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Dott. Giovanni Maria Flick – Past Pupil

1. I am grateful to the Salesian Family for having asked me – in the context of the spirituality days they have organised – to offer a testimony of my personal experience of Salesian education, according to the model offered from the heart of Don Bosco, for a wholistic development of young people, especially the poorest and most disadvantaged of them, by fostering their rights.
It is a testimony that I willingly offer – re-presenting and deepening some reflections that I have already had the chance to express on the occasion of the celebration of the Salesian presence in Genoa, and then at the time honorary citizenship of Genoa was conferred on the Salesian Congregation and the Rector Major, Fr Pascual Chavez. I do this in my capacity as a past pupil, thanks to a short but intense period of Salesian formation: a full immersion of two years, during my secondary schooling, at the Don Bosco College in Genoa-Sampierdarena, preceded by a first contact of a year, in the primary school at the Richelmy Institute in Turin.
For this formation, and the enrichment it meant for my personality at the spiritual and human level, I am deeply grateful to Don Bosco and the Salesian Family for what they were able to contribute to my education and lifestyle, marked significantly by that experience.
Certainly, Don Bosco represented and still represents – obviously no merit of mine alone – a significant presence in my family and my life: starting from when, on the 4th September 1881, seventy years before I was born – with a signed letter left by my father, which I jealously preserve – he wrote to my great grandfather who was at San Benigno Canadese; he signed himself as “your humble servant and friend in Jesus Christ”:
“Most kind sir
When your good self was good enough to spend some hours with us, it semed that a ray of hope shone in our heart concerning the recovery of your sick son. God saw otherwise and may God be blessed in all things.
Your son gave great hope for a happy future, and was a flower in the earthly paradise whom God chose to transplant in his heavenly paradise since he was already prepared for it.
I prayed for him, and now I will not cease to pray for you worthy Sir, for your wife and for the entire family.
May God bless you all and keep you in good health and in His holy grace.
Thank you for the offering that you have given for our work, and I trust that there will be some opportunity to serve you in return in something that I can do.
I hope to be able to see you again in Turin while I have work to do at the Prefecture.”
It was in fact following that letter and my family’s devotion to Don Bosco that when I was born – in 1940, at a difficult time for my family, as for so many Italian families and for the nation itself, at the beginning of a disastrous war – I was given the name John Maria (binding me to both Don Bosco and Mary Help of Christians), and I keep the feast on the 31st January.
I have to confess that the name – a long one, often the butt of jokes because of the ‘Mary’ bit, prevented me from celebrating it on the 24 June, as most other Johns do – and I couldn’t understand that as a child and it used bother me. A good Aunt explained it all to me – she used write books for school – and she wrote one called “Don Bosco, friend to young boys” (published, I think in 1949) on the life of the Saint. She dedicated it to me.
That was when I began to understand the importance and significance of Don Bosco and in particular his message of joy and happiness: an especially fascinating message and a new one for me, a child who used think of holiness as something far, far off, sacred and unattainable, requiring fearful reverence.
I discovered the (real) message at the College at Genoa-Sampierdarena, when I went there in 1954 and 1955 for the 4th and 5th year of secondary school, at an especially important time in my education. It was a serious and demanding boarding school (we went home only for holidays at Christmas, Easter and the summer: and that wasn’t so good for someone like me, who lived in Genoa not far from the school); we studied hard there (I learned and still remember, Greek and French, and I started out again with maths, which I had completely let go in middle school); but there were also lots of happy times there.
I am speaking of, I believe, the kind of cheerfulness Don Bosco saturated his entire life and apostolate with: from the time when, at the Becchi, he did acrobatics and magic to attract others’ attention, already employing his instincts, his charism, his practical nature and organisational capacity; when he taught a blackbird to sing and whistle; when in Chieri, at secondary school, he founded the Glee Club, whose rules said that each member had to “have conversations and amusements which would contribute to remaining cheerful; sadness was forbidden along with anything against God’s law”; when, still in Chieri, in 1834, he was victorious in the challenge put to him by the gymnast who was leading students astray: and that finished off with a dinner, where the gymnast got back the money he’d lost and regained his peace of mind.
This is the same cheerfulness, I believe, that the Saint managed to keep, despite difficulties, in 1845, when he tricked the two gentleman who come for him to getting into a carriage destined for the mental asylum. These good people thought that his enthusiasm and optimism – for the work he had in mind and which few people really believed in – was the fruit of hallucinations rather than the designs of Providence.
