Don Bosco’s blessing arm is still hard at work in the name of salvation.
When a relic of the 19th-century Italian saint made a stop by the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at The Catholic University of America – my alma mater - in Washington, D.C., this past week, it was hard not to be drawn in by the words inscribed on the glass casket the relic was contained in: “Give me souls, take away the rest.”
These words, in Latin, are displayed on the 1,800-pound urn traveling the globe with remains from the body of Saint John Bosco.
These physical remains of the saint, who died in 1888, have been on the move since January 2009, which marked the beginning of the Salesian Congregation’s 150th anniversary. His body was exhumed in 1929, and his right arm — his blessing arm — has been to 130 nations and is currently traveling in the United States.
Remains of an arm, you may be thinking, how weird. I’ll be the first to admit that I had no idea how powerful an arm it still is.
But that was before I saw people of all races and classes gather to celebrate, venerate and give thanks to the Lord for his goodness in giving us great men and women, making it possible for us to be follow their models, reminding us that all of their greatness came from He who is all Good.
Archbishop Donald Wuerl, of Washington, D.C., described it in his homily: “When we look upon the relic of John Bosco, we see a physical remembrance of his bodily presence and a reminder of his spiritual greatness. When we look upon those young people entrusted to our care, those young people in need, those young people in poverty, those young people with no other avenue for an education, what we should see is what John Bosco saw — the face of Jesus.”
He continued: “Tonight then, as we venerate the relic of Saint John Bosco, we do so in a spirit of awe at his holiness and achievements, but also in a spirit of encouragement that we, too, like the Salesian family, are called to see in the young people entrusted to our educational care, the face of Jesus, the future of our community and the signs of the kingdom of God in our midst.”
His words echoed the recent letter on the new evangelization he issued for the archdiocese. Further, the celebration was in no way about the past, about the dead. It was about the living, the living communion of saints, our living communion with Christ.
“Let us therefore be devoted to the saints whose name we bear and have recourse to them in our spiritual and temporal needs.” Don Bosco once said. “They will always be ready to help us.”
For the Salesians present, it was a re-energization the rest of us were blessed to be included in. Father Steve Safran, principal of Don Bosco Cristo Rey in Tacoma Park, Md. — the newest high school in the archdiocese of Washington — described the visit to me afterwards: “To have that very strong physical reminder in our midst spoke powerfully that Don Bosco’s spirit is very much alive today. He is a saint that is accessible, that loved the young, and who brought them to holiness.”
Speaking specifically as principal, he said, “For Don Bosco Cristo Rey it has been historic. It is the first year in our history that we have seniors, and we will have our first graduating class. Don Bosco’s presence has affirmed our mission. We pray that we can continue to grow and get the funds needed to expand. It was so fantastic to see our young people so excited about the relic.”
Father Safran added: “The Salesians of Don Bosco are not well known in the U.S. as we are in Latin America, even though we are the second largest order in the world. The visit of the relic to the U.S. has been an opportunity for us to remind the Church of St. John Bosco, our charism and work for youth.”
There is an unmistakable power in the Bosco relic tour for the Salesians, of course, but also for anyone in its presence and for the Church itself. It was only weeks after Pope Benedict XVI celebrated another holy man with a love for Saint Francis de Sales, Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman. All signs point to integrity and catechesis as the key to making the life and work of Don Bosco the portrait of the Catholic Church in America.
Archbishop Wuerl noted, “What made his teaching so effective was his communion with the Lord Jesus. Over the years of his life, so evident was his holiness, so apparent was his self-giving and so complete was his dedication that within 20 years of his death, he was declared venerable and then beatified within 40 years and canonized in just over 46 years from the day of his death.”
In Bosco’s physical presence, the universal call to holiness was made real. Not for the first time. Not for the last. But on a weeknight in Washington, D.C., when all kinds of supposedly important things were going on, it was a physical reminder of what actually does matter: our souls. Take away the rest. Of course, God will. But will we be prepared? Will we have treated every child as Christ, every child of God as Christ? Did we approach each day with the pure love of a child, in His service?
Don Bosco, pray for us.