For the past five years, I have had the privilege of working full-time in high school ministry. I often hear people say, “That’s so great that you are working with the future of the Church”. For the longest time, this statement didn’t sit well with me. I recently figured out why: young people are not the future of the Church, they are the Church. I have learned during this privileged time of ministry that there is great HOPE and JOY to be found in the young Church today.
St. John Bosco is the patron saint of youth - and for good reason! At the centenary of his death, John Paul II named him “Father and Teacher of Youth”. At one point during his ministry, St. John Bosco ran a home which housed over eight hundred young men and he worked tirelessly to promote their dignity. His love for the Eucharist and steadfast promotion of the mercy of Jesus serve as examples for all of us working in ministry. I’ve received a glimpse over these last several years of what St. John Bosco tells us with his life: there is great hope and joy to be found in following Jesus and in sharing that joy with others.
The “Father and Teacher of Youth” is famous for saying, Servite Domino in laetitia!, which is Latin for “Serve the Lord joyfully”. In any of our apostolic endeavors, it is crucial that we lead with joy.
With everything going on in our world and Church, it can be all too easy to fall into despair - to question or wonder where God is. In the young people I have the privilege of working with, I have seen God’s hand everywhere. I have seen His hand in the ways that they encounter the heart of God for the first time; I have seen it when they grow in communion with each other; and I have seen it when they choose hope over the lies of this world.
It is our great privilege to not only share the hope that is to be found in living for Christ— whether in the young Church or elsewhere—but also our responsibility to proclaim the joy of the Gospel. I am grateful for all that the young people I work with have taught me and count myself as privileged to learn what it means to live a life filled with Christian hope and joy.
St. John Bosco, pray for us!
**At the closing Mass of World Youth Day in Panama, Pope Francis also discussed the role of the young Church and their mission "now." “Not tomorrow but now”, he said. “Realize that you have a mission and fall in love”, Click here to continue reading.
For more resources to learn about World Youth Day, please click here.
Not long ago, I sat listening to the words of my university’s honored commencement speaker, Peggy Noonan, who entreated us to do something after we graduated that day: “You must not stop reading books. That’s all. If you seek a happy and interesting life, one of depth, meaning and accomplishment, you must read books.” I thought that to be a simple message—but refreshingly concrete and unique. As she pointed out, to get to graduation day my peers and I had read a number of books. Most were works assigned as required reading for a course rather than for leisure. Continuing to read after a life in school would benefit us, Noonan said, as we moved through life to new places, with new people, and into new positions.
As a Catholic, I took Ms. Noonan’s advice as an opportunity to seriously take up spiritual reading. I previously had taken advantage of my Catholic high school’s library to some degree, but I often had to let spiritual reading take second place behind the demands of other commitments. This continued in college with the much larger university library collections. There seemed to be no time to read for the sake of reading, spiritual or otherwise. While I may not have had much choice at the time, I know that when the faithful disregard the great literary works of Catholicism, we do ourselves a great disservice. With its full and ever-expanding breadth of writings, the Church encourages the faithful to enrich themselves through the works of popes, saints, and the Magisterium, along with theologians, mystics, clergy, and religious (see CCC 133). These can offer many insightful perspectives on the Faith, but they cannot replace reading the Bible! As St. Jerome remarked, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ!” Similarly, the Second Vatican Council affirmed the Word of God as “food for the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life.” (Dei Verbum, 21) We may spend years studying books for school and for professional development—how much more should we pore over the Word of God “to build you up and give you your heritage among all those who are sanctified”? We nourish ourselves with physical food multiple times a day, shouldn’t we do the same with spiritual nourishment?
When I worked in a Catholic bookstore, my boss shared this insight from St. John Bosco: “Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book.” Customers might have wandered in to buy a rosary or Catholic memorabilia, but many times I noticed them stop in front of a display of books on family life, spirituality, or healing prayers. As I assisted them with their selections, many would share their favorite devotions or ask for guidance in selecting a title. The customers were seeking writings by those whose experiences they could relate to—authors whose work would speak to our customers just as Sacred Scripture speaks to each of us and motivates us to seek and undertake the will of God. On other occasions, customers would simply be looking for something new to deepen their spirituality and share what they learned with their family and friends.
I have observed that the benefits of supporting Catholic bookstores extend in many ways: not only does it help a business to continue providing accessible, quality literature, but it also offers customers the chance to find something meaningful and wholesome that will be useful in subsequent questions, reflections, and experiences long after the first reading. Consider dusting off your Bible or picking up that Catholic book on your table. Spend a few moments and allow yourself to be touched by the author’s message and then share the experience with loved ones. Start a book club with friends and neighbors to discuss a spiritual work and apply it to your day to day life. The words of an approved source can galvanize, console, clarify, educate, or guide your spiritual formation. As Ms. Noonan reminded us, continual reading throughout our lives, especially of spiritual works, will give our lives greater depth and meaning. Start by picking up the book.
