Favoured sons ... and daughtersRobert Mickens
- 1 March 2008
With more bishops than any other order in the Church, and a "family" of 400,000 priests, Religious and lay helpers, the Salesians, whose twenty-sixth General Chapter opens in Rome on Monday, are also being promoted to key posts at the Vatican
When Pope Benedict XVI chose Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB to be his Secretary of State some 18 months ago, Vatican watchers wondered aloud if the move indicated a new season of favour for his religious order, the Salesians of Don Bosco.
But even before the cardinal took his place as the Vatican's highest-ranking official (next to the Pope, that is), a member of the Salesians' sister congregation - Sr Enrica Rosanna FMA (Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians) - had already been serving since 2004 as the under-secretary (number three official) at the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Thus, the Roman Curia's highest-ranking woman was a member of the so-called "Salesian Family", a vast network of some 400,000 priests, men and women Religious, lay co-workers and former students who volunteer to bring the vision and charism of Don Bosco, who died in 1888 aged 72 and was canonised in 1934, to young people and so help them "become good Christians and honest citizens".
Among the characteristics the Salesians say they try to embody are "a welcoming attitude", "optimism and joy", "creativity and flexibility" and a "deep trust in God". They pride themselves on what is called the "preventive system" of education that was devised by Don Bosco and is based "entirely on reason, religion and loving kindness". It is "preventive" in that it "seeks to prevent the need for punishment by placing the child in an environment in which he/she is encouraged to be the best one can be". Salesians will point to the fact that they tend to blend in with the ecclesial customs and style of the places where they work - all in harmony with the local expression of the hierarchical Church. It is all tempered by a "cheerfulness" and what even Don Bosco approvingly called a "recklessness" - anything whose aims were "to gain souls for God".
If you thumb through the Annuario Pontificio, the Vatican's block-like 2,400-page directory, you will see that nearly every major section of the Roman Curia has at least one or two officials, staffers or consultants with "SDB" or "FMA" after their names. And most of those in top positions owe their promotion to the current Pope.
For example, the Secretary of State is not the only Salesian cardinal to head a Vatican office. Pope Benedict made Don Raffaele Farina SDB, 74, a cardinal last November after promoting him to head the Vatican Library five months earlier. His induction to the college means there are currently five Salesian cardinals, two of them created by Pope Benedict (Cardinal Joseph Zen SDB of Hong Kong is the other). Cardinal Miguel Obando Bravo, 92, retired Archbishop of Managua, capital of Nicaragua, and Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, 65, Archbishop of Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras, are the other two Salesians who currently wear red hats.
It is likely that the man who currently ranks second among Salesians at the Vatican will also be made a cardinal in the next consistory, whenever that should be. Archbishop Angelo Amato SDB, now in his sixth year as secretary (second in command) at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), is expected to be moved in the coming months to head another Vatican office, such as the Congregation for Saints or Catholic Education. Archbishop Amato, 69, received his current job from the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who chose him in 2002 to be his top aide at the CDF. Amato replaced his Salesian confrère, then-Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, whom Cardinal Ratzinger had picked for that same job in 1995.
Since becoming Bishop of Rome, Pope Benedict - most likely in consultation with his Secretary of State - has continued to place his trust in people from the vast Salesian network. Last October he named Carlo Di Cicco, a 63-year-old former student and employee of the Salesians, as assistant editor of the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano (the Salesians have for years managed the Vatican's printing press and publishing house).
But the Salesian influence does not stop there. When bishops from around the world gather in Rome next October for the synod on the Word of God, they will be using a working document prepared for them by Fr Giorgio Zevini SDB, dean of the faculty of theology at the Pontifical Salesian University in Rome.
One highly regarded Salesian who took up a key post in the Vatican even before the Ratzinger pontificate began is Fr Norbert Hofmann SDB, yet another of his order's Biblicum-trained scripture scholars. Since 2002 the German-born priest has been number three at the Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations with the Jews.
But more than the number of Salesians who work in the Roman Curia, an even greater sign of the Vatican's trust in members of this religious order is the number of them who have been named bishops around the world. Currently 116 men with SDB behind their names wear the mitre, which is more than any other order in the Church. Most of them are in mission territories in Latin America and Asia, places where Don Bosco and his first successors sent their men in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In some parishes in these territories the local clergy are almost all Salesians.
Why have Pope Benedict and his predecessors put so much confidence in the Society of St Francis de Sales, to use the official name the Salesians took at their foundation in 1859? One might be tempted to look only at their impressive numbers. According to the most recent data, there are currently 16,234 Salesians, 484 of whom are novices, while another 2,451 are still in early formation. Only the Society of Jesus, with upwards of 19,000 men, is larger. Then there is their vast and ever-expanding presence in some 127 countries around the world. In the last 10 years the Salesians have set up communities in seven new countries including Mongolia, Kuwait, Azerbaijan and Namibia. They are engaged in more than 2,000 "works" or projects, which include schools, parishes, vocational training centres, media operations and the famous Salesian "oratories" for youngsters.
Above all is their loyalty to the Holy See, which has been a hallmark since their foundation. "No effort should be spared when the Church and the papacy are at stake," Don Bosco loved to repeat, obviously influenced by the turbulence of the period and his personal friendship with the much beleaguered Pope Pius IX. This early support of the papacy did not go unrewarded. Just four years before the founder died, he saw one of his prize pupils, Giovanni Cagliero, appointed bishop in Argentina in 1884. The first Salesian bishop later became Pope Pius X's delegate to Costa Rica and Nicaragua and, in 1915, the fledging religious order's very first cardinal.
The Popes have also bestowed "celestial" honours on the Salesians in equally impressive measure. Eight members of the "Salesian Family" - including Don Bosco and Maria Mazzarello, foundress of the women's branch (FMA) - have been canonised, while 116 others are included in the gallery of "blesseds". There are 28 more Salesian beatification causes currently in the works, including Don Bosco's mother, affectionately honoured by Salesians today as "Mamma Margaret".
Despite this glorious past, there is a sense among the Salesians that new challenges - such as secularism, the breakdown of the family, the apparent inability of young people to make lasting commitments, and general religious indifference- have put the order on the verge of a crisis. Reading the General Chapter's working paper, one gets the impression the Salesian leaders fear that the their men may be straying too far away from the original idea and charism of their beloved founder, to whom John Paul II gave the title "Father, Teacher and Friend of Youth".
Perhaps that is why the Salesian's current Rector Major (or General Superior) - Fr Pascual Chávez Villanueva - chose Don Bosco's motto as the theme for this year's gathering: Da mihi animas, cetera tolle (Give me souls, take away the rest). Fr Chávez, 60, who is widely expected to be re-elected for a second and final six-year term at the General Chapter, has said on numerous occasions that Salesians must "educate according to Don Bosco's heart", and that they must each become another Don Bosco for young people today.
Pope Benedict XVI has increasingly turned to young people as the most fertile ground for a rebirth of Christian faith and culture. And he knows that it would be of tremendous help to his programme if the Salesians of today were able to be reignited with Don Bosco's zeal and enthusiasm. The Pope is sure to spell it all out on Monday in a message to the 233 delegates at the Salesian General Chapter.