This is the cheerfulness that Don Bosco never let go of and which in 1884, during an interview - the first which the future Saint had to undergo, which is significant – a journalist from a Roman newspaper asked him what he thought of the Church’s future, and Don Bosco said to him “you journalists are the prophets!”
But it is an important and deeply significant cheerfulness, an essential element of education, our life in common; it is a cheerfulness born of optimism, trust in Providence (and so many of his interventions were of this kind while Valdocco was being developed) and trust in others too, especially in the young; it is a cheerfulness – the antithesis of fear and envy – that comes from enthusiasm and involvement in a common enterprise, and it is contagious.
It is a cheerfulness which was summed up by Dominic Savio, who told a friend who came to the Oratory for the first time, “here we make holiness consist of happiness”. It belongs to academies, chestnut gathering, carnivals, cinema at the Oratory on Sunday afternoons, mouth organ orchestras, things I recall as being important moments while I was at Samperdarena: No less important for me was the consecration of the Parish Church of San Gaetano, and taking part in the schola cantorum on the occasion, or our daily homework sessions in the study.
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2. That cheerfulness, the expression of doing things together, is strictly connected to the other particular message I gained from Salesian education and which I jealously preserve: respect for the dignity of others, solidarity with others, and accepting responsibility in this.
Equal dignity and solidarity are intimately connected, essential aspects of human identity and social relationships, relationships with others, and therefore essential in the education and formation of a youngster in such relationships.
The equal dignity that all persons have – in the Christian perspective, coming from consideration of the person as being in the image of God; or in the secular view, stemming from the very nature of the human person, the person’s capacity for self-understanding and responsible self-determination – is the basis and a premise of all basic human rights; and it is the highest expression of the equality, in a formal and substantial sense, that exists between all human beings, beyond the multiple differences that characterise the personal identity of each one. These differences – inevitable as they are, tied as they are to human nature, and capable in themselves of enriching us from a pluralist point of view – can never and must never become factors for discrimination or inferiority. These differences exist precisely in the name of equal dignity for each and every one of us, and in the name of equality amongst us.
Social equality in dignity, formal and substantial equality (either seen before law, or social reality in fact, despite differences and obstacles to its effective realisation) are so much the stronger and more binding in reference to the weak, disadvantaged and the poor: those beings, that is, who because of their difficult circumstances may be or are easily discriminated against, left behind, abandoned to themselves and their weakness, so that it becomes a circumstance of discrimination and inferiority.
In substance, the weakest and most disadvantaged are “more equal” than others; and mutual respect, where we find equal dignity and which it has to be translated into, must if possible be even stronger and more binding when dealing with them. Here is where we find a strict connection between equal dignity, solidarity and the responsibility that comes from it: My rights are respected if and in as much as others fulfill their duties to me and viceversa, the rights of others are respected when I fulfill my duties towards others.
Solidarity, as an obligation to help the weakest, and equal dignity, as the duty of respect also and especially to them, are in strict synergy with one another. Without solidarity, there can be no effective realisation of equality and thus of equal dignity; without equal dignity there would be no cause for commitment to solidarity; without respect for the dignity of the other and without a relationship of solidarity with the other and his or her difficulties, it is so difficult to awaken in another a sense of responsibility, that is the awareness that – for each of us – along with our rights, which we ask to be respected, there are duties, that we are to respect the rights of others.
This kind of language is essential also and especially in relationship with a privileged category of individuals who are weak by definition and by reason of nature: minors. It is about an education which repects the equal dignity of the minor who is the recipient of the educational message. This education is not resolved exclusively by the imposition or manifestation of authority, but is also and especially expressed through dialogue with it; it is an education which translates, seen in terms of solidarity, into understanding with and effective assistance to a minor, so as to overcome the gaps and difficulties natural to his or her situation as a being still growing and becoming: Only that kind of education is able to preapre and form the minor to an ability to face up to and tale on his or her responsibilities, which is the essential condition allowing the minor to enter with full title and adequate resources into social reality.
