Pope Francis on Sunday, during the midday Regina Coeli, recalled memories from his time as a young student at a Salesian school in Buenos Aires.
Offering a greeting to the Salesian order on what was the feast of Mary Help of Christians, patroness of the Salesians, the Pope remembered “with gratitude the spiritual formation I received from the sons and daughters of Don Bosco.”
The Pope was describing the time when his mother fell ill in 1949 and he and his brother were sent away to board at the Colegio Wilfrid Barón de los Santos Ángeles, which was run by the Salesians of Don Bosco.
The Pope has often spoken about the enduring influence of this Salesian formation on his own spirituality.
In 2019, Pope Francis wrote the preface for “Evangelii gaudium with Don Bosco”, a book of reflections by Salesians on the Pope’s first apostolic exhortation. There, Pope Francis described the “climate of joy” he had found at his Salesian school.
Similarly, for the 200th anniversary of St John Bosco in June 2015, Pope Francis wrote a letter praising the Salesians for having provided “an integral educational experience which, firmly based on the religious dimension, affects the mind, the emotions and the whole person, always considered as someone created and loved by God”.
During the bicentenary celebrations, he visited Don Bosco’s shrine in Turin and spoke to the Salesians about all that the order had done for him and his family. Long before he and his brother studied at a Salesian school, the Bergoglio family had close ties with the Salesians. His parents had met through a Salesian church and, a few years before he was born, the Bergoglios had received financial support from the Salesians when their family business collapsed.
The future Pope would later be baptised by a Salesian missionary, Fr Enrico Pozzoli, who offered pastoral accompaniment to the young Jorge Bergoglio throughout his childhood up until his entrance into the Jesuit order. Fr Pozzoli even mediated between Jorge Bergoglio and his mother, Regina Bergoglio, when she had protested against her son’s intentions to become a priest.
The Pope has described the pastoral care he found amongst the Salesians as “concrete”. According to Austen Ivereigh, the enduring influence of this concreteness would later become controversial when, both as a young Jesuit provincial and later as a Cardinal in Buenos Aires, the future Pope demanded a renewed focus on providing for the material needs of the faithful. In his book Wounded Shepherd, Ivereigh describes how the young Francis had consequently been attacked for trying to “Salesianize” his priests and that he later defended his actions by pointing to the fruits of Don Bosco’s ministry.
The Pope’s attachment to the order has also been felt during his pontificate through the increasing number of Salesians elevated to the cardinalate. Pope Francis has already appointed more Salesian cardinals than were named under Pope Benedict XVI. In 2014, Pope Francis raised the Salesian Archbishop Ricardo Ezzati Andrello of Santiago de Chile to the rank of cardinal, who he also made a member of the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America. In 2015, Francis announced that two more Salesians, Archbishop Charles Maung Bo of Yangon and Archbishop Daniel Sturla of Montevideo, were to be appointed cardinals. And last year, the Pope also made Archbishop Cristóbal López Romero of Rabat a cardinal, after having himself raised the former Salesian provincial to the episcopate in 2017.
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