It was good to visit the relics of St John Bosco at Westminster Cathedral at the weekend. You may have seen the photos: it wasn’t just a relic-sized casket, but a life-sized effigy of the great man himself, in his priestly vestments, looking very serene.
I had a classic pilgrimage moment. I got in the queue, waited patiently for three minutes, started analysing why the queue wasn’t moving quicker (it was incredibly slow), began to lose my patience; then a moment of self-knowledge – realising that I was in ‘Tesco-queue’ mode, like a Pavlovian response, dashing to get out the door; then a grace-filled letting go, just being in the queue with my fellow pilgrims, remembering that I had nowhere to go and nothing to do, praying, thinking, interceding; then a moment of shame and interior humiliation, as I got near the destination and realised that the reason the line was moving so slowly was not because of some inefficiency in the logistics of the operation, but because people at the casket were actually (wait for it…) praying – devoutly, humbly, reverently, silently, patiently, taking their time, showing their heartfelt love for Don Bosco; and then, when it was my turn, I tried to do the same.
I’m not proud of this – I’m just sharing the interior craziness that often goes on in my soul when I step from the rush and distractions of Victoria Street and my own worldliness into the sanctuary of the Cathedral and in this case to St John Bosco’s shrine. Maybe (I say this to console myself) this is not too uncommon – the fact that the transition takes a few minutes, and that being in a place of sanctuary is what creates the possibility of seeing the habits of mind (healthy and unhealthy) that have unconsciously been shaping one’s life in the ordinariness of everyday living.
I have a great devotion to St John Bosco. For about ten years, I spent two or three weeks each summer as a helper (a ‘brother’) on the St John Bosco Boys’ Camp in Colchester. It’s run by the Society of St Vincent de Paul, but the whole philosophy of the camp is very Salesian, modelled on the educational vision of Don Bosco. It was great fun; and I learnt a huge amount; and I’m not sure I would be here today as a priest (or at least my vocation would have taken a very different path) if I hadn’t been touched by the priests, religious and laypeople on the camp – and the boys.
I don’t want to pretend to understand the whole Salesian pedagogy, but there were some simple principles about working with children that lay at the heart of the work there, and I think they go back to Don Bosco himself: keep them busy; lots of fun, lots of physical activity; always be kind; be a good example, a good role model; slip in some prayer and mini-catechesis during the day, but not too heavy and not too long; use stories and examples to bring the beauty and heroism of faith alive; and always be kind. Now I think about it, I’m sure there was some Salesian motto that was on the wall of the office somewhere, something like: ‘Reason, Religion, Kindness’. You can remind me in the comment box. And that wonderful photo of Don Bosco smiling benevolently.
When I went to Rome in 1992 to start seminary formation at the English College, I took the train from London (via boat – this was before the Chunnel) and stopped off at Turin to say hello to Don Bosco in thanksgiving and to ask for his prayers. His main shrine is there, in the church he built, next to school he founded. What an amazing priest he was. It’s good to meet him again here in London, and give him some more intentions!