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  • Writer's pictureDavid OMalley

Born to be wild?

Born to be Wild?

Family breakdown, angry adolescents, “hoodies” and teenage pregnancy were the subject of a conference in Leeds recently. There is no real surprise in that, except that it was a conference on mediaeval social history. They were talking about the hoods, not of mediaeval monks but of outlaws like Robin Hood, who used them to disguise their identity. They explored why gangs of feral youth roamed the streets and little respect was shown to the elderly and infirm. Those were key problems facing some communities 700 years ago. They sound eerily familiar to our 21st century society ears. The UK Government raised similar concerns this year about youth and community tension by focussing its new program around the keyword respect.

This tension between youth and society is the birthplace of the Salesian mission. It began in Turin during the industrial revolution. Bands of youth were used as labourers and were boarding in Turin away from their rural families. They were wild at times, exploited by employers, frightening for older residents and liable to be manipulated by political movements. Don Bosco would therefore be familiar with the sentiments behind recent headlines such as, Yobs rule because we’ve lost respect (Daily Mirror June 10th). So, what would Don Bosco say to us about how to deal with this recurring tension between society and its youth?

Firstly, he would look at the whole situation and try to understand why the tension has built up. He spent many months walking the streets of Turin, meeting young people and talking to them and listening to different opinions. It was many years after ordination that Don Bosco took young people into a more formal residential experience. He did not rush at the problem but tried to use reason to understand it.

In today’s culture he may well have studied the report on understanding and preventing youth crime from the Joseph Rowntree foundation that offers the following causes for the bad behaviour of some young people today.

- low income and poor housing

- living in deteriorated inner-city areas

- a high degree of impulsiveness and hyperactivity

- low intelligence and low school attainment

- poor parental supervision and harsh and erratic discipline

- parental conflict and broken families

Each of those causes would have raised parallels in Don Bosco’s own experience. The youth of Turin were separated from their families, living in a chaotic city centre. They would have had little education and have been subject to erratic discipline and would have been vulnerable to peer pressure. The causes of family breakdown would be different today, the reasons for impulsiveness and hyperactivity may be different and the educational setting is certainly different. Nonetheless a similar tension was felt by youth and society. How did Don Bosco respond?

At its simplest Don Bosco created a home, invited his Mother to join him. In time he built up a youth community and a way of working that brought young people to life. The first Salesian house was a space where young people would be known and recognised. They would not need to hide. A stable, consistent and caring atmosphere substituted for the chaos of their town and family life. In Don Bosco’s oratory everything was arranged around the values of reason, religion and kindness. Rules were explained and kept to a minimum. Thoughtlessness from young people was expected and forgiven easily without breaking relationships. Don Bosco did not expect the impossible from young people but encouraged and praised them into new confidence and a cheerfulness that was infectious.

What would Don Bosco advise us to do about young people today? First of all he would want us to avoid the kind of tabloid talk that lumps all young people together as problems or yobs. He would want us to be optimistic about each young person and deal with them with warmth and consistency either as parent, grandparent or teacher.

Secondly, he would want us to treat each young person with respect and live that respect in our own adult relationships too. Research has found that conflict between adults at home is one of the key issues in the development of antisocial behaviour. Deep personal disturbance in young people can be created by parental conflict. It needs healing through patient and consistently respectful relationships with caring adults. Don Bosco wanted his workers to bear patiently the ingratitude of young people and wear them down with consistent rules applied with gentle and cheerful perseverance.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Don Bosco would offer us a spirituality for work with young people. Much of the national debate about youth issues focuses on techniques and resources. Apparently, we need ID cards, more power for head teachers, less free time, more prisons or youth clubs and better citizenship teaching for example. As well as focussing on such resources Don Bosco would probably advise us to focus on relationships. It is in relationships that the energy and wisdom of Salesian spirituality is located. There is a profound mystery at the heart of each person, and that includes adolescents. Connecting with young people at a time of rapid adolescent change puts the adult in touch with a creative energy that can heal and challenge hearts both old and new. For those with a Christian faith this energy is named clearly as God, sometimes prophetic in the young, sometimes crucified but always moving towards resurrection.

The energy that is twisted into violence and apathy in young lives therefore takes on a spiritual meaning in the Salesian approach. Engaging with the negative and angry chaos of young lives puts a Salesian worker onto the way of the cross. Sharing the energy and optimism of most young people puts the Salesian with the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus with a burning heart because the sacredness of God in ordinary young people has been recognised. The goodness of young people renews the adults who work with them. It gives them the strength to stand by the crucified inner world of some youth for whom life and faith have little meaning. But there is one thing more.

The mystery at the heart of young people, whether you call it God or not, is the key to building the respect that is at the heart of the present Government agenda. The sacredness of each life, made in God’s image, is the reason for respect and it holds the motivation to give and receive respect from one another. It is a sacred life that we all share. It is the reason we fall in love, why we grieve and make sacrifices and the basis for every community and family. Don Bosco would want us to remember that even under a hoodie we belong to God, meet God in each person and are on a shared journey to deeper life in God. Perhaps the wildness of youth today is symptomatic of a society that has forgotten how close God is.

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