Questions for Reflection: Is there a spiritual book or book from the Bible you’ve been meaning to read? How has a book or Scripture passage impacted your life?
Growing up, I experienced the excitement of living in a predominantly male household. My brothers and I would regularly tap into some wellspring of energy within ourselves and cause all sorts of trouble for my poor mother to sort out if we somehow didn’t already exhaust ourselves. Now that we’re older and (hopefully) more mature, I find myself wondering 1) where did that incredible energy go? and 2) how did my mother ever put up with us? It certainly takes a special type of person to remain steadfastly patient and loving in the face of such chaos; mothers are a wonderful example, but what about those who are not parents (and would not be obligated to do so) who look after the young?
St. John Bosco, whose feast we celebrate today, is similarly venerated for dedicating his life to the betterment and education of street urchins, juvenile delinquents, and other disadvantaged youth. Born in Italy, “Don Bosco” was first the chaplain of a girls’ boarding school in Turin called the Rifugio (“Refuge”). His other ministries included visiting prisoners, teaching catechesis, and assisting at the country parishes. While visiting the prisons, Don Bosco was troubled to see so many adolescent boys and became determined to prevent them from ending up there. Finding traditional methods of parish ministry inefficient due to the urbanization-driven influx of migrants, Don Bosco developed another form of apostolate: meeting the boys wherever they were in life—be it offices, shops, or marketplaces. While society might have looked the other way or written off these little ones, Don Bosco would unceasingly offer help to those he encountered throughout his ministry.
I could focus on the well-documented efforts of the saint’s ministry, such as the establishment of permanent youth centers (which he called oratorio), contracting dignified jobs for the unemployed and obtaining fair conditions for those who held jobs, caring for the boys’ health, or instructing those willing to study after the work day, but I’d like to dwell on the special aspect of his numerous dreams which helped to reveal God’s will for his life. In one particularly, the Blessed Mother led Don Bosco into a beautiful garden, bidding him to pass through a rose arbor after removing his shoes. Shortly after doing so, his feet were cut and bleeding from the thorns of the roses on the path he was taking, yet he refused to turn around. Observers in the dream remarked, “How lucky Don John is! His path is forever strewn with roses! He hasn’t a worry in the world. No troubles at all!” They attempted to follow, but many who had been expecting an easy journey turned back—only some stayed with him. Finally, after successfully enduring the journey, he found another incredible garden where a cool breeze soothed his torn skin and healed his wounds.
I agree with Don Bosco’s interpretation: the path was his mission, the roses were his charity to the boys, and the thorns were the distractions and frustrations that obstructed his efforts. The message of the dream was clear to the saint: keep going, do not lose faith in God or His calling! For Don Bosco, challenges would always remain, such as financing. Don Bosco kept going and did not lose faith in God. His mother, a 59-year old poor peasant, even left her house and sold her jewelry to become a mother (“Mamma Margherita”) to those her son took in, eventually numbering 800! Acts of faith such as these reflect the fact that human works are very limited; it is God who is able to do the impossible. One can see this also evident in the efforts of St. Mother Teresa in the streets of Calcutta, the witness of the shepherd children who saw our Lady at Fatima, or the strength and determination of Mother Angelica in the founding of the Eternal Word Television Network.
In surrendering ourselves to be like “a little pencil in the hand of a writing God,” as Mother Teresa referenced in an interview, and not worrying about human measures of success, we can follow the example of saints like Don Bosco who effected great change in both society and the individual lives of those they served. The saints never worked for their own sake, but simply did the work they were guided to do by Providence. To echo the words of Don Bosco, “I have done nothing by myself. It is the Virgin Mary who has done everything.”
I believe that my two years of service had a 100% direct impact on my discernment process and decision to enter the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, more commonly known as the Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco or just the Salesian Sisters. In fact, I would go so far as to say that God sent me to volunteer at this particular High School to reveal my vocation.
I wanted to do a year of volunteer service right out of high school, but did not have the opportunity to do so. I learned that I found great joy in serving others through my social outreach group in high school and had a strong desire to give more time, energy, and direct focus to volunteering.
Come April of my senior year in college, I found myself without a plan for the following year and the idea of doing a year of service re-entered my mind. I visited theCatholic Volunteer Network website and found the online RESPONSE directory,which helped me to narrow down my search to the type of program I was interested in with the type of support that I needed.
This is where I learned about the Cristo Rey Network of schools and truly the next chapter of my life began.
The Cristo Rey Network is a high school model that offers low income families the opportunity to send their students to Catholic college prep high schools. How is this possible when most Catholic high schools are quite expensive, you might ask. The school partners with local corporate businesses, organizations, universities, hospitals, law firms etc where the students will work five days out of the month to offset their tuition cost. (Click here to learn more and see me in my classroom at minute 4:37.)
