Being Salesian

«Journey of Hope» is the project of the Laura Vicuña Foundation which, in the Philippines, aims to rebuild the lives of children in disadvantaged urban and rural areas. The Environmental Camping Program is instead proposed, in Korea, to children aged 3 to 5, in the context of school education in ecological spirituality, which creates and develops friendship with nature, with people and with God in everyday life. . In Benin, the school named after St. Joseph is called “alternative” and is designed as a preventive response for unschooled boys and girls, who risk getting lost in the street, wandering laborers for illegal economic activities. In Venezuela, in the Upper Orinoco, the Yanomami bilingual intercultural school, on the other hand, acts as a tool to facilitate intercultural dialogue. While in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle, education travels on the waves of a radio station, created after the stop to classes imposed by the Covid epidemic.

These are just some of the dozens of “good practices” presented at the international conference in Rome to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Institute of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, one of the largest orders of religious, 11 thousand nuns present in 97 countries.

An overview of a charism that has been able to inculturate itself at different latitudes, also recognized in international institutions, such as the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva, where the International Institute of Mary Help of Christians of the Salesians of Don Bosco is present as a defender of the right to education for all and promoter ofempowerment of children, young people and women.

“A charism that always remains the same as it was originally: we are women consecrated to God and to the education of young people, with everything that today means education”, comments the Superior General of the Institute, Mother Maria Chiara Cazzuola. My thoughts go to the founder mother Maria Domenica Mazzarello, who in the mid-nineteenth century, in Mornese, an Italian village in Piedmont, daughter of a large peasant family, after a series of signs, realizes what her vocation is and with what spirit to serve the young. “She spends her educational commitment starting from immediate needs, to rekindle hope, to orient to values, to a wide-ranging mission of which today we are a sign and world-wide actualization”.

It was Don Bosco who recognized the value of Mazzarello’s work and, on 5 August 1872, gave his name to what thus became the Salesian experience for women. “Have your beautiful title as Daughters of Mary Help of Christians as Glory and often think that your Institute must be the living monument of Don Bosco’s gratitude to the Great Mother of God invoked under the title of help of Christians”.

Today, Sister Chiara adds, reaffirming the “educational perspective of our preventive system means having an attentive eye on young people and young people in a common project. In this context, integral formation in the Christian anthropological vision becomes a commitment to accompany them by supporting them in the search for the meaning of life, in the construction of a future of peace, of fraternity, of responsibility for the common home “.

A principle that today as yesterday comes to terms with history: if at the beginning the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, the Salesians of Don Bosco who postpone the initials FMA in their name, built boarding schools for the girls who moved from the villages to the cities to work in factories, today it is ecclesiastical geography that challenges current events, “where women religious from countries at war work together on the same educational projects, as happens in the Province of Eastern Europe-Georgia which also includes Ukraine, Russia and Belarus ; or in Myanmar, where there are all young sisters, who live without help from the outside, since they are not admitted missionaries because they are foreign religious ”, explains Sister Chiara.

“What unites very different experiences and people is an educational passion embodied in concreteness, while the environmental situations, the chronology, the training, the operational outlets, are what differentiate them and characterize them, showing the adaptability of the Salesian presence to remain alongside the young », comments Sister Grazia Loparco, professor of Church history at the Pontifical Faculty of Educational Sciences Auxilium. “Among them are missionaries, prudent and courageous superiors, pioneers of expanding works, assistants and leaders of foundations for the care of poorer minors, religious at the foundation of institutions in close relationship with society, public authorities and benefactors, or intent on building and promoting the development of important works for the city and a wide range of projection. But situations of serious difficulty have also been touched upon, which have highlighted a firm capacity for resistance and indestructible flexibility ». All these experiences, concludes Loparco, “are facets of a single educational vocation, which in a broad institutional organization requires complementary roles and qualities”.

The women Loparco speaks of have names and faces. Like that of Maria Cerna, who under the communist regime in Slovakia spent long years of forced labor in concentration camps for religious (from 1950 to 1971) and was then a reference for the support and clandestine training of the nuns, thus contributing to the rebirth of the FMA Institute in the country. Or Nancy Pereira in India, who, referring to the approach of the Bank of the Poor of the Bengali economist and banker Muhammad Yunus, has promoted the entrepreneurship of those who live on the margins, helping women in particular. Or even Angela Cardani, who in the 1990s, at the invitation of the Municipality of Turin to the FMA, brought her educational contribution to the Vallette district, offering spaces of protagonism to young people and women for over twenty years, founding the NGO Vides Maìn , which promotes educational, scholastic and non-scholastic support projects, social integration for children, young people and families, entertainment for free time.

