Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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February 9, 2005
Ash Wednesday

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

One morning in 1847, Saint John Bosco was handing out medals to children he met on his way. A boy about 10 years old shyly planted himself in front of him and held out his hand. «Oh, it's you, Michael! What do you want?»—«A medal...»—«A medal? No. Something much better.»—«What?»—«Here, take it!» And saying that, Don Bosco held out his left hand, open but empty, and with the other made a gesture of cutting his left hand in two, offering him half. «So—take it! Take it!» But take what? The hand remained empty. What did he mean, the child wondered. Several years later, Don Bosco would explain the riddle: «My little Michael, in life, you and I, we will always share everything—sorrows, worries, responsibilities, joys, and the rest, all the rest, will be ours together.»

Michael Rua was born in Turin on June 9, 1847, the last of nine children. His father, Giovanni Battista Rua, supervisor of the weapons factory in Turin, died on August 2, 1845. A widow, Mrs. Rua kept her apartment in the factory. One Sunday in the fall of 1845, Michael pushed open the door of Don Bosco's famous youth club. Don Bosco came up to him, put his hand on his head for several seconds and looked at him strangely. Michael was soon won over by the kindness of the young priest, who, providentially, welcomed him to the youth club two months after the death of the boy's father. This was no ordinary youth club—since no owner wanted these too noisy children, the club wandered from place to place. Don Bosco was the object of a great deal of criticism. One day, the chaplain at the weapons factory said to Michael, «What? You don't know that Don Bosco is seriously ill?»—«It can't be—I just saw him the day before yesterday.»—«But he is, I'm telling you, he is sick with a sickness that it is very hard to cure—he's sick in the head!» A little while later, the head of the factory added on, «Poor Don Bosco! You don't know that he's nuts?» Fifty years later, Don Michael Rua would admit, «If someone had said that to me about my own father, I wouldn't have been more upset.»

On April 13, 1846, the youth club found a permanent home in Valdocco, outside Turin. From the very start of his charitable work, Don Bosco adopted a method from which he would never deviate: develop leaders from the group itself who would be able to light the way for it and drive it forward. One day in 1850, he asked Michael, «What are you planning to do next year?»—«Start working at the factory to help Mama, who has sacrificed so much for us.»—«Wouldn't you like to continue your studies and become a priest? What would you say to that?»—«I would say yes, right away. But Mama... who knows?»—«Try to talk to her about it, and tell me what she says.» The answer from this Christian mother was clear: «Seeing you a priest would be the greatest happiness of my life... Tell Don Bosco that I agree for this year, as a test.» The child ran to the priest to tell him this good news. Don Bosco put his hand on Michael's shoulder. An immense hope shone in his face, and the child's eyes lit up with an indescribable joy.

Slaving over hieroglyphics

Under Don Bosco's supervision, Michael continued his studies. At first he took them somewhat casually, but soon he pulled himself together and was a complete success. In 1851, he lost his brother, Luigi, then, in 1853, another brother, Giovanni Battista. «Next it's me,» he told Don Bosco. But the Saint prophesied he would live another fifty years. The free moments that his studies allowed him were spent at the youth club, in a thousand humble jobs that lightened his teacher's load. He also became expert at bringing new boys to him. Sometimes Don Bosco wrote flyers to instruct souls. He passed long hours of the night at it, correcting the text, writing notes and editorial marks all over the sheets. In the morning, just for fun he would pass a couple around and his little students would look at them, terror-stricken, unable to make out his scarcely legible handwriting. «Here's some work for Rua,» Don Bosco would then exclaim. At night, his schoolwork done, Michael would desperately rework his teacher's hieroglyphics, restoring the text flawlessly in his perfect handwriting.

On September 24, 1853, Don Bosco took Michael into his home, and on October 3, he invested him with the cassock with another disciple by the name of Roccheti. Several more soon joined the first two. On January 26, 1854, Don Bosco gathered them in his room and proposed to them a novitiate of sorts, after which they could be bound by vows. It was that day that they took the name «Salesians,» after Saint Francis de Sales, who had a genius for converting souls through kindness and persuasion. These first Salesians served youth—exhausting days at the youth club, morning and evening classes, supervising, theater or music rehearsals, gymnastics, lively outdoor games, solitary study, and frequent reception of the sacraments. They had before them Don Bosco's radiant example. «I got much more,» Michael Rua would later affirm, «from observing Don Bosco, even in the humblest of actions, than from reading and meditating on a treatise on asceticism.»

