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Education cannot be absent from our formative journey. In his apostolic letter on the family, Pope Francis devotes an entire and insightful chapter to the educational task of the family. It cannot but be so: Education is the natural process of generation, or, as the Fathers of the Church of the early centuries called it, a second generation. It also makes us happy because the Salesian Family lives essentially based on an educational charism where education is not only an anthropological place but also a theological place. If this is true, then some clear truths should be highlighted always.


1. Education requires a place. The family is the original and primary place of education. It is the first agent. This implies, from a preventive point of view, that first of all families should be helped in the task of education. Otherwise, it will be up to other agencies to rectify the damages caused by the neglect of family education, and with little success.

All authentic education must be inspired by the paternal and maternal, authoritative and loving, strong and good, firm and gentle ways of family education.

2. The educational mission springs from the vocation to fatherhood and motherhood. This means that education is originally the education of children, and that therefore every authentic education must be inspired by the fatherly and motherly, authoritative and loving, strong and good, firm and gentle ways of family education. In concrete terms, this means that sciences like philosophy and psychology, the school and the state cannot replace the family in the task of education but should assist it.

3. From a more Christian perspective, since children are first and foremost God's children and because He is the Creator while parents are only procreators, education which in itself can be defined as an integral introduction to reality must be first and foremost education in faith. Hygiene and nourishment, education and socialisation, training of the faculties and social adaptation, protection from dangers and the provision of opportunities are of no use if we do not help the children in the development of the baptismal seed, in the growth of faith, in the development of virtues, in the discovery of and generous response to their vocation, and ultimately in the salvation of the soul, without which all is lost.

4. Like all aspects of family life, family education succeeds when it goes beyond itself. The paternal and maternal, affective and educational competence matured in the family must open itself to other civil and ecclesial agents of education and make itself available to society and the Church. This means offering generously and creatively one's own availability for the education not only of one's own children but also of the children of others.

Family education

Against this general background, let us listen to the precious insights that Pope Francis has offered us in the seventh chapter of Amoris Laetitia. The first is the clear affirmation of the irreplaceability and preciousness of family education:

The family is the first school of human values, where we learn the wise use of freedom. Certain inclinations develop in childhood and become so deeply rooted that they remain throughout life, either as attractions to a particular value or a natural repugnance to certain ways of acting. Many people think and act in a certain way because they deem it to be right on the basis of what they learned, as if by osmosis, from their earliest years: “That’s how I was taught”. (AL 274)

Family upbringing is so decisive that it shapes children for better or for worse. This must convince parents to accept "the inevitable responsibility and to carry it out in a conscious, enthusiastic, reasonable and appropriate manner" (AL 259). As if to say: if we must educate, then let us do it well! Let us ask ourselves: What is the heritage of life, culture, faith, love that we want to leave behind as an inheritance to our children after our death and beyond our defects?

Having said this, the Pope offers four points based on educational approach, moral education, sex education and finally religious education.

1. On the style of education, at a time when it has become very difficult to educate because of the collapse of an entire tradition, the high rate of cultural fragmentation and the excess and the rapidity of cognitive and emotional stimuli, the Pope points out that the educational occupation must not become a dis-educational effort. Children are formed by presence, witness, deeds and by attention to the time they are living (their existential position) and not by extreme control of the space in which they live (where they are, with whom they live, what they are doing etc.). Here are a couple of passages to understand this:

Parents need to consider what they want their children to be exposed to, and this necessarily means being concerned about who is providing their entertainment, who is entering their rooms through television and electronic devices, and with whom they are spending their free time. Only if we devote time to our children, speaking of important things with simplicity and concern, and finding healthy ways for them to spend their time, will we be able to shield them from harm (AL 260).

Obsession, however, is not education. We cannot control every situation that a child may experience. Here it remains true that “time is greater than space”. In other words, it is more important to start processes than to dominate spaces. If parents are obsessed with always knowing where their children are and controlling all their movements, they will seek only to dominate space. But this is no way to educate, strengthen and prepare their children to face challenges. What is most important is the ability, lovingly to help them grow in freedom, maturity, overall discipline and real autonomy…. The real question, then, is not where our children are physically, or whom they are with at any given time, but rather where they are existentially, where they stand in terms of their convictions, goals, desires and dreams (AL 261).