It took a leap of faith to go to Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School (DBCR) in Washington, D.C. because I would be joining the Salesian Domestic Volunteers (now called Salesian Home Missioners) in their first year as a volunteer program and I would also be the only volunteer placed at DBCR. I was going to be a pioneer both in my volunteer program and placement in the school. DBCR was also only in its fourth year of existence and still responding to the challenges of being in the “start up” period. It would be two years of learning and growing for all of us.
During my first year of service at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School I worked in the Youth Ministry and Faith Formation Department while also teaching two sections of junior theology. In my second year I taught a full course load, five sections, split between freshmen and junior theology as well as assisting the youth ministry team.
Within those classrooms and the small youth ministry office God called me to be a Salesian Sister. I learned a lot from working side by side with Fr. Abraham Feliciano, SDB (Salesians of Don Bosco). In him, I witnessed the everyday charism of the Salesians and joyful service to the young who are most in need. Fr. Abe loved those students with his whole heart and they knew it. They knew that they could rely on him to crack a joke and brighten their day or that they could come to him with serious problems and he would lead them to Jesus.
I learned that the heart of the Salesian charism is a daily encounter with Christ in and through our students and hopefully reciprocated as we open ourselves to be an image of Christ for them. I spent countless afternoons in that youth ministry office, surrounded by young people, laughing so hard I thought I would burst! I also learned how to be with them in and through the struggles they encountered in their daily lives. (Click here to see the class of 2014 reading excepts from MLK Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. These are some of the many students who have overcome great challenges in their live and that I had the privilege to see Christ in everyday. )
While working with these students, I lived in community with volunteers from several different programs. We were a mixed bag of Franciscans, Salesians (that’s me!), Columbans, and volunteers from the Catholic Volunteer Network. Over the course of my two years there we ranged from a community as small as four to as large as nine.
The Franciscan style of living in community is simplicity. On an economic level, we made do with all second hand furniture and shopped frugally for our needs. We usually did not buy Ziploc bags, for instance, because we could reuse Tupperware containers instead. As a part of my volunteer program, I did not have a car but I received a stipend each month for food and transportation.
On the community level, simplicity meant that we relied on each other. Sometimes that took the form of practical matters, such as grocery shopping or mopping up a flood in the basement. Other times it took a more personal form as we relied on one another for support and friendship. Now that I am living in community with the Salesian Sisters, I look back on my time in community as a formative period. In learning how to live with different people of various personalities, I learned how to recognize the gifts that all members can bring to community and I was able to learn more about myself as well.
As my two years of volunteering came to a close, I decided to stay and accepted a full time paid teaching position at DBCR. But I had an inclination, even then, that God was calling me to something more, something deeper. God had gifted me with two wonderful and difficult years at the service of a school and students truly in need. But His ultimate goal was not for me to stay at one school and with one group of students, He wanted to expand my horizons of service and the dimensions of my heart. I had the opportunity, while Fr. Abe was at DBCR, to attend daily Mass in our school chapel. This daily encounter with Christ in the Eucharist helped me to see Christ every day in the young people and opened my heart for the possibility of deeper relationship with Him.
When the Salesian Sisters came for our vocations assembly I heard God’s voice speaking directly to me saying, “This is it!” I must be honest, my first reaction was irritation. “Oh very funny God! Here I am sitting through the same vocation talk presented to all five of my Theology classes. Aren’t you supposed to be speaking to the students right now?! Leave me alone!” But because our God is good and patient, He didn’t leave me alone. After three years in Washington, D.C., He called me to move to New Jersey where the formation house of the Salesian Sisters is located.
It took some convincing on God’s part to show me that it was not just DBCR where He wanted me to serve, but anywhere the Salesians are and with all young people tho whom He might send to me. The Salesian Sisters dedicate their whole selves to God in the service of young people through education, parish catechism, youth centers, and anywhere young people may be found. St. John Bosco and St. Mary Mazzarello (our founders) shared the joy of Christ with every young person they met providing for them a home to feel welcome, a school to prepare them for life, a Church to evangelize, and a playground for them to make friends and have fun!
For me, what started as just a year of service post college opened the doors of my heart for Christ to call me to my life’s vocation. I am now half way through my first year of formation and if I had to identify one overriding emotion, it would be deep a sense of peace.
For more information on vocations, be sure to check out the Catholic Apostolate Center's Vocational Discernment Resources
Kelly Schuster is a former Salesian Home Missioner and is currently an Aspirant with the Salesian Sisters
This post was originally written and posted on the Catholic Volunteer Network Blog.
For more Catholic Volunteer Blog Posts please visit the CVN Blog Page.
The Catholic Apostolate Center is proud to partner with the Catholic Volunteer Network by developing faith formation resources for volunteers and alumni, assisting in its efforts to provide and advocate for faith-based volunteerism and collaborate in many additional ways.