On Sunday, 21st June 2015, Pope Francis was ushered in through the two wings of the crowd in jubilation, amidst the applause and cheers of the young, educators and people who daily animate the spiritual proceedings at the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians, Valdocco and the premises, long back also in the greater outskirts of Turin. After a visit to the Holy Shroud and having honored Our Lady of Consolata, Pope Francis finally arrived at the heart of Salesian spirituality.
By Gian Francesco Romano
After greeting the crowd waiting for him for hours at the square of Mary Help of Christians, the Pope was accompanied to the entrance of the Basilica for veneration of the relics of Don Bosco at the side altar dedicated to him. It was a moment of personal prayer so intense, made by a Jesuit Pope who never hid his devotion to Don Bosco, his style distinctively “Salesian”.
Appealing, but replete with profound spiritual sense was the prayer song Ave Maria of Vavilov by tenor voice Marco Voleri Livorno, accompanied on the organ by Maestro Maurizio Palace.
On behalf of the Salesian Family – “a tree with many branches” – the Rector Major, Fr Ángel Fernández Artime, in his address to the Pope thanked the Pope for his visit and renewed the commitment on behalf of everyone inspired by Don Bosco, to follow the teachings of the Pope, especially on “the special care of poor youth”.
The Rector Major then presented some mementos to Pope Francis – others are to be delivered later, as the motorcycles made by the young students of the Vocational Training Centre at Bra. The pope responded with a speech, followed by the recitation of a prayer prepared specially for the occasion, concluding with the blessing of Mary Help of Christians.
Thus the highly awaited meeting with Pope Francis in the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians culminated not in merriment. As the Holy Father resurfaced on the square outside, the initial enthusiasm resumed and he continued to maintain his attention on the pilgrims, young people and the faithful in waiting.
“I am so grateful to the Salesian Family for what he has done in my life”
His personal experience with the Salesians and the Salesian Family, the creativity and practicality of Don Bosco and his spiritual children, the figure of Mary Help of Christians, the love for the Eucharist and the Church, the Salesian joy, the loving kindness, the education to beauty, the role of women, the missionary dimension … there are lots of issues touched by Pope Francis in his spontaneous speech in the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians, in what can be considered a comprehensive “Salesian catechesis”.
Gian Francesco Romano
The dialogue opened with the heartfelt words of the Rector Major, Fr Ángel Fernández Artime, who in his speech, recalled how Don Bosco had “started it all -a kind of oratory- with a Hail Mary,” and explains that his “secret” was in “accepting life as a God-given mission among the young,” in the certainty that “God desires the salvation of every young person, starting with those most exposed to human and religious hardship.”
After the example of the founder, Fr Á.F. Artime has therefore renewed the commitment of the Salesian Family to work for young people, especially those most in need, in the spirit of service to the Church and loyalty to the Pope; and jokingly also he reassured the Pope of the commitment in Patagonia – in reference to the recommendation that the Holy Father had left the Salesians at the meeting with the participants of the General Chapter 27 (March 2014).
Then, it was then the turn of the Pope, who immediately set aside the official speech, to speak more spontaneously. At first, Pope Francis recalled with kindness his first contact with Fr Á.F. Artime, it happened during a national youth pilgrimage to Our Lady of Luján, when one was archbishop of Buenos Aires and the other as the newly arrived Salesian Provincial. “So, this is the Galician who came to command!” the former Archbishop joked at that time. But aside from the witty remarks, the Pontiff said that he appreciated his “humility and service.”
The Pope then noted the many and well known reasons that bind him to the spirituality and the Salesian Family: the figure of Fr Enrico Pozzoli -important to him and to his parents; his being a sports fan for San Lorenzo de Almagro (” a soccer team with the colors of the Madonna, but made up of street children”), a work of the Salesian Lorenzo Massa; and in particular the year he studied at the Salesian Institute of Ramos Mejía, where he said he had learned “to love the Madonna”, where he was educated “towards beauty, love, and affectivity,” according to the style that Don Bosco himself used with his boys, having learned from the loving kindness of Mama Margaret. “I am so grateful to the Salesian Family for what he has done in my life,” he summarized.
Speaking of Mama Margaret (“without her, no one can understand Don Bosco”), the Holy Father spoke of the role of women and the female educational models to be offered to young girls who are students of the Salesians and the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians. It is not about the functionalism of roles, but the role of education according to authoritative figures of women who know how to love, was the response of the Pope to those who ask about female appointments at top curial posts.
Pope Francis also spoke of the current realities, and drawing a comparison with the era of Don Bosco, had observed that “today many things have changed, but the situation of young people is more or less the same.” For this he exclaimed that “your charism is a great reality” and he called for courageous decisions on the part of the Salesians, Don Bosco knows how to take risks and know how to be practical, “the Salesian is concrete: he sees the problem, thinks about what to do and handles the situation. ”
He praised the Salesian vision on two other aspects: the attention to vocational training, especially today, when we face the scourge of youth unemployment, which leads to us to require “an education adapted to the crisis”; and the “missionary dimension” as shown by so many men and women who have spent their lives for the evangelization of the people – including those of Patagonia.
After crossing slowly the nave of the Basilica, greeting with care anyone who stopped him, he reached the churchyard where he said goodbye to the faithful present in the square, inviting them to be always joyful and – as usual – to pray for him.