Pope Francis visited the parish of Sacro Cuore in Rome, the last church built by St. John Bosco, on Jan. 19, 2014, and there he emphasized the work Salesians do there with refugees. When he visited Tirana, Albania on Sep. 21, 2014, members of the Salesian community and of the Don Bosco center filled the crowd with their testimonies. And in Istanbul, Pope Francis had a private meeting Nov. 30 with refugee children at the Don Bosco Youth Center.
These meetings demonstrate the deep appreciation Pope Francis has for the work of Salesians, an appreciation which stretches back to his youth.
Jorge Bergoglio was baptized and had as a spiritual father the Salesian Fr. Enrique Pezzoli, and when he was 13 he spent one year as an intern of the Salesian College Wilfrid Baròn de los Santos Angeles.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the emeritus Secretary of State and himself a Salesian, said in a recent interview with Korazym that “Pope Francis and Don Bosco share many things.”
“Don Bosco started from the peripheries, looked for children in difficult situations, lived with them and donated his life for them. Pope Francis continually invites us not only to entertain a dialogue, but even to stay with people, to walk with them,” Cardinal Bertone stressed.
This culture of encounter, this love for any person, can be detected in the Salesians' commitment to refugees.
One of the latest expressions of this commitment is the “Don Bosco Island” project, about to start in Catania, on Sicily's eastern coast. Cardinal Bertone visited the project Jan. 17 for an informal, and yet very heartfelt, inauguration.
During the visit, Cardinal Bertone encouraged his brothers Salesians to keep up their work, despite bureacratic issues which have slowed down the starting of the center.
Don Bosco Island consists of a refugee center able to welcome around 50 unaccompanied minors.
“Our project does not just deal with providing minors shelter and food. We want them to be integrated in the Italian territory. According to law, unaccompanied minors can stay for only three months in centers, and then they have to be displaced to other areas. Through the Salesian network and our vocational training school, we start them on an educational path, we teach them a job, and the Italian language,” Fr. Giovanni D’Andrea, one of the directors of the project, told CNA Jan. 29.
This spirit is spread in all the Salesians' works for refugees. At Sacro Cuore, the refugee center provides a languaged school and job placament for the some 200 refugees who ask for help and assistance.
“This is not a school. This is a house,” says Sr. Marian, one of the four Missionary Nuns of the Risen Christ who are in charge of the missionary service at Sacro Cuore.
Fr. Stefano Di Fiore is in charge of the Don Bosco center in Tirana. Placed in a former refugee camp for Kosovars, the center is the soul of the block that has been built around it, providing school and activities for the young boys of the area, and currently hosting about 400 children of both sexes.
Fr. Di Fiore told CNA: “Our way of evangelizing must be a practical one. We can provide people with the joy of being together, we can provide them a job, and we have to be very attentive to respect their identity. But the way we do it is Catholic, and everyone knows it, so much so that in Tirana the sentence ‘Don Bosco method’ is common, and refers to our way of doing things.”
Pope Francis met with some of the children of refugees gathered to Don Bosco Youth Center in Istanbul during his voyage there Nov. 30.
Fr. Andrés Calleja Riuz, S.D.B., who is responsible for the center, explained to CNA: “Pope Francis will come here because we are not a school, we are a refugee center, we are a center of learning that kids can use for the future. And they are searching for the future.”
In the year of the 200th anniversary of St. John Bosco's birth, Pope Francis will have another occasion to appreciate the Salesians' work for the peripheries: on May 21, he will visit the first Salesian house, in Turin.
The House is in Valdocco, a block of Turin that was the very periphery of the city in the mid-1800s, when St. John Bosco established there the general quarters of the congregation he had founded.