It is a commitment to respecting the equal dignity of the minor, to understanding this dignity and entering into dialogue with it, in his education; it is a commitment to solidarity with the minor and his or her status as ‘minor’ not as ‘inferior’, and thus a commitment to helping his or her formation and growth, appealing to his or her responsibility: these are the essential elements of the educational relationship, before and beyond the necessary contribution to the cultural enrichment of the minor. And these are the elements that I jealously preserve as the fruits of my Salesian education, and which I have understood from the educational message that Don Bosco left us by his life, his example, his teaching.
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3. I was always struck – when, as a child, they took me to the Consolata in Turin, not far from Valdocco and from Mary Help of Christians – by the person of Saint Joseph Cafasso and his apostolate with prisoners, those condemned to death; I was strongly affected by the hospital of the Divine Providence of Saint Joseph Benedetto Cottolengo, dedicated to taking in people with the severest handicap, also by the stories I heard about it, and then from visiting the hospital, . At the time these were sensations and images of a profound civilisation and tradition of Piedmontese solidarity, so necessary in a city that had to face up to industrial development and with everything in its train by way of social injustice and alienation: a city caught up in the fever of early industrialisation, with tens of thousands of immigrants, amongst whom so many boys abandoned to themselves, exploited in work, often heading for prison; in a context of Rennaissance ideas, Restorations and revolutions, disturbances and events, where the Church was thought of as an ally and an enemy to be fought, but where there was also respect – including amongst adversaries – for the holiness of “those who evangelised the poor”.
I have found – and not only I – a direct link between Don Cafasso, Don Cottolengo and Don Bosco, who knew each other, helped each other and influenced each other; it was Don Cottolengo (that si definiva “the manovale of Provvidenza”) who said prophetically to Don Bosco, touching his cassock: “This is too thin. Get yourself something warmer and stronger, because many boys will be relying on this”. This is the kind of relationship that expresses solidarity, atttention to those on the outside, the weak, the “less than equal”, to use the precise terms of Article 3 of the Italian Constitution: prisoners, the sick, children. And it is worth recalling, along these lines, one of Don Bosco’s many obsessions – in the political and social atmosphere of the time – which linked cheerfulness, practicality, solidarity and responsibility: When he succeeded in taking out of prison – based on his word alone and without supervision – more than three hundred young prisoners, for a day out, bringing all of them back in the evening.
This is the message of solidarity that I took in during my education, in the boarding school at Genoa-Sampiedarena. And it is a message that has remained with me since, particularly when I was called to fulfil the institutional role of Minister of Justice, a role that looked close up at weak individuals (prisoners); and again, when I was called to take up another institutional role, which I am fully involved in: as judge of laws and whether they conform to the Italian Constitution, whether they respect and protect basic rights which the Constitution guarantees.
The solidarity that Don Bosco practised and and taught is a modern kind of solidarity, practical, functional; it nourishes the social sense of work, mutual respect and assistance amongst friends, synergy between study and work, civil and social meaning; it joins the religious and human dimensions, along with his cheerfulness. It is a solidarity strictly associated with constant respect for the dignity of young people, as well as a constant appeal to their responsibility.
I am thinking, with regard to this, of the feeling that existed between Don Bosco and my distant predecessor, the Piedmontese Minister for Justice Rattazzi, who – despite his deserved fame as an anticlerical and priest-hater (The Rattazzi law of 1855 decreed the suppression of Religious Orders) – was always favourable to the Saint; and indeed it was he who suggested, through a brilliant insight, how to organise his work not as a Congregation, but as “a religious society which would be a civil society before the State”.
I am thinking of the involvement of the young people of the Oratory, in the summer of 1854, during the cholera epidemic in Turin: an involvement where the religious aspect (Don Bosco promised the boys that, if they remained in the grace of God, they would not catch Cholera; and in effect none of them got sick) was strictly tied up with social involvement carrying and assisting the sick.
When I reflect on the way the Oratory evolved, from 35 youngsters in 1852 to 1200, including interns and externs, in 1862; when I think of the setting up, over that time, of workshops (shoemaking and tailoring, bookbinding, carpentery, printing, metalwork), of a workers cooperative, a hostel, Sunday and evening schools and music classes; when I consider that some of the first apprenticeship contracts established in Italy (a real social revolution) were made by Don Bosco; when I look at the current extent of Salesian work in today’s world: it seems to me that his message of solidarity is a pragmatic, modern and practical forerunner of some of the basic principles of the 1948 Constitution, the principle of solidarity, the importance of the person, the worker. And – also for this reason – I am not surprised at the fact that Don Bosco was the first Saint to whom the Italian State, the day after his canonisation in 1934, gave a civic celebration in Rome, at the Campidoglio.
