Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown at the Mass for the reception of the relics of Saint John Bosco

05 Mar 2013

Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown at the Mass for the reception of the relics of Saint John Bosco

“Faithfulness to the Gospel is uncomfortable for some.  The right thing is not always the popular thing.  Don Bosco would tell us that the uncomfortable Gospel message is valid in all eras and situations” – Bishop McKeown

Saint John Bosco was one of the figures who have left their mark on modern Europe.  He was born in 1815 and died in 1888 – almost an exact contemporary of Karl Marx and Charles Dickens– and he lived through times that would mark Europe for much of the next century. He worked during the rise of the nation states like Germany and Italy, he saw the age of revolutions in Europe and he sought to respond to the development of the great industrial cities that would forever change how people lived their lives. This was not just a man of one period in history. This was a man who developed ways of responding to rapid change and not just fearing it. This man laboured to bring the Gospel into the heart of industrial society and into the hearts of those whose lives were being moulded in the furnace of industrialisation. He is a man of God who was a blessing to his own generation – but from whom we might learn many things as we seek to cope with widespread change and uncertainty.

Firstly, Don Bosco focused his attention on young people and their needs. They are not the citizens and believers of the future. Young people make up a huge percentage of our modern societies. They live in a world where there are wonderful opportunities and huge dangers. They can travel, communicate in ways undreamt of by their parents and see themselves as citizens of the world. But too many are ending up in mental hospitals, prisons and an early grave. It is easy for adults to blame some young people for how they behave and seek to knock them into line and into decent behaviour. But adults rarely ask what is wrong with the world that we adults have created for them. We don’t often ask what is causing so much dysfunctionality.

I was saddened to hear a discussion on local radio last week where it was suggested that schools should teach young people parenting skills. But the question also needs to be asked as to why so many schoolchildren have not seen good relationships and good parenting in their families, streets and communities.  Now I know that healthy school communities can teach so much about relationships and self-respect – more by the ethos of the school than by what is taught in the classroom.

Don Bosco might ask us to reflect on whether our acquisitive culture presents adults and young people with too many role models who seem to have everything but common sense, who propagate a destructive philosophy of short term self-gratification and for whom appearance is everything.

Don Bosco set up a whole range of communities-based initiatives – often known in Italy as “l’oratorio” – where young people could be supported and inspired.  Might he be asking our Church just how we are looking out for young people, whether our parishes are actively seeking to support both those who are doing well and those who are struggling with the baggage of their past experiences? It may be difficult for civil society, where there is little agreement about what is good, bad, moral, true and the ideal. But as Church we need to be in the forefront of providing healthy environments where young people can grow and mature – get to 21 without passing through Purdysburn, Hydebank or Milltown.

Secondly, Don Bosco had a commitment to the poor and the underprivileged of his time. He quickly discovered that there were some of his comfortable and pious contemporaries who did not want to have much contact with the poor. However, he did not take the superficial Marxist perspective that changed structure would change everything. Nor did he have had a Dickensian way of looking at human degradation. Don Bosco had the eyes of radical faith to see, not merely urchins but children of God, not just people warped by poverty but individuals made in God’s image and likeness, for whom God still had a dream. And he sought to provide education and training for them so that they might blossom and flourish. In the world of education, it is interesting to note that one of the Vatican’s core documents on the Catholic school is quite clear that “first and foremost the Church offers its educational service to ‘the poor or those who are deprived of family help and affection or those who are far from the faith’”[1]. As we seek to reposition and restructure Catholic education, we have to be ready to prioritise the needs, not of the successful and the advantaged, but of the weak and disadvantaged. And if some people do not like that, then we still have to be true to the Gospel perspective of Jesus who tells us that as often as we fail to do things for the least of his brothers and sisters, we fail to do it to him. Faithfulness to the Gospel is uncomfortable for some. The right thing is not always the popular thing. That is why our diocesan planning process is conscious of speaking to all the marginalised and not just to those who will not intrude too much into our comfort zones. As Don Bosco would tell us, the uncomfortable Gospel message is valid in all eras and situations.

Thirdly, Don Bosco would have another message for all involved in education. That same Vatican document that I quoted earlier is clear that the aim of every Catholic school “not merely the attainment of knowledge but the acquisition of values and the discovery of truth.” [2] Catholic schools are faced with many challenges. They include the need to compete in academic league tables and the pressure not to emphasise too much about faith because the students need more so-called ‘relevant’ qualifications. Pupils do need the useful qualifications. But the most important job that anyone will have to do in life is to be a human being, responsible in relationships and contributing to the welfare of their community.  Education is about preparing young people to take their place in society and not just qualifying them for a job. If a Catholic school were to promote academic priorities over a holistic Christian vision of the human person, then it risks losing the vision which is actually the source of the inspiration that fires their staff to such dedication to the welfare of their students. The Vatican document is clear. “(The Church) establishes her own schools because she considers them as a privileged means of promoting the formation of the whole human person, since the school is a centre in which a specific concept of the world, of the person and of history is developed and conveyed.”[3] It may be easier to fill the head than to mould the heart. But it is in the heart that the most profound learning takes place. It is a broken heart that can kill the body. Don Bosco was not in favour of a hollowed out education but of a fulfilling one.  He would ask educators to live up to the best Gospel standards and not just down to the more modest expectations of a secular society.  That would be a betrayal of our identity and our young people.

We welcome these relics to this Cathedral Church where the great Salesian priest, Father Sean Crummey worked for many years. The name of Saint John Bosco – or don Bosco, as he was known in Italian – is famous in many corners of the globe.  The Salesians have a worldwide reputation for education and innovation. And Pope Benedict XVI recognised the charism of the Salesians by inviting some of them to be among his closest collaborators in the Vatican.

We pray that this night of prayer associated with the presence of the relics among us will be a time of blessing for us and that it will renew our commitment to look after our young, to prioritise the needs of the weakest and to hand on to them a passion for the God who always has faith in us.


  • Bishop Donal McKeown is an Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor.  This homily was delivered in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Belfast, on 4 March 2013.

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