There is also a very important and delicate passage in which the Pope points out that in order to avoid unnecessary and excessive anxiety, it is important for parents to accept a priori and peacefully the novelty, originality and surprising decisions of their children:

Inevitably, each child will surprise us with ideas and projects, born of that freedom, which challenge us to rethink our own ideas. This is a good thing (AL 262).

2. On moral education, i.e. the introduction to good life which is not so much about multiplying possibilities but about the quality of action, the Pope puts in first place the development of trust without which one cannot grow serenely:

A person’s affective and ethical development is ultimately grounded in a particular experience, namely, his or her parents can be trusted. This means that parents, as educators, are responsible by their affection and example for instilling in their children trust and loving respect (AL 263).

Moreover, in the face of the legacy of modern and post-modern pedagogies, the former vertical and authoritarian and the latter horizontal and anti-authoritarian, the Pope brings back the theme - now also echoed in the human sciences - of goodwill and good habits, the theme of virtues:

Parents are also responsible for shaping the will of their children, fostering good habits and a natural inclination to goodness….

Moral education has to do with cultivating freedom through ideas, incentives, practical applications, stimuli, rewards, examples, models, symbols, reflections, encouragement, dialogue and a constant rethinking of our way of doing things; all these can help develop those stable interior principles that lead us spontaneously to do good. Virtue is a conviction that has become a steadfast inner principle of operation. The virtuous life thus builds, strengthens and shapes freedom, lest we become slaves of dehumanizing and antisocial inclinations (AL 264,267).

Another educational theme that needs to be revived today which the Pope makes very clear, is the theme of restitution and reparation. The underlying theme is education for responsible freedom which develops autonomy without denying limits and constraints:

It is also essential to help children and adolescents to realize that misbehaviour has consequences. They need to be encouraged to put themselves in other people’s shoes and to acknowledge the hurt they have caused… Children themselves at certain point come to appreciate that it was good to grow up in a family and even to put up with the demands that every process of formation makes (AL 268).

Correction is also an incentive whenever children’s efforts are appreciated and acknowledged, and they sense their parents’ constant, patient trust… One of the things children need to learn from their parents is not to get carried away by anger. A child who does something wrong must be corrected, but never treated as an enemy or an object on which to take out one’s own frustrations (AL 269).

This is not easy, because the result of the individualistic and free culture is the fall of all authority, law and discipline, the paradoxical consequence of which is the multiplication of regulations and prohibitions. So, the Pope does not fail to suggest to parents the importance of educating a sense of limits, always keeping in the foreground the openness of possibilities:

It is important that discipline does not lead to discouragement, but is instead a stimulus to further progress….A balance has to be found between two equally harmful extremes. One would be to try to make everything revolve around the child’s desires; such children will grow up with a sense of their rights but not their responsibilities. The other would be to deprive the child of an awareness of his or her dignity, personal identity and rights; such children end up overwhelmed by their duties and a need to carry out other people’s wishes (AL 270).

3. Again, with regard to sex education, the Pope recognises its urgency and delicacy, and asks that it be seen in the broader context of education to love: "it could only be understood in the context of an education to love, to mutual giving. In this way, the language of sexuality would not be sadly impoverished but enlightened" (AL 280). It is very important that the theme should be love and not sex directly, because today's problem, diametrically opposed to that of the past, is the directness and excess of stimuli and information which is accompanied by a lack of modesty and morality:

The information has to come at a proper time and in a way suited to their age. It is not helpful to overwhelm them with data without also helping them to develop a critical sense in dealing with the onslaught of new ideas and suggestions, the flood of pornography and the overload of stimuli that can deform sexuality (AL 281).

A sexual education that fosters a healthy sense of modesty has immense value, however much some people nowadays consider modesty a relic of a bygone era. Modesty is a natural means whereby we defend our personal privacy and prevent ourselves from being turned into objects to be used.

Frequently, sex education deals primarily with “protection” through the practice of “safe sex”. Such expressions convey a negative attitude towards the natural procreative finality of sexuality, as if an eventual child were an enemy to be protected against (AL 282).