One year later, Michael took his first annual vows privately. His activities multiplied—he started teaching math, supervising in study hall, at meals, in the courtyard, and in the chapel. Closely involved in continual conversation with the children, he paid attention to each, anxious to help, encourage, and boost these young men in their formation. He also taught religion, and at night, after supper, Don Bosco dictated to him a History of Italy to replace the biased textbooks they were using. The work that he got through every day did not keep him from pursuing, from 1853 to 1860, studies in philosophy, and then in theology, at the Major Seminary. His lecture notes were exact and clear. In 1858, Don Rua accompanied Don Bosco to Rome to present to Pope Pius IX the Salesian constitutions. On December 18, 1859, the Salesian Congregation was officially founded. The Founder was recognized as Superior General and Don Michael Rua was named spiritual director for the Society.

Contagious holiness

On July 28, 1860, Don Rua was ordained a priest. Don Bosco wrote to him the following advice: «You will have to work and suffer much. There are no roses without thorns, and you are well aware of the fact that one must cross the Red Sea and the desert to reach the Promised Land. Endure the trial with courage, even in the midst of suffering, and you will know the Lord's consolation and help. To accomplish your work on earth, follow this advice: an exemplary life, consummate prudence, perseverance despite exhaustion in the service of souls, complete docility to inspirations from on High, constant war with Hell, unflagging confidence in God.» When he returned in October 1860, Don Rua saw himself entrusted with the general supervision of classes. The beginning of his administration was marked by an influx of students, a supernatural atmosphere in which souls bathed, a contagious holiness that seized all. One of them would write twenty-five years later: «A great number of our companions were not only good, but excellent, true models of piety, work, gentleness, penitence, living and shining examples. Young people who, for all the gold in the world, would not have committed a single mortal sin.»

These results were obtained thanks to frequent reception of the sacraments. For Don Bosco, weekly Confession, carried out with a serious, firm intention not to sin again, was the preparation for a good Communion. «The summit, if one desires moral conduct, is, without question, good frequent Confession and good frequent Communion.» He affirmed again: «Frequent Communion is the great pillar that supports the moral and material world, without which it would collapse into ruin. Believe me—I am not exaggerating—frequent Communion is a pillar on which rests one of the poles of the world. The other pole rests on devotion to the Blessed Virgin.» Don Rua testified, «Our holy Founder never missed a chance to recommend frequent Communion; it was the foundation of his system of education. Those who do not see this are always obliged to have recourse to harsh coercion.»

The increase in the number of Salesians allowed Don Bosco to found a Minor Seminary in Mirabello. On October 20, 1863, Don Rua was named its director. One notes among the precious pieces of advice that Don Bosco gave him the concern for the quite young twenty-six-year-old director to avoid the pitfalls of activism and of not paying adequate attention to the physical or moral sufferings of those for whom he would be given responsibility. The Salesian records would relate, «Don Rua is conducting himself in Mirabello as Don Bosco is here. He is constantly surrounded by students won over by his friendliness or by the desire to hear him speak on a thousand interesting topics. At the start of the year, he asked his staff not to be too demanding, not to scold the students at every turn, and to know how to look the other way. After lunch, he always mingles with the young people, playing or singing with them.»

May they know they are loved

Don Rua took on the ways of his teacher, of whom Pope John Paul II would write: «For a method, Don Bosco proposes 'affection.' It is a matter of a daily attitude, one that is not simple human love or only supernatural charity... Affection finds expression in the engagement of the educator as a person completely dedicated to the good of the students, who is present in their midst, ready to face sacrifices and difficulties in the achievement of his mission. All this calls for being truly available to the youth, a profound sympathy, an ability to dialogue... With a happy intuition, Don Bosco explains that what matters is that 'youth are not only loved, but that they know they are loved' » (Letter for the centenary of the Saint's death, January 31, 1988).

