The Salesian brother brings to every field of education and pastoral activity the specific qualities of his lay status, which make him in a particular way a witness to God’s Kingdom in the world, close as he is to the young and to the realities of working life. (Con. 45)
Don Bosco began his work at the Oratory in 1841. The boys who came to the Oratory on Sundays were workers. Don Bosco drew up contracts between them and their employers, to ensure that they were treated fairly, and that they had sufficient time for rest and time to fulfill their religious duties.
Don Bosco saw that conditions in the factories and workshops were not good for the physical, moral and spiritual needs of the young workers. For this reason he opened various workshops in Valdocco itself, where the young people could learn tailoring, shoemaking, bookbinding, carpentry and printing. He himself taught some of these trades, but he needed others to help him. He took on lay assistants who were called “coadjutors.”
When Don Bosco founded the Salesian Society on 18 December 1859 with 17 other members, there were no brothers among them. Soon however some lay members entered the novitiate and on 14 May 1862 there were two brothers amongst the first professed members of the new Society. For Don Bosco these lay members were equal in status to the priest members. Don Bosco wanted a single consecrated vocation open to members who opted for the lay state or for priesthood, all sharing the same consecration, community life and mission.
Don Bosco was not afraid to entrust high responsibility to his brothers. Joseph Rossi and Andrew Pelazza, for example, were the legal representatives of the Oratory before the State. Joseph Rossi was invited to the fourth General Chapter as representative of the Salesian Brothers and as the one in charge of the Schools of Arts and Trades. Peter Cenci received the title “Professor” and “Knight of the Crown” as a result of the publication of his book “Tailoring Methods,” and he represented the tailoring section in various exhibitions and competitions. Joseph Gambino was for a long time manager of the Catholic Readings, the Library of Italian Youth and the Salesian Bulletin, and in 1891 became General Manager of the whole Salesian Publishing House.
The Salesian brother is an educator and pastor of the young in a variety of activities – catechetical, missionary, evangelizing, educational, administrative, secretarial and domestic.
Modern society is founded on work and “the world of work” has become of great importance in many countries. For this reason, activities in the area of work are among the most important apostolic activities of the Salesian brother. Because he is close to the young and to the realities of the workers’ world, his bond with young people and the world of work is a key aspect of his identity.
As an educator the Salesian brother is able to face the huge challenge is in preparing young people for life in the world of work today, not only in terms of training them for their trade but especially by giving them a sound preparation for the social, ethical, spiritual and Christian challenges they will meet in life.
He inculcates in them the personal and social values that are needed in the world of work, as, for example, a spirit of brotherhood, solidarity and community, together with self-discipline and respect for every individual person.
At the same time, he teaches them and helps them to overcome the evils that threaten them: a materialistic understanding of life, indifference in spiritual matters, individualism, feelings of hostility and the temptation to violence.
Moreover, through his attentive concern and constant love for them, he gives witness to a deep sense of universal brotherhood as an antidote to all forms of selfishness, exploitation and self-interest. In brief, the Salesian brother prepares young people to take their place with dignity in the Church and in society, and to contribute from within to the Christian transformation of society. Don Bosco used to say: “honest citizens and good Christians.”
But even though he is close to the world and secular affairs, the fact remains that he is first and foremost an evangelizer. He does not evangelize through priestly work – preaching, celebrating the sacraments, etc. Nor is he like a lay person outside. In fact, he works within a religious community and not in all secular affairs as the lay person outside religious life does, but only in those matters that are in keeping with the charism of the founder. He tries to act as a leaven and to transform these affairs in line with the gospel.
Moreover, the consecration which derives from his religious profession confers on him the Church’s mandate to proclaim the Gospel. It gives a certain quality to his work of evangelization insofar as it makes him a living witness to transcendental truths that go beyond the world: God, the kingship of Christ, the life to come, etc. His presence as a consecrated person in a secularized world is all the more urgent and precious at the present time. He reveals the kingdom of God already present in the world, in the kingship of Christ in our lives and in the values we live: love, peace, justice, etc., and the Kingdom that is to come, which we are all committed to building.
The biggest challenge facing the Salesian Brother and his greatest contribution is the work of evangelizing in the secular world.
His profession, whatever it might be, brings him close to the young and to ordinary people, and they are attracted to him because he looks like one of them.
In evangelization what matters most is the witness of a person’s life, as a Christian and a consecrated lay Salesian. This is what attracts young people and raises the question: why does he live this kind of life? The Salesian Brother leads young people to recognize the presence of God in the world, more by deeds than by words, and shows them how to live a life of faith in the midst of secular affairs. Venerable Simon Srugi was a Salesian Brother who lived and worked among Muslims. They used to say, “To look at Simon and remember God were one and the same thing.” They also used to say, “His presence was like the shadow of the presence of God.”
Then there is the ambiance the Salesian Brother manages to create in the group or in the workshop or school or playground. Today more than ever ambiance and disposition, which is the result of values lived, is a powerful communicator of those values to all who come in contact with it. The Christian ambiance, therefore, of the place where the Salesian Brother lives and works, exercises a powerful influence on all who are touched by it.
In third place there is dialogue or animation. The words of a Salesian Brother have a particular efficacy when his heart is in love with Christ. He shows great respect for those with whom he speaks and he makes them open to love and to search for the truth. He helps them to enter into themselves and encounter God there, to discover the religious dimension when they reflect more deeply on their experience and the human questions that arise. He willingly shares his faith-experience with others, introducing them to Jesus Christ as the centre of his life. There is a whole work of listening and responding, of persuading and convincing.
The Salesian Brother is called to be an example in the Church of how to evangelize in the field of secular activities.
The Salesian Brother brings his specific lay contribution to the prayer, life and work of the community. He offers a service to the educative pastoral community, the Salesian Family and the Salesian Movement. In harmony with the priest-members, he maintains the unity of the charism of Don Bosco. Together they enter into dialogue and fraternal collaboration for their mutual enrichment and greater apostolic fruitfulness.
(The Vocation to Salesian Consecrated Life in its Two Forms: Salesian Brother, Salesian Priest)