Seventeen years ago I met the Salesian sisters - nuns who became heroes of the faith to me. Their order is named after St. Francis de Sales (one of my favorite writers), but it was founded by St. John Bosco who lived in Italy during the mid-nineteenth century when the industrial revolution was in full swing. During that time, the economy was changing rapidly and farmers were finding it hard to make a living. Rumor had it that there were factory jobs in the cities, so many starving rural families packed up their boys, some as young as nine or ten years old, and put them on trains in hopes that they could make their own way in the new urban world.
Or course, unparented children do not fare well in cities. Many of them landed in jail. Fr. Bosco was moved by the plight of these street children and began ministering to them through magic shows followed by snacks and homilies. Later he founded oratories which would house and feed the boys who continued to work in town. Eventually he founded an order devoted to youth ministry.
Modern Salesians continue to use the pattern set by their founder - play, food, preaching and prayer. When I first began attending youth meetings at Cristo Rey, I was surprised and puzzled by how much time was devoted to games - simple games like musical chairs and Simon Says. I would have never dreamed of asking burly 18 year old young men, some of them with criminal records, to play musical chairs, but to my amazement Sr. Guadalupe pulled it off week after week. At first I attributed our youth's compliance to the power of the habit. Who could refuse Sr. Guadalupe anything? She was so kind, so lovely, glowing with holy happiness - and she was a nun. Catholics respected nuns, I thought, so that must be the answer.
But I was wrong. There was a deeper wisdom at work, one born of the Holy Spirit. I began to realize this on a confirmation retreat, a weekend in which we had much more time together than at our weekly youth meeting. So what did we do? We played games for two full hours. Played until these teens were rolling on the floor laughing. Played until I was tired and confused. Didn't we have an agenda to cover?
Then Jack, one of our leaders, quieted the group and led us in a reflective exercise of healing prayer. These same teens who were running and laughing minutes ago were now weeping holy tears. It was beautiful
That evening I understood the wisdom of the Salesians. We first experience the Father heart of God through joy. Fun and laughter, chasing and rough-housing - these are ways fathers show affection for their children. This kind of safe, playful love was sorely missing in the lives of this group of teens, many of whom had no fathers at home. Play opened the doors of their hearts to receive their heavenly Father's love.
Reflecting back on my experience with the Cristo Rey youth, I am certain most of them have forgotten the homilies and prayers. I am equally certain that most of them remember the wonderful feeling of laughing and being safe in a group. And I pray that those memories serve as a rock, a stepping stone, to a greater experience of the Father's love.
Today is the feast of St. John Bosco. On this day I always thank my Father in heaven for Sr. Gaudalupe, Sr. Emma, for Jack and Yolanda, for the wonderful youth I met at Cristo Rey. I learned so much from them! So much from John Bosco.
Mostly, I thank you, Father, for your joyful, playful love!