Nonetheless, however devoted the Salesian educators, they were not perfect. More than one mistake was made; all the same, the new foundation's success was immediate. Soon, the diocesan Major Seminary was overflowing with vocations coming from the Minor Seminary. In his awareness of this, Don Rua was assailed by a great temptation to pride. However much he pushed it away, it always returned with a vengeance. Finally, he unburdened himself about it to his teacher, who wrote to him, «To cure this disease of pride, I recommend Saint Bernard's remedy. Repeat often the famous questions: Where do you come from? What is your task here below? Where must you end up? Recalling the essential truths in meditation, today as yesterday, produces Saints.»

In 1865, Don Rua had to leave this foundation for Turin to rejoin Don Bosco, who was ill and drowning in work. The large house in Valdocco, a youth club with a boarding school grafted on, had almost seven hundred students and its spirit had weakened. With remarkable tact, Don Rua slowly wiped out the bad habits and restored good discipline. But in July 1868, Don Rua's constant activity got the better of his strength. A sudden case of peritonitis confined him to bed. The doctors gave him only a few hours to live. Seeing the Holy Oils for administering Extreme Unction next to him, Don Bosco asserted, «Listen, Don Rua, even if you were thrown out the window just as you are, I assure you that you wouldn't die.» In fact, a few days later, despite the doctor's prognosis, the patient was out of danger.

Relieving Don Bosco

After recovering Don Rua took over half, if not more, of Don Bosco's responsibilities. In 1869, Don Bosco turned over to him the formation of novices. But this additional burden, which he would carry out for six years, did not exempt him from many others. He could face up to his innumerable tasks thanks to his well-ordered and methodical mind, his control over his nerves, his prodigious memory, his passion for work, and his ability to get others to help him, but most of all because he loved Don Bosco and wanted to relieve him. He managed to make his entire day a continuous prayer. He wanted to transform each day's work, worries, and efforts into prayer. His actions unfolded under the eyes of God and Mary.

However, little by little, Don Rua's zeal for obedience and discipline ended up alienating him from the children's hearts. He became more feared than loved. An axiom went around the house: «Better a 'no' from Don Bosco than a 'yes' from Don Rua.» So Don Bosco took from him the role of Prefect of Discipline and kept him at his side to watch over the general interests of the Congregation and accompany him on his trips in Europe. From then on, everything was shared between them, sometimes even the charism to perform miracles. One day, in fact, a tearful mother brought to Don Bosco her son, whom the doctors had given only a few days left to live. The Saint, swamped with work, asked Don Rua himself to give the blessing of Our Lady Help of Christians to the little one. At once, the child was cured.

But, however close the two priests were to one another, each kept his own personality. In administrative matters, they sometimes came into close opposition—Don Bosco entirely focusing on the work of the day and audacious to the last degree; Don Rua prudent, calculating, minimizing as much as possible the unforeseen.

In 1884, Don Bosco's health gave grave worries. Pope Leo XIII discreetly asked him to appoint a successor. On September 24, 1885, the founder named Don Rua to replace him. Yesterday a disciplinarian whose outward severity was legendary, the new Superior became more welcoming, his voice taking on a gentle tone, a kind smile lighting up his face. On January 31, 1888, Don Bosco rendered his soul to God. Don Rua wrote, «Our souls can be consoled only by the thought that God, Who is infinitely good, does only what is just and wise.» That evening, when everyone had left the little church where the deceased's body was lying in state in an armchair, Don Rua remained kneeling two hours in prayer before him. When he got up, his soul was filled with a new strength to take on the difficult task that awaited him. Shortly thereafter, received in audience by Leo XIII, he told him, «I still hear Don Bosco telling us again a few hours before his death: 'The Pope, the Pope, the Salesians must defend the Pope's authority, everywhere and always.' » In his conversation, the Holy Father advised Don Rua to hold off expanding the Congregation so as to strengthen what was already there. For two years, the imposed halt allowed the consolidation hoped for and the paying off of the most urgent debts. But at the end of 1889, the foundations resumed and spread throughout the world.

