings we have lost the on-site church to give that mystery a clear focus for the young people. Symbols can help. But awareness, a way of seeing, is the key to the way Don Bosco was looking at the young people in his care, looking through the fourth window into his oratory vision. Just as a young person in the oratory could slip out of the playground into the darkened mystery of the church, so in every youth group and individual young person there are moments when they slip from fun into faith questions. It could be that they are angry about an injustice and ask why? Or it could be issues around dreams for the future or disappointments that lead to deeper questions about life and it’s meaning. We need to give space for such moments, to recognise them. At points like these, when words fail and only questions remain young people need a “good listening to” and not answers. If we are lucky as adults they will then invite us into their questions, invite us to share some of our own faith and struggle.

In that moment we have entered a church built out of the relationships we have formed with the young people, a cathedral of kindness and respect where mystery is touched and our fragile gospel is shared with sensitivity. These graced moments do not come ready packaged or regularly. Like a number 19 bus they rarely turn up for long periods then three or four come along together. We are not in control of this invasion of mystery into the lives of young people, but we must not miss them. We simply need to be aware, like the disciples after the resurrection, that “It is The Lord” standing on the shore of our awareness and feeding all of us with the bread of his presence among young people. It is this network of friendship that forms the church that holds God’s presence, Don Bosco’s fourth window on the world of young people.