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4. Particularly for these reasons the message of cheerfulness, solidarity and respect for dignity proposed by Don Bosco – which I had the fortune to receive in my Salesian education – struck me then and continues to strike me today, for its universality and current value. We have entered the third millennium, in a world that has become a global village where – thanks to scientific and technological development – the available resouces have perhaps increased, but certainly too the inequalities in the use of these resources and thus the cohort of weak, marginalised and “less than equal” beings; a world where it is ever more difficult – but always more urgent – to bring about globalisation with a human face and reconcile its perspectives, too unilateral, geared to financial and market aspects, with values of solidarity; a world wherein insecurity and uncertainty, together with fear, envy and violence seem to predominate. So, a global village where the message which Don Bosco left us – of cheerfulness, solidarity, respect for equal dignity, accepting responsibility, becomes a basic need.
The message is one that is very much for today – Don Bosco’s message on dignity, solidarity, responsibility – the forerunner of some of the most important principles of the Italian Constitution, and now the European declaration of basic rights: Awareness that the body politic – for survival of the values from which it originates – must be cohesive and must react to situations which penalise, or even ignore the weak; recognition that solidarity is at the same time the premise and natural result of the value of equality; the claim that without solidarity, and equality, there can be neither social dignity of persons, nor the guarantee and effectiveness of inviolable rights; a claim that these rights – especially social ones – are confirmed by the duty of solidarity, as indicated in the incisive proposal of art. 2 of the Italian Consitution; the translation, ultimately, of solidarity into the ability to take up one’s responsibilities and, an “individual commitment to the common good”. Amongst other things, it is the specific expression of the principle asserted in art. 4 of the Italian Constitution, of which Don Bosco was a precursor with his social involvement, his atttention to formation and work, and his practicality.
a commitment that Don Bosco translated into love for others and specifically for young people; and that is well summed up in the testimony – which, by way of conclusion, I wish to link my own with – of another Italian, a much loved person in Italy, on a par with Don Bosco: the President of the Republic Sandro Pertini, who once said “I learned in a Salesian school to love the poor and oppressed with limit: The admirable life of the Saint set me on the path to this love”.
It would be hard to find a richer and more consistent motive, and at the same time as incisive and essential as this, to express the significance, continuity, and current value of Don Bosco’s educational message. In a very special way he developed – as easily seen from the growth of the Salesian presence around the world – a civic and social commitment to solidarity, besides the religious value of charity. Even more so if I think of the significance, indeed the manifold significance, of education as an essential preparation for the relationship between the individual and the community which gives rise to many rights and duties, which marks one’s belonging to it, with mutual enrichment and synergy and the acquiring of identity.
Today the global village is marked by division and fracture between North and South; marked by the fact that, almost inevitably, the rich seem to always get richer and the poor, only just a little less poor; it is afflicted by intolerance, hate, fanaticism and global terrorism; it is vastly different from the time of biblical migrations and journeys of hope towards wellbeing, the flight from death, hunger, war; finally, todays migration swings between forced assimilation and exploited marginalisation, the possible aim of such migration. So the entry of the young into a community, through the educational process and formation, takes on a particular significance, in reference to various communities, be they global or local.
On the one hand, the global community: marked by tensions, contradiction, injustice, challenges of the human condition. For an individual’s entry into such a community, Don Bosco certainly knew how to offer a strong message of education and formation, through the worldwide and missionary involvement of his Congregation, on behalf of the weakest.
And on the other hand – along with intermediary communities, like the regional European community and national communities – there are local communities. These are where each one’s identity is most affirmed and preserved; where we notice more – in daily, close-at-hand affairs – the relationship with others, others’ needs, others who are equal but at the same time different; these are where one touches – concretely and by hand – the difference between selfishness and solidarity: It is a difference not always accepted as personal problem by each and everyone, when faced in abstract terms with the great challenges of globalisation. Also in local terms Don Bosco certainly knew how to propose civic and social involvement – which the Salesian educational message is an expression of, along with its spiritual and religious content. It is a proposal which always remains current, and which today we have special need of.

Giovanni Maria Flick

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