This year, as we celebrate the 150th year of the death of St. John Vianney and the 150thyear of the founding of our congregation, we also mark the quasquicentennial of the Letter from Rome.
On May 6, 1884, exactly one hundred twenty five years ago, St. John Bosco who was in Rome dictated a letter to his secretary, Fr. John Lemoyne. The letter neither contained empty pleasantries nor some sporadic housekeeping procedures the recipients ought to take note of. That important correspondence, as we know it now, is a synthesis of how Don Bosco desired his Salesians to deal with the young people.
This letter was mailed four day's letter. But Fr. Michael Rua did not think that it should be read out in its entirety in public, and so he requested that a copy be sent to him that was suitable for the pupils.
The letter from Rome is rightly called as such because it is precisely that—Don Bosco wrote it from Rome. But probably, it is more appropriate to call it "the letter from the heart," because every single thought contained in the letter is unmistakably an expression of Don Bosco's love for his Salesians and the young people of his oratories.
Fr. Peter Braido, one of the foremost experts in the field of the Preventive System, would say that "the eleven short pages constitute the clearest and most essential document of the pedagogy of Don Bosco, which is, in itself, one of the most meaningful in the whole of Christian pedagogy.
The letter touched on the subject of his deteriorating physical health—frail body, and his poor eyesight. But amidst all these, he never failed to mention how he delights to write to them, and how he looks forward to hear from them.
The first paragraphs of the letters, using the standard of our young people, sounded cheesy. He could not contain his emotions probably because he would always wear his heart on his sleeve, especially when he was composing that letter. He emphasized the brand of loving kindness which he hopes to be known for in his institute: patience, gentleness, and no humiliating remarks. He challenged the recipients, to exercise only these in the realm of the Oratory, and "the boys should not only be loved, but realize that they are loved."
To speak of an authentic love of a Salesian is to make a distinction. Here, let me ask the help of Pope Benedict.
"Love," the Holy Father said, "in the true sense, is not always a matter of giving way, being soft, and just acting nice. In that sense, a sugar-coated Jesus or a God who agrees to everything and is never anything but nice and friendly is no more than a caricature of real love. Because God loves us, because he wants us to grow into truth, he must necessarily make demands on us and must also correct us."
Don Bosco, perhaps relying on the filial affection of his boys, openly speaks about what delights him: the practice of virtues, regularity in confessions and communion, which ultimately leads to the salvation of souls.
I first read that letter on the latter part of my novitiate. I thought that we would not tackle it since we seldom give attention to the appendix part of any textbook. After all, there is a reason why appendix is found at the last few pages of any publication if in case its author decides to come up with one. It is merely a supplement, something that can be dispensed with. We would not miss anything important if we skip that part. Things remain to be valid even without reading that section. But there is also a sufficient reason why there is an appendix. And why that letter has been part of our constitutions.
One hundred twenty five years after the letter was written, read and reflected on, have we managed to remain faithful to Don Bosco's challenges to his Salesians? Will there be a need to write another letter?
The initial reaction was for me to see my locale vis-à-vis the setting when that letter was composed. With the ugly depiction the oratory morphed to be against the backdrop of the golden age of the glorious oratory, I saw the relevance of coming up with such a letter. There was a need for it. A reminder was in order.
Six months from now, I will be in practical training. I am not denying it; whether it is Cebu, Mandaluyong, Pampanga or Guam—I am excited—regardless of wherever I would be assigned. I will be able to flex my own Salesian muscles and live first hand a life of a son of Don Bosco immersed in the active apostolate. By then, I don't expect to be with Br. Joji or any other brother assistant to remind me of my duties. I will also free myself from the 'nagging love' of Fr. Bobby or any other prefect of discipline to instantly offer corrections.
But I know that I am also gripped by fear when as I inch towards that time.
As a young Salesian, I cringe whenever I am reminded that I ought to be a sign and bearer of God's love for the young. This is such a tall order. But I am sure, it can be done. With God's grace, I know that it is possible.
Again, this letter will only continue to be relevant if the message it articulates remains to be valid to the lives of those people concerned. After all, people and events which are worth celebrating are moments which continue to remain relevant to our lives.
Don Bosco did not write a treatise on pastoral charity. Instead, he composed a letter, ordering and begging his Salesians then—and especially now—to make themselves be present in the midst of the young.
This year, we celebrate Don Bosco's 121st death anniversary. Year after year, we go farther and farther from him. Nobody is left among his boys who encountered him in the flesh, but he left us a legacy which documents the pedagogy he wished to live and carried out by his sons. His letter from Rome speaks eloquently of this paternal legacy we ought to treasure most.