People and works that have answered the questions of the times. Thus, just over 50 years ago, in 1970, the Pontifical Faculty of Educational Sciences Auxilium was born, “the only pontifical institution entrusted to women, counted by St. Paul you among the “sister” Faculties in the panorama of the other pontificals with the aim of offering a contribution to the evangelizing mission of the Church through education and care of the person in an integral way », remembers Piera Ruffinatto, dean of the Auxilium. From its origins, their identity and task were clear: «The study of the specific contribution that women can make to the Church in the field of education, cultivating research in the field of educational sciences from an interdisciplinary and multidimensional perspective; the training of researchers, teachers, catechists, educators, psychologists in the field of education according to a Christian vision of reality and in harmony with the principles of Christian pedagogical humanism of St. John Bosco ».

Today, as a survey reveals, the face of the FMA is changing: European and American religious are decreasing, those of Asia, Oceania and Africa are increasing. The hypothesis that guided the research, explains Sister Maria Teresa Spiga, is that “generativity was the transversal dimension that allowed the identity and mission of the Institute to be incarnated in space and time, giving life to multiple experiences , “Generating” new ones, “regenerating” the already existing ones, crossing the times beyond every geographical border ».

The data recount the Institute from 1880 to 2020 and concern the FMA, the Houses and the Works. 33,820 sisters entered the Institute, 5730 of them (17 percent) left the Institute and 16865 (50 percent) passed away. The largest number of entries (5577) was recorded in 1960 and until that year the incomes were always higher than those of the previous year (except 1910). The opposite has happened since 1970, the numbers decrease compared to the previous year, except in 1990 (2104). From 1970 to 1980 there were -2639 entries. It is in 2020 the year in which the lowest numbers of entries are given (1301). In general, the increase of the FMA concerns the years of the decades from 1880 to 1970 (from +39 to +2234 Fma); the decrease from 1980 to 2020 (from -1094 to -2364 Fma). As for the houses, 1331 are open in 2020. The highest number of suppressed houses concerns Europe (78 percent) and America (57 percent), that is the two continents in which the houses are more dated and where the Institute began its expansion. It is for Asia that the lowest percentages of houses suppressed are recorded (18 per cent). The data from Oceania deserves attention, the continent where the Institute has arrived most recently: 19 houses have been opened and 7 have been closed. Finally, the research considers the works, lists 6400 of them in total, grouped into 12 categories: education (1207); job training (334); speakers-groups (162); religious formation (467); mission (133), associations (117), assistance (526) hospitality (288) homes and care services (116); domestic services (61) other (137).

The wealth of analysis, accompanied by a comparison on the survey presented, has initiated a series of reflections that can be summarized in the words of Sister Marcella Farina: “The awareness that the educational work requires skills that call upon a turning point in the formation of the FMA themselves as educators and formators ». The real challenge, the fundamental one, is the anthropological problem, which calls for “a profound rethinking of humanism: it is necessary to think deeply in which all knowledge is called into a great alliance”. In this sense, he adds, “it is necessary to allow oneself to be provoked by” other “sciences, compared to the classical ones, by new knowledge which in their own way reflect on the human according to the multifaceted contemporary humanistic sensibilities”.

Similarly to what was done at its origins, new formative paths must be dared. In the sixties and seventies, Farina simplifies, it was certainly not on the agenda “sending nuns abroad to study at the university and in a” different “field such as psychology, much less thinking about sending to theological faculties, just open to the laity; it was certainly easier to think of catechetics, of philosophy which were the classical sciences to which women had access ”.

Furthermore, it is necessary to identify and share operational guidelines “to promote in girls and boys, women and men, in their context, a deeper awareness of their dignity as a person, in reciprocity, according to the culture of encounter, to contribute to the construction of brotherhood universal”.

But today what is the greatest responsibility that the Superior General feels? “The fact of not losing sight of any reality,” replies Mother Cazzuola. “There are some more striking, emerging, others small, hidden, weaker for many reasons: the advancing age of the sisters, the decreasing number, the cultural or political situations that make our mission more difficult or even contingent factors , historical. We must make the charism germinate and take care of the depth of the roots. They are all realities to be encouraged. And be careful not to lose sight of anyone, especially those who suffer the most ».

by Vittoria Prisciandaro
Journalist of San Paolo periodicals «Believe» and «Jesus»

Being Salesian – L’Osservatore Romano