January is a big month for the Salesian Community. We celebrated the feast of three major Salesian saints: Blessed Laura Vicuna, St. Francis de Sales, and finally St. John Bosco. As we were busy preparing for these feasts and celebrations and now are getting back into our normal routines, I have been reflecting a lot on what it means to be a Salesian and how I ended up becoming part of this wonderful family.
I consider myself to be particularly blessed that I grew up hearing and loving the stories of the saints. If I am being honest, I think that I loved the saints before I truly came to love God. From watching cartoon movies about their lives, looking through my mom’s big tupperware of saint cards (my favorite card was St. Lucy’s and I used to gawk at her holding a platter with eyes on it), and learning which saints you pray to for every little thing, I developed a true love and fascination with many of the saints. Yet while I knew who St. John Bosco was (mainly because there was a parish named after him located across the street from my lifelong dentist office), my prior knowledge about him was limited to two facts: he was an Italian priest and he could juggle. Yep, that was it.
I have also had the opportunity to interact with many religious orders and communities. My high school was run by the Sisters of St. Basil and at the Catholic University of America there were countless religious orders around us: Franciscans and Dominicans of all kinds, diocesan, Benedictine (shout out to FC), Marians, and on and on. I am sure that I have but, if I am being honest, I cannot remember ever meeting a Salesian prior to the SLM program. Yet here I am.
Despite my little knowledge of Don Bosco and the Salesians prior to last spring, I somehow ended up in Cambodia living and working in a community of Salesian sisters where I am teaching as a Salesian Lay Missioner in a Don Bosco Vocational School for Girls. As I reread that sentence I can’t help but laugh. My life has become incredible Salesian and I could not be happier about it.
Especially being someone who wants to pursue a career in Catholic education and ministry, I find the Salesian charisms and teachings to be extremely relevant to my life. As I learn more and more about the Salesian spirituality and mission, I find myself continually nodding my head in agreement. I remember at my discernment weekend for the SLM program I continually found myself saying, “This is it. This is what I want.” And I wasn’t only saying that about what I wanted in a one year mission program, I’ve realized that this is what I want for my whole life.
For me, being a Salesian is all about choosing joy and choosing love. It has been about meeting the young where they are and sometimes in places where I am uncomfortable. This means dancing with my students no matter how much I would prefer not to, simply smiling and trying to remain present when everything is in Khmer and I have no idea what is happening at a meeting or event, not letting the heat or the million bug bites or the fact that I am perpetually tired stop me from being joyful and engaging with people, trying to eat my seventh plate of rice when we are visiting the homes of the students and I feel as though if I eat just one more grain I will explode, being kind to my students no matter how frustrated I am that they just don’t get it, trying my best to remember everyone’s names and to call them by that and to ask how they are doing and genuinely care. It is about being both a teacher and a student at the same time and at all times. It is about playing and praying and smiling and just simply loving.
Sometimes, that is easy. There are days that I smile constantly, teach, play, pray and simply love with this enthusiastic joy. Those days are awesome and I think “Don Bosco was brilliant! I totally have this figured out.” Then there are days that I am hot, tired, itchy, on the other side of the world, and my students can’t remember to put articles in their sentences no matter how many times I tell them and I think “This is it, this is how I go officially crazy at the age of 23.” It is on those days that I admire Don Bosco the most. He encountered difficulty after difficulty far more serious than mine but he never stopped loving or serving.
I’ve realized that being a Salesian and a Christian is about saying “yes” to those I encounter and often saying “no” to myself. There are so many times that if I was offered the opportunity to play with the students or to go lie in my bed under the fan that this sweating, exhausted missionary would be so tempted to choose the latter. There are times that my desk is full of homework and tests to grade and I have a long list of emails to respond to and I think, “I can’t possibly go to play at the gate or to stay late talking to the students.” But that is not what Don Bosco would do and I strive to be as self-sacrificing as him and to devote myself to loving, praying for and with, educating, and playing with the young. This is no easy task but living in this mentality has without a doubt made me a more joyful and loving person. Living as a Salesian has challenged me to find the joy in everything and in everyone. For that I will be forever changed and forever grateful.
While I might not be a Salesian Lay Missioner for the rest of my life, I have no doubt that everything that I have learned from Don Bosco, Mother Mazarrello, the Salesian Saints, and the Salesian community will shape my faith and ministry for the rest of my life. I have learned so much in my three and a half months here already and know that there is still so much more to come in my remaining months. I still have a lot to learn about Don Bosco, the Salesians, teaching, and my own faith but I’m excited for the both the joys and the challenges that it will bring. Regardless of whether I teach in a Salesian school or under the title of anything Salesian, I want to be a Salesian educator. I can’t imagine being anything else.
So thank you, Don Bosco, for everything that you have done for my students, for all of the students and those who are served by your Salesians, and for the education that you are just beginning to give me. Don Bosco and Mary Help, pray for us!
Happy Feast of Don Bosco to the Salesian community in Cambodia…
…and to all of the Salesian communities around the world (especially my favorite SLMS)!