(taken from ‘Don Bosco Today’ – The Salesian Bulletin, Year 111, Issue 2, Summer 2003, editor Anthony Bailey)
Fr Paschal Chauvez, the ninth successor to Don Bosco the Rector Major of the Salesians, visited our province in April. He spoke, at Bolton and Chertsey, to a large gathering of the Salesian Family. His theme was vocations. Vocation is no abstract thing, it is about people like you and me. Let me tell you the story of my own vocation. I come from a rather large family. I’ve five brothers and six sisters. Although practising Catholics, nobody in my family became a priest or a Sister. As a child it had never crossed my mind that I might be a priest. So, what happened that made me change my mind?
Something very simple! I was eleven years old, a pupil in the Salesian school at Saltillo, in Northern Mexico. Quite suddenly my mother became ill, and two weeks later she died. Three days before she died, I sat by her bedside talking to her. Unaware of how ill she was, I was more concerned about persuading her to buy me a pair of trainers. I was really keen on playing basketball at school, and desperately needed a new pair of trainers. I was hoping she would give me the money for them. Her mind was elsewhere, “I’ve always prayed that one of my sons would be a priest, I have six sons, and so far not one has entered the seminary.” I spotted my opportunity, eager to get my pair of trainers, I said to her, “I’m the one you’ve been praying for.” She smiled in contentment and gave me the money for my trainers. She died three days later. What is fascinating is that I went for a pair trainers and I ended up with a vocation.
A few days later I went to my teacher, and simply told him that I wanted to become a Salesian priest. Of course, I didn’t mention my mother’s prayers. I never referred to the incident until fourteen years later, on the day of my ordination, when I said to my father and my brothers and sisters, “Perhaps you would like to know why I became a priest.” And I told them about the trainers.
To have a vocation means to discover that life has a meaning. A vocation gives life a direction, a powerful energy to reach out to new horizons. It means we are fully motivated; we have a reason for being who we are, and doing what we do with joy, optimism, and the conviction that we are of value. Consequently, I believe that the most common crisis among young people today is not their addiction to drugs or to alcohol, or their confusion in the area of sexuality, but rather, the lack of meaning, direction, and motivation in their lives. They feel tempted to enjoy to the full only the present moment, to experience moments of strong emotions, or to give in to a life of indifference.
One lesson I have learnt with regard to vocation is that we need to invite and challenge young people. It’s a lesson I learned from personal experience. Early on in my Salesian life, when I was teaching, there was a boy in my basketball team who eventually joined the Christian Brothers. Later while I was studying Theology, he wrote to tell me that he had decided to join the Brothers, and that, up to a certain point, he had been disappointed because I had never challenged him to become a Salesian. I was glad he was honest with me, he taught me an important lesson, that when it comes to vocation young people need to be challenged.
An opportunity came my way in Tijuana, a city along the boundary between Mexico and the United States. Groups of Mexican, American, Canadian, Italian, Spanish, and German volunteers work together with the Salesians. We have almost always had wonderful young people, of superb human calibre, truly Christian and Salesian. Among them there was one, from California, who had come from a Jesuit university. He seemed so very much at home with us. He was a genuine Salesian, generous, with a great capacity for working among poor boys, especially those at risk. Sometimes he even landed in jail, because the police saw him with boys who were on drugs and they thought that he was a drug dealer. He was about to complete two years as a volunteer. During a visit to Tijuana, I found him in bed, with influenza, and I put it to him straight, “Steve, have you ever thought of becoming a Salesian?” And he answered, “No, no one has invited me.” So I said to him, “Hey, you have so many good qualities, and I would be happy to see you a Salesian one day.” And he answered, “Maybe I have to give God a chance.” Today, Steve Gomez is a Salesian priest. He does great work in a youth centre in Los Angeles East.
On the other hand, another young volunteer, also American, told me, “I’ve discovered my vocation, working for young people. I will always work for them, as Don Bosco did, but I feel that my vocation is for marriage.” Today, he is married, and together with his wife, he works in youth ministry in one of the dioceses in the United States.
I think that in the West, there are several factors which decisively run counter to the consecrated life:
The drop in population, if there are no children for society, there are none for the Church.
Secularism which does not recognise a religious challenge.
The high standard of living, the comfortable life, which has no place for self-denial, sacrifice, and definitive commitment.
So often the State is capable of running works which used to be in the hands of religious (schools, hospitals).
In contrast, in the developing world there are elements which favour consecrated life:
The population is predominantly young.
The cultural base is still strongly religious.
Poverty is so widespread that people feel the need to do something to assist others, especially since the State does not have the resources to address these needs.
Most of our Salesian vocations now come from India, Vietnam, East Timor, and some countries of Latin America, Poland and the Ukraine.
One country we must mention is Vietnam, the province that is growing relatively more rapidly than any other. We are talking about a communist country, under a totalitarian regime, where Buddhism is the predominant religion. Here we have four hundred young men preparing for the Salesian life, all of them university students.
It seems therefore that the consecrated life is more suited to poorer countries. But this does not mean that the Salesian vocation is not for the rich countries. In fact Salesians are present in almost all the Western countries. It simply means that in developed countries, the consecrated life has another function: to be a visible, credible, and legible sign of God for an atheistic society, which lives as if God does not exist. This can be done to the extent that consecrated life truly confronts the existing culture, with an identity based on the Gospel, strongly centred on God, bearing witness to community, and evident in total dedication to others.
By way of bringing this wonderful day to an end, I should like to leave a final message for the Salesian Family in Great Britain. You know that time, and therefore also the future, is a grace and a challenge. It is a grace that the Lord offers us, so that we may carry forward his marvellous loving plan for mankind. It is a challenge because He counts on each one of us, as He counted on Mary, on Don Bosco, on Mother Mazzarello, on so many men and women throughout history, who knew how to actively collaborate in the building of the Kingdom, to make this world more human.
The message consists in three watchwords, that should become the programme of life and action for the whole Salesian Family.
The first word is to grow. We have to grow in number, in our Salesian identity and in the depth of our spiritual life. To grow not only because there is strength in numbers, but because Don Bosco had all the youngsters of the world in his thoughts. There are so many who have no one close to them, no one taking an interest in them, helping them as they are growing up, looking for their place in life. To grow in quality, Jesus wants us to be salt, to be light, to be the leaven. Therefore Grow!
The second word is to be united. In the Church and in the Salesian Family, it can happen that there are many groups without any links between them, so that they are more like a field of mushrooms, without a common trunk, without branches and therefore without fruit. We need to know one another, love one another, and help to form one another together.
Finally the third word is to create synergy, working together to produce an effect which is greater than the sum of our individual efforts. Don Bosco said that a single thread is very weak and easily breaks, but if we weave it together with another, and then another, it becomes a strong cord which is very difficult to break. So with us, alone we can do little, but if we work together, we become more effective. This means planning together, and while respecting each others’ autonomy, taking decisions together about working with young people, about vocation promotion, about the Salesian Bulletin, about volunteers.
This is your opportunity! This is the grace being offered to you!