The goal of the youth clubs

An ardent apostle of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Don Rua wrote to his sons: «Nothing could be more Salesian than this devotion, because it is in the Sacred Heart of our Master that we will draw, as educators, the very pure love for youth, the gentleness and the leniency that must accompany our words and our actions, the patience in the frustrations and trials inherent in our task, the spirit of sacrifice, and zeal for souls.» In his circulars to the Salesians, Don Rua recommended youth clubs above all, insisting that they keep their first goal: «Music, theater, and sports are means, nothing more,» he wrote. «Where they are useful, and nowhere else, they can be used—but always with prudence, to draw in the youth and to ensure their perseverance. The goal is the teaching of religion and the formation of souls.» For the perseverance of youth who left Salesian boarding schools, he promoted associations of former students. Finally, he was careful to maintain an environment favorable to the nurture and growth of the vocations that were born in his Congregation's establishments, whatever they might be.

His zeal for the youth brought him to take risks that one would have thought him incapable of. To fund his works, he reminded the wealthy of their duty to help the needy, and of the spiritual and temporal rewards of charity. From 1889 to 1909, each spring he left on a three-month trip, in this way traveling more than 100,000 kilometers visiting each of his communities. Yet these trips cost him dearly—he never got used to maritime crossings, did not easily endure nights on the train, and had difficulty adapting to the foods and customs of different countries. With age, his infirmities increased—his legs were swollen with varicose veins or covered with wounds, and his eyelids were always enflamed and watering.

These years were also marked by great suffering. In 1895, a Salesian priest was murdered by a half-crazy student. Five months later, Bishop Lasagna, one of the great hopes of the Salesian society, his secretary, and four sisters of Mary Help of Christians, were victims of a train accident. Four years later, a flood in Argentina destroyed the material results of ten years of missionary work. In France, the so-called Law of Associations (June 2, 1901) required the closing and sale of the Salesian establishments. In 1907, a completely made up moral scandal in a high school stirred up a violent storm of protest against the Salesians all across Italy. Don Rua never seemed as sad as he did in those days. He would sometimes be found head in hands, lost in thought and prayer for long periods of time. Unable to take any more, he vowed to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, if the honor of his religious family was fully restored. Having been heard, he fulfilled his vow in 1908.

The very sensitive heart of Don Rua, who pleaded one day, «Never tell me bad news in the evening, for then I can't sleep all night,» also knew, during those years, some great joys. His religious family grew prodigiously—having received from Don Bosco 700 religious to lead in 64 houses scattered in 6 countries, he would leave 4,000 religious to his successor, in 341 houses spread out across 30 nations. Three of his sons were chosen by the Pope to be bishops, of which two were for the missions. On July 24, 1907, Don Bosco was declared Venerable, the first official step towards canonization. One of Don Rua's last great joys was, at the end of 1908, the completion of the church dedicated to Saint Mary Liberator, in Rome, which the Pope had asked him to build. The people, confused by the anticlericalism then in power, were strengthened in their faith, and crowded into the new sanctuary.

«To save one's soul is everything, everything!»

In the fall of 1909, Don Rua, exhausted, had to take to bed. The following April, the pain became so intense that a complaint escaped from his lips: «To die, must one suffer any more than this?» On April 6, 1910, he murmured for the last time a short prayer he had learned from Don Bosco in the days of his earliest youth: «Blessed Virgin, my tender Mother, make sure that I save my soul!», then he added, «Yes, to save one's soul is everything, everything!» Around 9:30 A.M., without a moan, without moving, he rendered his soul to God.

Don Rua, beatified by Pope Paul VI on October 29, 1972, was one of the beautiful fruits of holiness brought forth by Don Bosco. «In the Church and in the world, the integrated view of education that we see incarnated in John Bosco is a realistic pedagogy of holiness,» wrote Pope John Paul II. «It is urgent that we rediscover the real sense that holiness must be a part of the life of every believer.» The secret of Don Bosco, the master of spirituality for youth, «was not to disappoint the deepest yearnings of youth—the need for life, for love, for growth, for joy, for freedom, for future—but to lead them step by step and in a practical way to experience themselves that it is only in the 'life of grace,' that is in the friendship of Christ, that their most authentic ideals can be fully realized» (January 31, 1988).

Let us ask Blessed Don Rua to teach us to live in the friendship of Christ through the most ordinary actions of our daily lives.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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