Here are some proposals:

The important thing is to teach them sensitivity to different expressions of love, mutual concern and care, loving respect and deeply meaningful communication. All of these prepare them for an integral and generous gift of self that will be expressed, following a public commitment, in the gift of their bodies. Sexual union in marriage will thus appear as a sign of an all-inclusive commitment, enriched by everything that has preceded it (AL 283).

Sex education should also include respect and appreciation for differences, as a way of helping the young to overcome their self-absorption and to be open and accepting of others….Only by losing the fear of being different, can we be freed of self-centeredness and self-absorption. Sex education should help young people to accept their own bodies and to avoid the pretension “to cancel out sexual difference because one no longer knows how to deal with it” (AL 285)

4. Last, but not the least, in order of importance is the task that God entrusts to the family of educating in the faith. This requires parents to recognise God's authority and the primacy of His grace, and to humbly and consciously act as ministers and co-workers, first and foremost by taking care of their own formation:

Faith is God’s gift, received in baptism, and not our own work, yet parents are the means that God uses for it to grow and develop…. We know that we do not own the gift, but that its care is entrusted to us. Yet our creative commitment is itself an offering which enables us to cooperate with God’s plan. For this reason, “couples and parents should be properly appreciated as active agents in catechesis… Family catechesis is of great assistance as an effective method in training young parents to be aware of their mission as the evangelizers of their own family” (AL 287).

Bear in mind, after all, that in the field of faith, more than in any other field, education is equivalent to witness:

It is essential that children actually see that, for their parents, prayer is something truly important. Hence moments of family prayer and acts of devotion can be more powerful for evangelization than any catechism class or sermon (AL 288).

Children who grew up in missionary families often become missionaries themselves; growing up in warm and friendly families, they learn to relate to the world in this way, without giving up their faith or their convictions (AL 289).

Preventive System of Education

As a great and holy educator that he was, Don Bosco testified that education is more of an art than a science or a technique. It requires finesse of mind and a sense of the concrete. The Pope himself, at Don Bosco's school, has testified that he appreciated and learned from Don Bosco's sons the necessary creativity and flexibility of the educational task. It means that the educational enterprise cannot be limited to reference to eternal and ideal values, nor to established practices and techniques: education must always be attentive to the promptings of God and the signs of the times in order to know how to respond in a concrete, solicitous and creative way to the conditions of its own time and to the situations in which young people find themselves. A passage from the Salesian Constitutions is enlightening this point:

The Salesian is called to be a realist and to be attentive to the signs of the times, convinced that the Lord manifests his will also through the demands of time and place. Hence his spirit of initiative and apostolic creativity: “In those things which are for the benefit of young people in danger or which serve to win souls for God, I push ahead even to the extent of recklessness.” Timely response to these needs requires him to keep abreast of new trends and meet them with the well-balanced creativity of the Founder; periodically he evaluates his work. (Const. SDB 19)

The Charter of the Charismatic Identity of the Salesian Family (CCISF) also dwells on the creativity and concrete flexibility of the educational work, first of all enumerating the most appropriate means:

The desire to do good means looking for the best ways to put it into practice. At stake are the correct interpretation of needs and practical possibilities, spiritual discernment in the light of the Word of God, the courage to take the initiative, creativity in identifying untried solutions, adaptation to changing circumstances, the ability to collaborate, and the willingness to evaluate (CCISF 35).

The Charter of the Charismatic Identity ­-- it is a ‘charismatic’ identity that cannot be disregarded without the risk of fruitlessness! -- insists on flexibility, on the ability to integrate eternal things into the movements of history.

It is important all the more today because there are strong neo-conservative tendencies and temptations, past ecclesial, pastoral and educational styles that no longer exist. Here, the words of Fr Rinaldi, Don Bosco's third successor, are very strong and prophetic:

“Fr. Philip Rinaldi reminds the Salesians – and what he says applies to all the groups of the Salesian Family: “This flexibility in adapting to every form of good continually arising among humanity is the spirit proper to our Constitutions: the day in which a variation contrary to this spirit should be introduced would be the end of our Society”. It is not only a question of strategy, but also a spiritual matter, since it implies a constant renewal of themselves and of their actions in obedience to the Spirit and in the light of the signs of the times.” (CCISF 35)

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