Pope Francis – A Salesian at heart

One of the saints who is special to Pope Francis is St. John Bosco. Pope Francis has made mention of him on several occasions. Just last year in his Wednesday audience, the pope pointed to the upcoming feast of St. John Bosco on the next day, Jan. 31, and referred to the tremendous influence of the saint. In his homily at the Casa Santa Marta on the feast day of St. John Bosco the next day, he preached on the saint as a model for priests especially in his joyful attitude and willingness to reach out to all people.

Pope Francis wrote the preface to an Italian book, “Evangelii Gaudium con Don Bosco,” in which he expressed his closeness to Don Bosco, especially having attended a Salesian school as a young man. He described Don Bosco’s message as “revolutionary” as he brought the message of Christ down to earth and reflected the joy of the resurrection. Cardinal Tarciscio Bertone, former Secretary of State at the Vatican who is himself a Salesian, referred to the closeness of character between Pope Francis and St. John Bosco, especially in their reaching out to the peripheries in preaching the Gospel. Another saint, close in personality and gentleness to Pope Francis is St. Francis de Sales, who was the inspiration for St. John Bosco and after whom his congregation, the Salesians, was named.

On Jan. 24, we will celebrate the feast of St. Francis de Sales. Born in Savoy, France, in 1567, Francis de Sales was sent to Padua, Italy, to study law so he could eventually take his father’s place as a senator in Savoy. However, after receiving his law degree, Francis decided he wanted to become a priest, was ordained and eventually became the bishop of Geneva. He was of noble origin, frequented centers of culture and learning in France and Italy and was able to touch people of all walks of life. Like Pope Francis, he reached out to the peripheries of all people and was able to relate to them.

Exactly one week later Jan. 31, we will celebrate the feast of St. John Bosco, a great follower of St. Francis de Sales. Don Bosco, as he is commonly called, was born in 1815, almost 300 years after St. Francis de Sales, in Piedmont, Italy. St. John Bosco came from a peasant family, lived a very poor life and had little opportunity to visit centers of culture and learning. He was ordained a priest which he wanted to be from his earliest days. He too, like Pope Francis, was able to touch people of all walks of life, most especially the young to whom he devoted his ministry.

Centuries, backgrounds, cultures, nationalities and lifestyles separate Francis de Sales and John Bosco. They truly are at different peripheries. Yet their outlook on life and their ability to reach people with the message of Christ was exactly the same. So much did St. Francis de Sales influence St. John Bosco that the Salesian community founded by Don Bosco was named after this patron and model. We are very blessed to have this family of Don Bosco and Francis de Sales in our diocese ministering at St. Philip Benizi Parish in Belle Glade.

When one visits St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, one is struck by many powerful, obvious and artistic representations of Catholicism. The altar of St. Peter and his bodily remains are at the core of the basilica. However, what is striking, as one approaches this temporal center of our faith, is the extraordinarily large statue of St. John Bosco, over the statue of St. Peter, about as close to the main altar of the basilica as one can get. On the opposite side of Don Bosco, almost facing him, is another large statue of his patron, St. Francis de Sales. The prominent placement of these two figures in St. Peter’s says that if one wants a powerful reminder of what the center of our faith, lived day in and out, is all about, it is found in the so different lives of St. Francis de Sales and St. John Bosco. This certainly is true of Pope Francis.

What is it that makes these two so different saints such outstanding examples of our faith? It is certainly their virtuous and zealous lives, their devotion to the Church and the Holy Father, their faithful teaching of the Gospel, their devotion to the Mother of God, but above all, it is the reason why Don Bosco chose St. Francis de Sales as his patron, the living of the supremacy of love. Don Bosco expresses this well in one of the resolutions he made before his ordination “May the charity and gentleness of St. Francis de Sales illuminate every step I take.” The center of Christ’s teaching is the primacy of love lived daily by these two very human saints. Don Bosco emphasized the primacy of love when he quoted the famous maxim of St. Francis de Sales and advised his Salesians, “Do not forget the importance of gentleness in our actions; win over the hearts of the young by means of love; remember that saying of Francis de Sales, ‘More flies are caught with a cup of honey than with a barrel of vinegar.’”

St. Francis de Sales knew very well the difference that exists between people in different walks of life. However, he knew well that it is love that unites us and is the common thread of all of our vocations. In his famous work, “The Introduction of the Devout Life,” he says, “Just as every sort of gem, cast in honey, becomes brighter and more sparkling, each according to its color, so each person becomes more acceptable and fitting in his own vocation when he sets his vocation in the context of devotion. Through devotion your family cares become more peaceful, mutual love between husband and wife becomes more sincere, the service we offer to the prince becomes more faithful, and our work, no matter what it is, becomes more pleasant and agreeable.”

In southern Florida, we are as different from one another as were St. Francis de Sales and St. John Bosco and that is a good thing. We come all from different peripheries. Character, age, ethnic background, vocation, work, economic status and where we live may differ, but it is love that makes us the same. Patience, kindness, gentleness, understanding, all not so easy to practice, as they were not often for Don Bosco and Francis de Sales, are the real substance of love and the center of our lives as they are for Pope Francis. As we celebrate the feasts of these two great saints, so different and so much the same, may their spirit of love unite us more in our family, the Church where St. John Bosco and St. Francis de Sales stand as human reminders of how to live what really matters. Truly Pope Francis is a Salesian at Heart.